These Two Graphs Illustrate Everything Wrong With Conservative Christian Sexual Ethics

I’m doing some research for our October sermon series at Saint Junia UMC. I’m calling it “Just Sex: Justice, Sexuality, and Christian Ethics.” I’m also continuing my theme of drawing attention to Robert Wuthnow’s book After the Baby Boomers, which I referenced the other day in my post Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid.

These two graphs compare data from the General Social Surveys. This first graph illustrates the change in people’s view of premarital sex from 1977 to 2002.


click to enlarge

Evangelicals are the most likely to say it is always wrong, and they have become more likely to do this over the past quarter century. In contrast, only a few mainline Protestants or Jews think premarital sex is always wrong. Black Protestants are more likely now than earlier to think premarital sex is always wrong, whereas Catholics are less likely to say so. The nonaffiliated are unlikely to say premarital sex is always wrong, and have shifted even further in this direction since 1977.  (Wuthnow, 139)

So, self-described evangelicals have become more conservative about sexual ethics (in this area) since the 70’s. The second graph illustrates their behavior.


click to enlarge

However, behavior does not always follow convictions. Fully 69 percent of unmarried evangelicals age 21 through 45 said they had had sex with at least one partner during the previous 12 months. To be sure this… was lower than the comparable figures for adherents of other religious traditions… But it was not that much lower. (Ibid).

This discrepancy between opinion and action means a whole lot of people walking around with a whole lot of guilt— guilt that they then project onto the whole realm of human sexual behavior. Especially other people’s sexual behavior. Those most likely to receive the brunt of projected conservative self-loathing are those with the least power to defend themselves: women (especially teenage girls) and gays and lesbians.

(This would probably be a good place to point out that there is no biblical commandment forbidding masturbation. This may be a surprise to many people. Because guilt and disgust are such prominent features of conservative religious culture, anything that reduces those feelings seems heretical).


Screen shot from

I should point out that the graphs can be a bit misleading. The first graph is maxed out at 45%, not 100%. So, if you think of 100 self-described single evangelicals, perhaps 69 of them have had sex outside of marriage, only 10 of whom claim it’s always wrong. The other 31 are completely consistent in their words and actions… Except that when we’re talking about groups, we know what’s being preached from the pulpit.

Taken as a whole, though, the American view of premarital sex has not shifted appreciably since 1977. Nearly just as many believe that it is always wrong. What has shifted is the polarization among the groups.

Again, I think it’s important to point out that one of the contributing factors to sex outside of marriage is that the average age of marriage is later, and the average age of marriage is later because it is less economically viable. So if you have conservative opinions about both economic policy and about sexual ethics, your preferred policies are working against each other. If you want to promote traditional marriage and conservative sexual ethics, you need to help lift people out of poverty, promote job stability, and reduce economic anxiety.

In the book Diary of an Early American Boy, Noah Blake, in 1805, planned to propose marriage to his sweetheart when he was 15 years old. This was before there was such a concept as “adolescence” — a male was either a boy or a man. Teenagers were adults, and expected to act like adults. Life was very stable; people might never leave their county for decades. The industrial revolution, child labor laws, and public education created a new class of people who were neither children nor adults. We isolated them from a community adult influence by putting them in grade-level education factories. Knowing full well that society has no need of them to fulfill adult-like responsibilities, they are locked into preparation mode for decades. I’m not promoting a return to “the good old days” of subsistence farming and smallpox, but we keep putting marriage and the ability to “settle down” further and further out of people’s reach.

We like to think of sexuality as something personal and private, but the fact is our sexual behavior is also shaped by politics and economics in ways that we, as a society, take for granted. People who follow Jesus can’t pretend we still live in 1805, or 2000 years ago. We need to ask what kinds of ethics will best reflect God’s kingdom in the world we live in now. I’m actually fairly conservative about this stuff: I think self-control and self-denial are important aspects of emotional intelligence and maturity, and that sexual irresponsibility hurts people physically and spiritually. But I suspect that those two graphs above represent a sin and sickness in our world that goes beyond garden-variety hypocrisy. I think it represents a fundamental problem with the way we think about religion, God, and being human.


5 thoughts on “These Two Graphs Illustrate Everything Wrong With Conservative Christian Sexual Ethics

  1. We’re living in the most prosperous period in human history. Given the consumerism culture we live in people are making choices to sacrifice family, relationships, etc to accumulated more stuff that won’t matter when they’re dead. This isn’t something anyone wants to hear, especially Christians who believe in the prosperity gospel.

    Christians need to spend less time obsessing over sins and concentrate on love and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    • Who is living in the most prosperous period of human history? Who is this “we?” Not the people who increasingly find it difficult to marry because their job situations are not stable: … and who then get blamed by pundits and preachers for their poverty: The average age of marriage is not creeping upward because people are greedy.

      I don’t think you can ascribe the cultural shift to the choices individuals make. Increasing social and economic instability are observable facts, and are tied to inequality. 50 years ago, it was not unreasonable to expect to work for the same company in the same town for your entire life. Nor would a single health care incident likely bankrupt a family. Today, nobody has such an expectation. My point is that those facts affect the sexual behavior of large groups of people, and when Christians double down on conservative politics and sexual morality we exacerbate the problems we should be fixing — if we do really love people and believe in the good news of Jesus Christ.

      • My generation (for the most part) has never worried about our next meal. The number of people killed in wars as a percentage of population is the lowest ever.

        The average age of marriage is a by product of choices related to prosperity. Girls graduating from college could marry, but they’re interested in careers. The same with men. I’m 34, I’ve seen this.

        If you look at history the greatest threat to people’s relationship with God is prosperity. This is the great falling away.

  2. A good post – thanks. The statistics shout loudly to those who are not Christian, and they shout ‘hypocrisy’. We should be aware of that. We don’t give our kids tangible reasons why sex before marriage is not a good thing, and simply saying ‘because the bible says so’ (does it?) is not good enough. One of the best ways of presenting the reasons to stay celibate was by Mark Gungor
    those are reasons that we can give to the rest of the world too.
    But then we should be Christlike and not judge!

  3. Pingback: The Education of Shelby Knox | Gestating A Church

Comments are closed.