A new study has come out, with a not-so-big surprise: “80 percent of unmarried evangelical young adults (18 to 29) said that they have had sex – slightly less than 88 percent of unmarried adults.” The question is: why?Though CNN is making a big deal of it, this is one of the most meaningless statistics that could possibly be thrown out, because it is given no context. It’s possible (but unlikely) that the reason for this statistic is that the group of unmarried evangelical young adults is full of new converts who have recently repented of sexuality. It’s also possible (and much more likely) that those who identify as “evangelical” are really nothing of the sort, with little prayer life and no church attendance. This statistic suggests that there is a problem for Christians (we’re struggle to abstain), but clouds the issue more than providing clarity.
To understand better this statistic and how to fix the problem, we need more in depth data. A much better survey was done in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2000. They found that the two greatest predictors of voluntary sexual activity among adolescents were age and spiritual interconnectedness with friends. This makes sense: it’s harder to abstain as you grow older, and the greater support network you have of spiritually-minded friends the easier it will be. (Note that because this was done among adolescents, church attendance would not be as great of a predictor since many teens are forced to attend church by their parents. I suspect that church attendance would be a good predictor for older individuals. If anyone knows of a study that focuses on college-aged students or adults, let me know!)
I think the real problem (as I’ve written about before) is that we tell people to abstain, but we don’t teach them how to do it. This study gives us two good ideas:
- Develop a good spiritual support network, and
- Marry younger.
If these are our solutions, it suggests to me that Christians need to reconsider our dialogue on abstinence as well. Though it is undoubtedly an important Christian teaching – and I would never suggest that we temper it – we should emphasize much more that Christians be connected with friends in the church. It’s only once you get there that you can have personal conversations about abstinence and get advice on how to have a pure relationship. It’s only once you have deep relationships with other people who are abstaining that you can really see abstinence as a plausible lifestyle.
No man is an island; though if you could get yourself to a deserted island, you might succeed at abstinence more. For those of who won’t be removing themselves from society as soon as they hit puberty, we need to remember: it doesn’t matter how many pledges you make, or rings you wear, or how much you want to wait. What matters is how deeply connected you are to the body of Christ. We are greatly influenced by those around us, so choose your friends wisely.
Secondly, age is a significant predictor of sexual activity. For Christians, marriage is the only way to get out of abstinence. So if you want to make it easier, one solution is to get married. For years, Christians have seen this as the best way to fix the problem. But with higher divorce rates and many unhappy marriages, I think we should question this strategy as well. We can’t tout marriage as simply the easy way to get out of abstinence; we need to make sure that couples are truly compatible and ready for marriage. So I suspect that the other strategy – besides encouraging young Christians to develop spiritual friendships – will have to involve helping Christians become emotionally and spiritually ready for marriage. We need to be rid of this prolonged adolescence and encourage responsibility at younger ages. Just because your body is ready for marriage doesn’t mean that your mind is.
It’s funny to me, because I often hear abstinence challenged on the grounds of how important it is to develop sexual experience before marriage. While much of the America seems intent on developing their sexual prowess before marriage, how many people are thinking of how to prepare themselves mentally? This is an area where Christians could really stand out and have an important impact.
Of course, you could also go the old-fashioned route – live at home and sew your significant other into a bundling bag. That could work, too, right?