Finer, Lawrence B. “Trends in premarital sex in the United States, 1954-2003.” Public Health Reports 122, no. 1 (January 2007): 73-78. Abstract available here.
A new study on premarital sex has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Public Health Reports by Lawrence Finer, Director of Domestic Research of the Guttmacher Institute. Dr. Finer observes that “Over the past decade, increasing amounts of advocacy, finding and programmatic effort have focused on encouraging Americans to abstain from sexual intercourse until they marry.” But Americans have been pushing the age of marriage later than previous generations, so that now the median age of first marriage for women has increased from 22.1 to 25.8 years in the past 25 years. The median age of first marriage for men increased from 24.4 to 27.4 years in the same period. This study examines whether Americans are actually likely to buy into the “abstinence until marriage” approach favored by social conservatives.
This study is based on the probability-sampled National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), a set of nationally representative surveys conducted in 1982, 1988, 1995 and 2002. From this data, we learn:
- By age 20, 75% of respondents had had premarital sex.
- By age 44, 95% of respondents had had premarital sex.
- Even among those who abstained until age 20, 81% had had premarital sex by age 44.
- Even among those women who turned 15 between 1954 and 1963 (generally before the “sexual revolution”), 82% had had premarital sex by age 30 and 88% had done so by age 44.
So, in short, the answer is no, the “abstinence until marriage” message is not taking root. What’s more, it wasn’t followed by more than four-fifths of the women born between 1939 and 1948. These figures are difficult to refute. They come from a very large set of nationally representative surveys, with margins of error of around a single percentage point or less.
As you can imagine, this survey has social conservatives in a tizzy. Focus on the Family has led the way with the talking points that other social conservatives have picked up on:
But Linda Klepacki, analyst for sexual health at Focus on the Family Action, said the motive behind the Guttmacher report is suspect, especially given the group’s close affiliation with Planned Parenthood.
“This is the condom cartel’s attempt at normalizing out-of-wedlock sexual behavior,” she said. “This is one in a series of documents that is designed to set the battle lines for January’s congressional battles over (funding for) sex education.”
Glenn Stanton, senior analyst for marriage and sexuality at Focus on the Family, questioned the method used to collect the data.
“These numbers seem a little high to me,” he said. “Additionally, what they don’t tell us is how active people were before marriage. Were most of these encounters among people who were engaged or were they simply casual hook-ups? We don’t know.”
Other reactions continue in that vein: Personal attacks on Dr. Finer’s integrity, vague references to un-named studies on unrelated issues, and comments like “these numbers seem a little high”. There are virtually no critiques of this study’s methodologies, just gripes about its findings.
Most telling in Focus on the Family’s reaction is their attempt to go after Dr. Finer’s reputation, citing his connections with Planned Parenthood and claiming that he is biased towards condom-based education. But as Paul Cameron recently wrote, “Accuracy is the most important aspect of empiricism. If investigators are clear about their method and employ it to generate ‘facts,’ their opinions are irrelevant.” (Letter: “Facts, not opinion, drive science: A reply to Morrison” Journal of Biosocial Science 39, no. 1 (January 2007): 155-156)
Far be it for me to ever agree with Paul Cameron, but as my father used to say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. If the methodology is sound, then it doesn’t matter what personal opinions the researcher holds. The data stands on its own. But if the methodology is flawed, it should be relatively easy to list those flaws and what they may mean for the findings. But because these findings are based on nationally representative surveys with margins of error of about 1% or less, Focus on the Family didn’t cite flaws in the methodology, apparently because they couldn’t find any. So they did the next best thing. They attacked the messenger.
But as far as I can tell, this data is solid. And it’s not the first time we’ve seen evidence that premarital sex is normative behavior in overwhelming numbers. Just last February, a survey of devout Baptist newlyweds (all of them “professed faith in Christ,” 99% attended church weekly, and 84% grew up in church) found that only 27% of them “entered the marriage bed chaste.” In other words, 73% of these devout Baptists had had premarital sex. And this came from a researcher who claimed that abstinence-until-marriage messages were successful!
And so the pattern continues. When Focus on the Family is caught manipulating research, they dig in their heels and claim they are victims of attacks by “homosexual activists” — even when the scientists themselves denounce Focus’ misrepresentations. But when Focus on the Family is confronted by real science like this, they do the very thing they claim “homosexual activist” are doing. They attack the messenger. That’s a very poor way to bolster scientific credibility, and it’s a funny way to promote values. But that’s what passes for scientific inquiry and family values at Focus on the Family.