A college age friend of mine recently asked for a fuller treatment of sex before marriage and he kindly agreed to let me share my response here. For the sake of privacy, I’ve changed his name.
Thanks for asking. I’ve already said this is a difficult question – one of the reasons that I’m trying to work out sexual ethics step-by-step in my blog. Alas, practical questions always arise before we’ve thought them through, no matter how hard we try. So, I’ll tell you where I am at the moment.
For me, intimacy of any kind has to do with letting down barriers, even the blurring of boundaries between individuals. Most of us find this vulnerability difficult and yet I think the formation of deep, honest relationships is one of the most valuable things we can do with our lives – perhaps the most valuable. Physical attraction can be a tremendous blessing, because it brings us out of ourselves and spurs us into relationships we would never have otherwise. At heart, sexuality is good; it connects people.
Having said that, anything that is powerful can be abused. Sex short circuits some of the normal steps in coming to know someone. It can be easy to confuse desire, access, and trust, and so traditionally, we have tried to limit our access to one another’s bodies until we have access to their emotions, their motivations, indeed their very soul (or truest self). When our openness is rewarded (by curiosity, affirmation, reciprocal openness, and love), we grow; we become better at relationships. When our openness is discouraged (by apathy, insults, manipulation, and coldness), we wither; future relationships get harder. So it’s not just about what’s right for now, but how can sex and sexuality help us to be better for the future.
The Bible refers to sexual intercourse as “becoming one flesh.” That might be strongly worded, but I think it is exactly on point. One of the best things about sex (done well) is that you feel a loss of self and deep union with another. One of the worst things about sex (done badly) is that you can feel as though your very core had been invaded or corrupted. In a very real way, you will carry your partner around with you long after the act – perhaps for the rest of your life. A piece of them is now in you and you in them. It’s worth serious thought about how much you want them to be part of your identity.
It can all sound rather dire when you think of it as sex or no-sex. In truth, we have a whole range of ways to express ourselves – both physically and emotionally. There are little intimacies we can share with a partner as a relationship deepens. We go through a process of negotiation with someone as we open ourselves up to more and more profound communication. At every stage, it’s worth asking: is this a level of connection I’m comfortable with. Risk is involved. Risk is always involved in getting to know someone. We need to ask if “this” (whatever this may be) is an appropriate level of risk. The less experience you have, the harder it can be to estimate the odds and the consequences. It’s true for everyone, but between roughly 16 and 22 almost everyone has strong physical drives and a strong emotional desire to form a new, individual personality. I’d err on the side of caution.
Biology. I’m a fan of preventative contraception (condoms, the pill, …), but no method is entirely certain. I recommend that (heterosexual) couples don’t have intercourse unless they’ve thought through the possibility of having a child and how they would deal with it. A number of sexually transmitted diseases also require serious thought. You should learn about how HIV and other infections are caught and transmitted before you make decisions about intercourse.
Psychology. It’s worth assuming that every person with whom you have intercourse will be with you emotionally (one way or another) for the rest of your life. I recommend serious thought about how you feel about that. Is this someone who makes you a better person? Do you make them a better person? Is this someone with whom you can be friends? Can you trust them to see you naked – both physically and emotionally? Do you want to see them naked? Do you trust them enough to deal with the aftermath if they decide they’re not (or no longer) attracted to you? Or if you find you’re not (or no longer) attracted to them?
One of the prime benefits of marriage is the aspect of lifelong commitment.
“will you have this woman to be your wife; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”
That promise includes the idea that you will never reject someone. Perhaps that level of commitment is appropriate for healthy intercourse.
That brings us to another question – one too often left out of this discussion. How seriously do you take marriage? I have a more catholic view of marriage as a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. I also take it as a vow before God. I would much rather see people have sex before marriage than lie to God and to one another – pretend a level of commitment they don’t really possess – in order to have sex. I see marriage as a lot more than a trusting relationship, so I’m inclined to say that there is a level of commitment, trust, and openness high enough for sex (intercourse) but not yet high enough for marriage. It’s a close thing though. It has to be the kind of love and commitment that means offering to never intentionally hurt one another for the rest of your lives.
The upshot: What you do with your body matters. It impacts who you become and how you shape another person’s life. It’s worth taking the time to do right, to make sure both of you are in the right place mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. And, of course, you need to talk about it, with each other and hopefully with someone else you trust. We make the mistake of thinking all this work needs to be done immediately and in secret. The right person will be someone you can talk to about sex – and everything else. I’d encourage you to enjoy every step of the way there. The right relationship is likely a better fit than anything you can even imagine at the moment. I wish you joy, wonder, and yes fun as you discover what it means to be in a loving, grace filled relationship.
God is with you.