Waiting Until Marriage, The Millennial Version

Waiting until marriage to have sex is, frankly, incredibly difficult and one could indulge in a guess that it is more often than not unsuccessful. However, what is more interesting is that the definition of “waiting until marriage” varies wildly from person to person. Not all reasons are religious and not all boundaries are equal. Some lines seem arbitrary, such as, “no penis-in-vagina (PIV) but fingers are fine” or “you can lick the shaft of the penis but you can’t put it in your mouth.”

As a very sex-positive person who, never dreams of waiting until marriage for sex, I was curious about why some people choose to wait and draw the lines that they do regarding sexual activity. I asked four young adults to give insight into why they choose (or chose) to wait and how they define “sex before marriage”–ranging from devoutly Christian with strict boundaries to someone who loves to, in her words, have “A LOT” of hook-ups but saves PIV for when she’s in love. Lesson learned? Human sexuality is powerful, random, and weird.

Hawthorn, 24 (Single, but has been married and has had penetrative sex):

BTRtoday (BTR): What was your reasoning on waiting until marriage?

H: I chose to wait until marriage to have sex because I was raised and heavily involved in a Christian church where that was the expectation, and at the time I accepted the church’s doctrines of marriage as a lifelong, monogamous commitment and sex as something only to be shared between married partners. I believed that in order for sex to be meaningful in my life it had to be exclusive and that sexual celibacy prior to marriage was important in the eyes of God. I ended up getting married at 18 to a high school sweetheart, and I think aside from first serious relationships being really intense, wanting to have sex was one of the reasons we chose to marry so young.

BTR: What was “allowed” and “not allowed?” For example, no below the belt touching at all or just no penetration?

H: My ex-wife and I talked a lot about what we considered sex to be. We came up with a working definition that if I remember correctly specified that sex was anything commonly called sex, oral sex and penetration counted as real sex and other sexual acts like manual stimulation or mutual masturbation somehow were “technically” not sex.

It all seems a little deluded now, and my ideas about what sex is and isn’t have definitely changed, but we were 16 or 17 at the time of coming up with these definitions and trying to form conceptions of what a healthy sexuality looked like—so I cut myself some slack.

BTR: What about seeing each other naked?

H: According to my moral compass at the time, celibacy could include seeing each other naked. If I were still invested in trying to come up with a personal definition of celibacy, I think it still could. Although I think it made waiting harder.

BTR: Was the anticipation a part of the allure? If so, was it worth it?

H: I honestly don’t think the anticipation was a part of the allure, at least not a big part. I was heavily indoctrinated and a deeply sentimental idealist so I was really invested in things being “as they were intended” according to my beliefs about God at the time.

Was it worth it? That’s a hard one to answer. I think I am grateful for the experience because it allowed for me to deal with the complexities that came along with having a lot of gender dysphoria related to my body, as well as coping with the previous trauma of childhood sexual abuse. My version of celibacy allowed me to, in some ways, be able to cope with these difficulties as they related to my sexuality. I don’t think the ways that I approached premarital sex are always healthy or worth it, as they can contribute to shame around one’s sexuality and negatively impact future sexual relationships.

Chad (Single, never married or had PIV):

BTR: What was your reasoning on waiting until marriage?

C: So, it is interesting, as my reason has changed, but with similar conclusions—growing up, it was for religious reasons, with the boundary being no penetration. This is the line that was eventually established after being pressured by my former partner multiple times for sex it ended up being further than I would have liked.

BTR: What was “allowed” and “not allowed?” For example, no below the belt touching at all or just no penetration?

C: Now, while I am still religious, I have learned more about neurochemistry and bonding, the effects of oxytocin and vasopressin among others, and so artificially creating bonds to a person that I might not be compatible with, a bond however strong, doesn’t seem to be worth it.

This is not to mention my disdain for indulgence. I have never believed that doing activities or substances that release endorphins or cause a euphoria as virtuous. From getting drunk, to smoking pot, overeating, base jumping, or other adrenalin junky activity, sex, etc., all of them seem petty debauched ignoble, and frankly sad. I know that this outlook on life is completely frowned upon in our modern society, but these activities are as old as we are, with the ancient Greek virtue ethicists, and ascetic traditions have arisen in all historic cultures.

BTR: What about seeing each other naked?

C: Seeing each other naked, hmm. I would not say there is anything particularly wrong with it by itself but creating digital images of yourself naked is incredibly risky, and sharing them even more so. Literally, every guy and girl that I know received a nude has shared it after breaking up, even if they also sent one—I am sure there are loads of people that don’t, but they must be the people that don’t tell others that they do have them. So, that leaves being naked around each other in person, which makes holding that rational boundary harder. Like trying to say no to free drinks after you have already had a few, it makes thinking rationally about what you really want outside of the situation that much harder.

BTR: Was/is the anticipation a part of the allure? If so, was it worth it?

C: Anticipation is not a part of the allure, and I don’t think that it should be. If you are looking for love from someone without sex, you are not selecting people that are good at sex. They might be, but that is not what you are selecting them for, and so you might never have the best high quality sex you would have otherwise have if you had sex with a lot of partners, simply because there is one option. So, idealizing that future sex life is dangerous, as it will most likely lead to disappointment, and if it was the reason for being celibate, as you thought your sex life would somehow be better, it could lead to you resenting your partner for not being good at sex.

Elyssa, 24 (No longer waiting):

BTR: What was your reasoning on waiting until marriage?

E: It takes me a long time to open up and trust people. It takes a profound level of trust to share my body with someone, especially when there may be risk of disease or unplanned pregnancy, and to share that depth of intimacy when I am so guarded with my internal life. I always thought that if a person was able to earn my heart and my trust to that capacity, that’s the person I want to marry and the only person with whom I want to share that closeness with. It was less about waiting until marriage to have sex as it was viewing marriage and sex as equivalent levels of commitment, and knowing how difficult it would be to walk away from someone less worthy of my love if I shared that intimacy with the wrong person at the wrong time.

BTR: What was “allowed” and “not allowed?” For example, no below the belt touching at all or just no penetration?

E: I didn’t want to engage in any contact that could be considered erogenous, i.e. no touching below the belt or under the bra. Sexual behavior is a slippery slope toward actual sex, and since I was celibate for reasons of emotional intimacy and not only physical safety concerns, “no penetration” seemed like an arbitrary and useless line to draw.

BTR: What about seeing each other naked?

E: Same answer! Celibacy is difficult, and additional temptations make it more so.

BTR: Was the anticipation a part of the allure? If so, was it worth it?

E: Honestly, anticipation had very little to do with it. What I think is so valuable about waiting is that it gives you the time to learn exactly who you are without the complications of sex-related power dynamics, and time to learn your own body and what you like and want without feeling pressured by anyone individual or pressured by an increasingly porno-inspired sex culture. When you are finally with the one person you love and trust more than anyone else in the world, what could be more romantic than teaching each other what you want and learn more together as you go?

Emily, 24 (No longer waiting):

BTR: What was your reasoning on waiting until marriage?

Em: It came from a couple of things. I was raised in a really religious family in one of the most conservative towns in Massachusetts, so conversations as a pre-teen about sex would usually at some point turn into, “it seems fun, but isn’t it a sin? I’d be so scared of going to hell.” I remember when my best friend had sex during junior year of high school, it blew my mind how she could have sex and go to church and not feel guilty or scared—I didn’t judge her for it, I envied her.

That was one part of it, which diminished as I got older and saw more and more of my friends having sex and not be filled with fear or guilt afterwards. Once I got over that, then it turned into a fear of getting pregnant before I was ready, and again my religious upbringing. Even though I’m pro-choice, it would create all of these complications with my family, with getting support from them if I did decide to have an abortion because I wasn’t ready to have a child. Plus, the fact that my career plan would have to entirely change if I did go through with the pregnancy, and I’d have to move back in with my parents if I had a child, it’s just a lot of complications and I didn’t feel like sex was worth the risk when I had a lot of fun doing everything else.

BTR: What was “allowed” and “not allowed” for you? For example, no below the belt touching at all or just no penetration?

Em: Everything was fine except for penetration because it could get me pregnant. However, in the beginning, I was really scared of STDs and I remember the first few times I gave a blow job I was sure I was going to get an STD because that’s just my luck, and so I was reluctant.

BTR: What about seeing each other naked?

Em: Perfectly fine.

BTR: Was the anticipation a part of the allure? If so, was it worth it?

Em: No, the safety was the biggest thing. Eventually, in my early 20s, after almost all of my friends managed to have sex without getting pregnant or an STD, and being able to see that you can have sex, be religious, and not feel guilty, I realized it was an experience I wanted to have. I gradually got more comfortable with hooking up with boys and eventually lost my virginity to a wonderful man that was worth waiting for. He made me feel comfortable and safe, so if anything did go wrong and I did get pregnant or even just had no clue what I was doing, I knew he’d be there to support me. He set the standard, and now I still won’t have sex with anyone unless I can confidently say that I love them and they are there for me no matter what.

Everything else is fine, and not having penetrative sex has allowed me to feel really free to be sexual and hook up and experiment without any regrets or consequences because at the end of the night I have nothing to worry about. I love finding ways to keep oral sex and foreplay exciting, and I haven’t heard any complaints during my frivolous hook ups yet!

I have hooked up with and dated a lot of boys, and I feel like sex is something I reserve for the people I want more than just an orgasm from—although, if a boy can’t make me orgasm that’s also a sign he’s not someone I want to have penetrative sex with. It takes a lot to earn unwavering trust from me, and I know someone who thinks I’m worth the time is the person I want to be with.