What most affects cultural attitudes toward premarital sex? Reproducing and the instinctive desire to reproduce are apart of human culture as a whole. However, many cultural factors are tied into views on premarital sex across different cultures. Once we understand that different factors arise in each culture leading these views to be held, the greater the chance accurate knowledge can be gained leading to less cultural misunderstandings.
If one were to google search this question in hopes of finding a dictionary-like explanation, the answer might resemble something like, ‘Religious beliefs vary across cultures, and each one conveys different teachings about sex, including when it is appropriate and inappropriate.’ This answer seems to be the most obvious, however, religion is only one of many possible factors that can shape these attitudes. What about health and possibly contracting a disease or an infection? What about the economic development of a particular nation or region? An individual from a non-Western culture might say that sex is sacred and not to be discussed or portrayed in any way. It is only to be performed when you have made a commitment of love and/or family. It is supposed to be special and purposeful, not recreational.
I personally have had a cross-cultural experience regarding this topic, particularly regarding how sex (premarital or otherwise) is portrayed in the media. In the United States, sex scenes in television and film are heavily censored. No “private” areas of the body nor the actual act itself are shown, unless portrayed in non-network television such as Netflix (however, this is fairly recent) or in a film that is R rated. However, violence of great proportions is extremely common in film and television in the U.S.
In 2014, I went on an exchange to Germany. I was spending the day with my exchange student and her siblings, and all of us were around the same age. They asked me why violence and sex were portrayed in these ways in the U.S. when they are portrayed the exact opposite in Germany. Very little violence is shown, but sex scenes are very common. In their view, sex was natural and no different than indulging in one’s favorite food. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that most early European settlers in the U.S. were Protestant Christians, and these views were held until the modern day, though less prevalent. Germany and the U.S. are both considered developed Western cultures, which means that economic development and health risks most likely do not play a large role in this particular case, but might in comparison to other cultures. This leads me to predict that religion, economic development, and health influence these differing cultural attitudes toward premarital sex.
Barber (2017) predicted that the more economically developed a culture is, the more accepted premarital sex is, and the more religious a culture is as a whole, the less accepted premarital sex is. Both of these predictions turned out to be proven correct. It was also predicted that premarital sex would not be as widely accepted if there were an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, namely HIV/AIDS. I agree with the predictions on religion and disease risk and I think the evidence supporting them is valid, because as Barber (2017) discusses in the article, “one would predict” that this would be the case. However, there are a few factors in each that were not taken into account, which will be discussed later.
In terms of economic development, “Schmitt (2005) found that female interest in casual sex (sociosexuality; Simpson & Gangestad, 1991) was positively correlated with gross domestic product […] so women in developed countries might plausibly be more open to premarital sexuality than their counterparts in less developed, or more agricultural, nations, at least if nations vary in general sexual restrictiveness” (Barber, 2017). This is due to the fact that in developed countries (and the cultures within them), women have been increasingly joining the workforce and thus are able to support themselves financially (Barber, 2017).
Women no longer need men to financially support them, and as a result are either unlikely to get married at all or get married at a young age, therefore being more open to engaging in sexual activities despite not being married (Barber, 2017). This also ties in to the “strength” of marriage (Barber, 2017), in that marriage is seen as either necessary or not depending on how economically developed a certain nation and culture are. However, people still find sex to be pleasurable and do not want to wait or do not see the purpose of waiting. Also, due to economic developments, more advancements such as birth control and condoms have been made, so more people in developed and developing countries are open to the possibility of premarital sex.
In less developed countries, this is not the case. Barber (2017) reports that “in some developing societies, most brides are reported to be virgins on their wedding day” and in these cultures, men want to marry virgins because then the likelihood that they are the father is 100%. Women are also typically not joining the workforce in these cultures, leaving them largely dependent on men for support both economically and for childbearing and family purposes.
In terms of religion, Barber (2017) touches slightly on this topic in that the less religiosity there is, the more accepted premarital sex is. It was mentioned that “religion might affect what people say about sexuality without affecting their behavior. For instance, the most religious states in the United States had more subscriptions to online pornography despite endorsing conservative family values (Edelman, 2009)” (Barber, 2017). Individuals may report their beliefs as what their culture as a whole believes, but they might secretly have opposing beliefs or perform actions, such as view pornography, that show otherwise. This goes to show that self-report data is not always accurate, which was mentioned in this article as a limitation. This also goes to show that a certain culture can have attitudes about premarital sex, but individual actions vary greatly and are not always reported.
In terms of health, it is predicted that with more risk of disease in a culture, the less premarital sex would be accepted. The evidence is in favor of this, but there are some factors left out that would be beneficial in obtaining accurate information on this topic. For example, Barber (2017) distinguishes premarital and casual sex, classifying premarital as sex that “may occur in the context of an emotionally committed relationship”. From this, it is concluded that there would be less of a disease risk associated with this due to the fact that people would normally have the same partner (Barber, 2017) and therefore know if said partner had any such diseases. However, wouldn’t casual sex be included in the category of premarital sex due to the fact that it takes place before marriage (if the engaging individuals do get married, that is)? Also, many individuals in Western cultures are engaged in committed relationships and have no plans to ever get married. This would probably not be considered casual sex.
The findings that more economic development, less religiosity, and decreased health risks lead to more acceptance of premarital sex answer the main research question. However, there are some points in this article that do not provide an accurate explanation, the first being a distinction given to casual sex from premarital sex when these are not black and white terms. The second being not knowing what an individual really believes about sex, despite their cultural attitudes and religious views. Overall, this article provides great insight into the research question.
Christensen (1960) had a slightly different approach. In this article, a conservative culture (Utah), a moderate culture (Indiana), and a liberal culture (Denmark) were compared to each other regarding the norms of premarital sex. Utah is more conservative due to the fact that many Mormons reside there, and Mormonism is among one of the more conservative religions. Indiana is not as conservative as Utah (in a religious sense), and Denmark is a European culture and considered very liberal, which relates to the point that the early European settlers in the U.S. were conservative protestant Christians, shaping the attitudes of the nation. The main prediction in this article is that the more accepting a culture is of premarital sex, the more common premarital pregnancy will be, and the less stressful the situation of the pregnancy will be (Christensen, 1960).
In terms of economic development, these three cultures are all part of nations with high economic development. Denmark, however, has “welfare laws which make abortion and unmarried motherhood relatively easy” (Christensen, 1960). This goes to show that Denmark has developed in a way that the U.S. has not. Even in 1960, these issues had already been resolved while they still remain controversial in the U.S. today. It can be concluded from these laws in Denmark that premarital sex was and still is widely accepted by the culture.
The U.S. is relatively as economically developed as Denmark, but premarital sex is not as accepted in the U.S. This is due to the fact that religion is generally a more prominent factor in the general culture of the U.S., much less depending on the state. As discussed, Mormonism is a mainstream religion in the state of Utah, and the religion promotes extremely conservative values. In Denmark, people consider themselves religious, but do not necessarily include their religion in their daily lives (Christensen, 1960). This leaves Indiana as being moderate. They are, for the most part, still influenced by religion, but less so than the people of Utah and more so than the people of Denmark (Christensen, 1960). The average times of conception from the data collected were as follows: 5 months before marriage in Denmark and 1 month after marriage in both Indiana and Utah. In Utah and Indiana, people felt pressure to wait until marriage. In Denmark, people didn’t feel as much pressure to get married right away because of pregnancy, as this is considered fairly normal and most people would not be judgemental (Christensen, 1960).
There are some issues in this article as well as interesting perspectives. The first issue is that health is not discussed. This is an important factor in premarital sex, because sexually transmitted diseases as well as other diseases and infections can change one’s life for the worse. Diseases are more easily contracted than one might realize, so it is beneficial for one to make sure that they as well as the person they are engaging in intercourse with are healthy. Another issue is that the data was collected from two countries that are considered Western and have similar religious beliefs, though varying in degree.
This does not provide full accuracy of answering the research question, but it does provide an interesting perspective. Even though many cultures are considered similar to each other (e.g. Western cultures), there are still varying degrees of attitudes toward premarital sex within these cultures. This article shows that religion is a major influence on these cultural attitudes, and shows that even though the U.S. as a whole is considered more accepting of premarital sex, there are still cultures within that reflect different views. This even accounts for the time difference between 1960 and 2018.
Barber (2017) and Christensen (1960) both provide insight that the factors of religion, economic development, and health risks are key influencers in cultural attitudes toward premarital sex. Even though Christensen focuses more on the religious aspect, economic development definitely comes into play given the fact that the nations of these cultures are economically developed. Perhaps the health risks are implied to be included given the factor of economic development, but it was not specified. The Christensen article also drew on my previous experience in Germany. We are two similar cultures, yet are differing on views of sex, premarital or otherwise. The Barber article touched on all of these factors across many different cultures, however, casual sex and premarital sex may not be two distinct terms.
There is still further research that can be done in order to gain more accurate knowledge of these cultural attitudes. For example, what about sex being widely discussed in certain cultures? Would that further shape and/or change views on premarital sex in generations to come? Would this provide more accurate self report data? What about cultures that remain religious and/or less economically developed with more risk of disease? Further research would be extremely interesting and provide valuable insight, however the fact that religion, economic development, and health are all proven factors of cultural attitudes toward premarital sex provides a useful basis of knowledge.
- Barber, N. (2017). Cross-National Variation in Attitudes to Premarital Sex: Economic Development, Disease Risk, and Marriage Strength. Cross-Cultural Research,52(3), 259-273. doi:10.1177/1069397117718143
- Christensen, H. T. (1960). Cultural Relativism and Premarital Sex Norms. American Sociological Review,25(1), 31. doi:10.2307/2088945
- Edelman, B. (2009). Red light states: Who buys online adult entertainment? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23, 209-220.
- Schmitt, D. P. (2005). Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe: A 48-nation study of sex, culture, and strategies of human mating. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 247-311.
- Simpson, J. A., & Gangestad, S. W. (1991). Individual differences in sociosexuality: Evidence for convergent and discriminant validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 870-883.