'Don't kiss abstinence goodbye' How sexual abstinence before marriage can lead to a lasting marriage

Peter Sprigg is Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at Family Research Council. This article appeared in the Washington Times on August 9, 2019.

There has been a lot of online chatter recently about Joshua Harris, a former best-selling Christian author and former pastor of a Maryland mega-church who has been rapidly abandoning his previous life commitments.

Mr. Harris was in his early 20s when he wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” a book that urged young people not only to abstain from sex before marriage but to abstain even from kissing, hugging and one-on-one dates. 

Since stepping down from Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in 2015, Mr. Harris has re-evaluated. In a 2018 op-ed in USA Today, Mr. Harris wrote, “I think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally …” 

On July 18, Mr. Harris announced that he and his wife — who met and married 20 years ago after the “courtship” process he advocated — “are separating and will continue our life together as friends.” The “privacy” he requested lasted only eight days, before Mr. Harris admitted on July 26, “I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus … By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”

Others (including my Family Research Council colleague David Closson) have commented on the spiritual and theological implications of this stunning “falling away” from faith.

However, I want to point out a major flaw in much of the secular media’s coverage of these events — particularly Mr. Harris’ renunciation of his book and the collapse of his marriage. 

Much of the coverage (like this piece in Slate) has conflated three things that should be distinguished: Mr. Harris’ book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” “purity culture” and the “abstinence movement.”

As I understand it, Mr. Harris’ book has two primary features. One is the strict rules regarding physical contact between unmarried couples. The other is the recommendation of a very intentional process of “courtship” leading toward marriage (in place of more casual “dating”).

“Purity culture,” on the other hand, is a term that has been applied to various rituals regarding a formal pledge to abstain from sex until marriage, such as “purity pledges” and “purity rings.” 

The “abstinence movement” is the broadest of these three concepts, simply promoting abstinence from sexual relations before marriage. While “purity” rituals may reinforce a decision to practice abstinence, they are not essential to it. While not kissing or being alone with a romantic partner may help avoid the temptation to have sex before marriage, it is certainly possible to date (and kiss) before marriage while still abstaining from sex.

(The “abstinence movement” also urges that sex education classes in public schools promote premarital abstinence as the best way to avoid psychological and emotional damage, as well as undesirable social outcomes, such as sexually transmitted diseases, out-of-wedlock births, lower educational attainment and greater likelihood of living in poverty). 

Some critics accused “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” of legalism, and some mock “purity” rituals. I will leave that debate to others. But there is still every reason to support sexual abstinence until marriage.

One conclusion drawn by some from the breakdown of Mr. Harris’ marriage — despite the supposed advantages of abstinence, purity, courtship, etc. — is that “there is no magic formula” to marital success.

Of course, this is true, not only of marriage, but of life in general. However, reliable social scientific research clearly shows that there are some choices that greatly increase the chances of success, and others that greatly reduce it. 

This has been repeatedly demonstrated by data from the National Survey of Family Growth. My former colleague Pat Fagan has called the correlation between the number of sexual partners before marriage and the chances of a successful marriage “The Most Important Chart … in all of the Social Sciences.”

One of the clearer presentations of this data can be found in a 2016 article from the Institute for Family Studies. The chart in Figure 1 (covering women only) shows that among those with no premarital sexual partners, only about 5 percent were divorced after five years of marriage. With just one premarital sexual partner, the risk of divorce within five years was multiplied about four times — to about 20 percent. With just two premarital partners, the risk was six times higher than for virgin brides — about 30 percent. 

Another article published last year, using other federal data from the General Social Survey, confirmed that those with no premarital sexual partners — both men and women — are more likely to say they are “very happy” in their marriage.

“Magic formula?” No. But notwithstanding one prominent failure, there is no question that practicing sexual abstinence before marriage is one way to maximize your chances of having a lasting and happy marriage.