Over the past decade, increasing amounts of advocacy, funding, and programmatic effort have focused on encouraging Americans to abstain from sexual intercourse until they marry. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (i.e., welfare reform) enacted in 1996 contained a provision authorizing $50 million annually in federal funding for abstinence-until-marriage education; programs funded under the act must teach that “abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage [is] the expected standard” of behavior and that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”1
State programs funded under this authorization must have as their “exclusive purpose” the promotion of abstinence outside of marriage for people of any age.2
The current administration recently requested $204 million for fiscal year 2007 to fund abstinence-only education, and now requires such programs to emphasize “that the best life outcomes are more likely obtained if an individual abstains until marriage” and prohibits them from “promoting or encouraging the use of any type of contraceptives outside of marriage.”3
Due in part to government support, private advocacy efforts to promote abstinence until marriage are also gaining prominence and political clout.4
The primary stated goal of these efforts is to encourage all Americans to abstain from sex until they marry.5
It follows that such programs consider it an achievable goal to make abstinence until marriage a normative behavior.6
However, the median age at first marriage increased from 22.1 to 25.8 for women and from 24.4 to 27.4 for men over the past 25 years,7
and the proportion of the population 18 and older that had never married increased from 16% to 25% between 1970 and 2004,8,9
suggesting that many individuals have a long interval after puberty and before marrying during which they may become sexually active. The median age at menarche is 12.6 and at spermarche is 14.0,10
so this interval is now typically about 13 years for both men and women. That 70% of adolescent females and 65% of adolescent males have had sex by age 1911
and few have married suggests that a large percentage do so before marrying. The first goal of this analysis was to quantify current normative behavior by calculating the proportion of Americans who have had premarital sex.
In addition, public opinion polls over the last 20 years have consistently shown that about 35% of adults say premarital sex is always or almost always wrong. (Unpublished tabulations of data from the General Social Survey, 1982–2004.) In the same vein, there is a common popular perception that most or all of those who came of age before the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s waited until they married to have sex, and that it is necessary to revert to the behaviors of that earlier time in order to eliminate the problems of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. However, research has questioned whether such a chaste period ever existed.12
The second goal of the analysis was to assess whether the percentage of Americans having premarital sex has changed over time.
Many or most abstinence-until-marriage programmatic efforts are aimed at teens.13
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' (DHHS's) Healthy People 2010 goals include the objective of increasing the proportion of adolescents
who abstain from sexual intercourse or use condoms if sexually active,14
and DHHS's parenting skills web site states that “abstaining from sex until… a mutually faithful marriage to an uninfected partner is the healthiest choice.”15
The third goal of this analysis was to assess whether those who abstain from sex at least until the end of their teen years are likely to abstain all the way until marriage.