Divorce and Premarital Sex in a Changing America

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Societies are often shaped by their cultural and social norms that provide the model for life in communities. For centuries, the traditions of Christian courtship and marriage have provided a backbone to society, ensuring stability and consistency in the manner with which humans go about one of the fundamental aspects of the human condition: mating and procreation. However, over the last century, these traditional social norms have been largely replaced with new, more progressive ideas that allow for “freedom” and flexibility in the nature and substance of relationships, leaving behind more confusion and risk while decreasing happiness.

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Among the major results of this shift is an increase in premarital sex, and an ever increasing divorce rate. While these shifts are influenced by a multitude of factors, some of the most important roots of this shift lie in the cultural and scientific trends that have transpired in the United States over the same time frame. This paper seeks to identify three of the major factors in this shift as being the increasing availability of birth control, declining rates of church attendance and faith in the public square, and the increasing reliance by numerous people on the government for essential services and social programs in the United States.

According to Professor Wilcox, women who engage in pre-marital sexual activity with multiple partners are up to 150% more likely to end up divorced. Numerous studies from the course have shown a clear link between a lower number of sexual partners and marital longevity. While the magnitude of the effect varies by class, the fundamental aspects remain constant.

In order to understand the link between the rise of birth control and premarital sex, it is first important to examine how the use of birth control has expanded in the United States since its introduction. According to the Guttenmacher Institute, today there are 61 million US women of reproductive age, defined as being between 15 and 44. Around 60% of those women currently use a contraceptive. There are a number of different methods of contraceptives that are in use, but the birth control pill and female sterilization have been the most commonly used methods since 1982. (“Contraceptive Use…”, 2018) The expansion of these methods of birth control can be traced to 1916, when activist Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America. The next century was loaded with birth control advances that made regulating the results of pregnancy more effective in terms of success and cost than ever before. In 1909 the IUD was invented, and the development of latex condoms followed in 1912. Of course, perhaps the most important development was the deployment of the birth control pill in 1960. The 1965 United States Supreme Court case of Griswold v. Connecticut allowed for contraceptives to be legally used in all states, including by married couples. This decision opened the floodgates for allowing individuals to use these methods of family planning. (Greenwood, 2009)

Thus, there is no denying that this century provided a revolution of sorts, one that left women with more options for contraceptives than ever before. Where the heart of the question lies is whether or not this transformation can be tied to the increase in rates of premarital sex and divorce. The answer, in part, lies with the British social theorist Anthony Giddens. This theorist speaks of the effect that contraception has on the traditional notions of courtship and the family. This theorist notes that the real effect of contraception does not stop at its ability to control and regulate pregnancy. Rather, the effects of this extend to the concept that now, sex and reproduction could become two separate processes with different identities. Put another way, one no longer had to accept the “risk” of pregnancy in order to have sex. (Regenerus, 2017)

Thinking about this from a purely logical standpoint leads one to conclude that the rates of premarital sex would increase with such a phenomena, and the statistics reinforce this assumption. According to a study conducted by Dr. Lawrence B. Finer at the National Institutes of Health, the number of individuals turning 15 between 1954 and 1963 having premarital sex by age 30 was 82%. This number rises to 91% for the cohort turning 15 between 1964 and 1993, an increase of nearly ten percent. (Finer, 2007) A study that appeared in Demographic Research published by Dr. Lawrence Wu showed that the rate of premarital sex by age 44 rose from 53% for those between 1939 and 1948 to 82% for those born between 1959 and 1968. Given the timeline for the development of birth control, it is no surprise that the numbers track in terms of the increase in premarital sex. (Wu, 2018)

As discussed numerous times in class, such a discussion introduces a question of whether this link is correlation or causation. In examining the statistics and the trends identified by numerous leading sociologists, the answer is that it probably lies somewhere in the middle. Those who believe that it is merely correlation will point to conceptions regarding sexual guilt as a reason for why these two factors are not linked. Decreasing social norms, in conjunction with a decrease in the religious participation rate in the public square, leads to more relativism in terms of moral accountability, as opposed to traditional conceptions of scandal when one acts outside the norms. A study by Edward S. Herold and Marilyn Shirley Goodwin details how the attitudes regarding guilt for sexual intercourse were likely to carry over into guilt regarding contraceptive use. Such attitudes show, in the opinion of the researchers, that it is not the availability of the contraceptives that drove the individuals to have premarital sex increasing numbers, but rather these increases are both tied to the same factor – guilt surrounding the moral questions present in the decision of whether or not to have premarital sex. Individuals seeking to disconnect premarital sex and contraception will also point to the rise in pregnancies outside of marriage from 2% in the 1920s to 33% in 1999 as a reason for why birth control is not the answer, and rather the increasing disassociation of sex from the family. (Herold, 1981)

Linked to the issue of contraception and premarital sex is also the issue of increasing abortion. The societal change that followed the introduction of the pill led to the idea that the woman now had a choice of whether or not to be pregnant. This choice also meant that intercourse, regardless of whether it was in marriage or outside of it, should be able to be free from the prospect of a pregnancy. This in turn led individuals to seek increasing rates of abortions when the contraceptive technologies would fail, as this feeling of bodily autonomy would not allow a woman to be burdened with something that was not her choice, or so the thinking became. As the United States has seen since the Roe v. Wade decision, many individuals have embraced this feeling of autonomy to determine to terminate their pregnancy.

These ideas are reinforced by statistics found in the book Soulmates, written by Professor Brad Wilcox and Professor Nicholas Wolfinger. In this book, they note that currently, 15% of Caucasian men, 27% of Black men, and 20% of Latino men believe that premarital sex is wrong, compared with 22%, 41% and 24% of women, respectively. This compares with 32% of Caucasian men, 42% of black men and 55% of Latino men who say they would be happy if their significant other got pregnant. These numbers compare to 27%, 35% and 43% for the women of the same racial groups. Thus, this clearly shows that there is a gap between those engaging in premarital sex, and those who are open to having a child because of it. According to the same study, the gap is at least partially filled with abortion, as nearly half of all three of those racial groups believe that abortion should be available to a woman for any reason, with the exception being the Latino community, who are noted to be more open to child-bearing in any marital state according to the survey. (Wilcox and Wolfinger, 2016)

As one can imagine, these values that developed with the advent of contraception not only increased premarital sex rates, but also led to a decline in the number of those who looked to sources of faith and religion for guidance. It is here that we see some of the causes not only of increasing premarital sex but also increasing divorce rates.

The United States has long been referred to as a Judeo-Christian nation. In fact, many of the values and cultural norms that form the fabric of our society find their roots in the teachings of Christianity. Even the currency of the United States is emboldened with the phrase “In God, We Trust.” In fact, numerous studies link Church attendance with building a strong and stable marriage. In 2016, the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a survey that showed that couples who regularly attend church together are 47% less likely to divorce compared to those who don’t go to church. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is also a strong link between church attendance and pre-marital sex. (VanderWeele, 2016) A 1997 study from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth showed that only 14% of individuals who attended church weekly had sex at age 14 years or younger. This contrasts with 26% of individuals who never attend church having sex in the same age range. Th study also showed that the more frequently one attends church, the less likely they are to be involved with a non-romantic sexual relationship. (Lippmann, 2005)

Why would this be the case? A number of factors lead one to this conclusion, namely the values that many of the religions practice. Prominent Christian denominations discourage sex before marriage, as they believe in the sacredness of the gift of sex and the idea that it should be saved only for your future spouse, and cannot be disassociated from the family. Catholics in particular speak of the purpose of marriage as being for the procreation and expression of spousal love. When speaking in terms of procreation, this point particularly links with the expansion of contraception discussed earlier, as these medical advances allow for one to essentially take this issue off the table, thus in a sense freeing the individual to make a choice based purely on principle and not the practical aspects of the “risk” of raising a child.

The divorce issue is another key topic, and one that has sparked debates throughout history. In 1530, King Henry VIII famously started the Church of England after the Catholic Church refused to annul his marriage so he could have a male successor. Many Christian faiths have allowed their doctrine to follow societal trends, and show a greater openness to divorce that is institutionalized not only secularly, but also by the religion of the individuals involved. This in turn, when coupled with the lack of church attendance overall, to lead those who are contemplating divorce to have zero guilt about taking this option. This rise in premarital sex with a rise in divorce leaves many individuals as single parents, left to both make a career and provide for their children on their own. Just a few generations earlier, such a daunting task would have seemed impossible but now it is so prevalent. Upon further examination, it is not hard to find the enabler for this seemingly unsustainable model: the government.

As the United States struggled to recover economically from the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created many new social programs designed to aid those in need. These ranged from the Social Security retirement benefits program to the numerous working programs he started. These programs were later continued by President Lyndon Johnson, who forged the concept of the Great Society in order to provide health care to those in need, as well as helping to expand the social safety net. These programs have had some positive effects over the years. However, in regards to the family, these programs have been shown to disincentivize intact families. One of these ways is quite pertinent to the rising premarital sex and divorce rates, which is that the government can essentially fill in for the role of one of the spouses should the “worst case” scenario from the two situations described above occur.

As the Heritage Foundation notes, in 1963 when President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, 93% of American Children were born into households with married parents. By 2010, this number had fallen to 59%, with over 1.7 million children being born outside marriage. (Rector 2010). Another Heritage Foundation study notes that the number of children born out of wedlock rose from a stagnant 5% through the 1940s to 40.6% in 2014. (Rector, 2014) There is a strong link between these children being born into single parent households and the rise of poverty in single parent households. Many of the individuals in the service or lower classes cannot afford to purchase the contraceptive products that would make the risk of premarital pregnancy that comes with premarital sex go away. These individuals are still affected by the cultural tides that have led to an increase in premarital sex, but the sex that they have is more risky. Thus, one can see the connection between not only contraception and premarital sex, but also how different classes of individuals are effected differently. (Sassler, 2017)

For these individuals, there then becomes a need to provide for the child. In Pre-1950s America, under the traditional norms of conduct, it would be up to the father of the child to ensure that both the child and the mother are taken care of, a case where behavior is driven by guilt and responsibility. In today’s America, this is simply not the case, as often the women are left with the children to fend for themselves. As discussed above, this is one of the things that can lead individuals to seek out abortions. This is also where the government steps in. The various social programs, whether it be the SNAP food assistance program, Medicare, or the government provided child care that is provided, allow for the single spouse to be supported with the government filling the void of the other parent. Thus, this eliminates one potential reason for a couple to avoid divorce if married, and also helps to insulate women in particular from some of the risks of premarital pregnancy.

While these programs can have some positive effects, there have certainly been some negative impacts on the family and married life. According to an article in the National Review, which cites Professor Brad Wilcox, shows that some families can face marriage penalties in terms of their government assistance. These effects are found to most discourage marriage among lower-middle class families who participate in the programs, according to the study. (Wilcox, et al. 2016) These ideas are further enforced by ideas from the Heritage Foundation, which show that 37.1% of single-parent families lack self-sufficiency, compared with just 6.8% of married families. Expanding on the earlier point about the welfare system de-incentivizing marriage, the welfare system decreases the benefits of a family as earnings rise. In order to maximize the amount of government support received, an individual would have to remain single so that only one income would be registered. A good example of this is found in the example of a single mother who earns $20,000, should she marry an individual who also makes $20,000, that couple would then lose $12,000 a year in welfare benefits. (Rector, 2014)

Not only does the monetary value of the government assistance decrease, leading some to not even consider marriage in the first place via the selection effect, but also according to a study from Professor David Schramm at the University of Missouri, those individuals who are marry when both spouses are receiving government assistance are found to be more prone to divorce. Schramm notes that individuals in this bracket are also more likely to feel trapped in their marriage, and experience lower rates of bonding and commitment to their spouses. Schramm attributes this in part to the stigma attached to receiving government assistance. He also notes that government assistance removes responsibility while, particularly for men, can lead to feelings of inferiority, which when combined with the decreased income as a result of marriage in this class, could be a reason for the rise of divorce and premarital sex. (Hallett, 2011)

As one can see, premarital sex and divorce are two ever-increasing issues that society must deal with. While there are a number of factors that drive these issues, the areas of contraception and abortion expansion, decreasing church attendance and increasing reliance on government benefits all have worked together to contribute to these shifting cultural values. While one can find links with each of these areas and the rise of premarital sex and divorce, there are also numerous ways in which these factors help to fuel each other, thus providing a lens through which to view the cultural shifts in the United States. If the trends continue with these factors, not only will the effects on premarital sex and divorce continue to manifest themselves, but the subsequent changes in social norms will continue to change the fabric of our nation. The ultimate result of these changes remains to be seen, leading to legitimate concerns about the future of intercourse, marriage, faith and family in the United States.

Works Cited

“Contraceptive Use in the United States.” Guttmacher Institute, 26 July 2018, www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/contraceptive-use-united-states.
Finer, Lawrence B. “Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003.” Public Health Reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974), Association of Schools of Public Health, 2007, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1802108/.
Greenwood, Jeremy. “Social Change: The Sexual Revolution .” PSC Working Paper Series , 21 Apr. 2009, repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://bigthink.com/dollars-and-sex/birth-control-increases-out-of-marriage-pregnancies&httpsredir=1&article=1011&context=psc_working_papers.
Hallett, Stephanie. “Study: Couples Receiving Government Assistance More Likely To Split.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 7 Nov. 2011, www.huffpost.com/entry/couples-who-receive-gover_n_952545.
Herold, Edward, and Marilyn Shirley Goodwin. “Premarital Sexual Guilt and Contraceptive Attitudes and Behavior.” Family Relations, vol. 30, no. 2, Apr. 1981, pp. 247–253., www.jstor.org/stable/584137?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
Lippmann, Albert P. Freeze Frame: A Snapshot of America’s Teens . National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2005.
Rector, Robert. “Married Fathers: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty.” The Heritage Foundation, 16 Sept. 2010, www.heritage.org/welfare/report/married-fathers-americas-greatest-weapon-against-child-poverty.
Rector, Robert. “How Welfare Undermines Marriage and What to Do About It.” The Heritage Foundation, 17 Nov. 2014, www.heritage.org/welfare/report/how-welfare-undermines-marriage-and-what-do-about-it.
Regnerus, Mark. Cheap Sex: the Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Sassler, Sharon. Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships. University of California Press, 2017.
VanderWeele, Tyler. “Religious Service Attendance, Marriage, and Health.” Institute for Family Studies, 29 Nov. 2016, ifstudies.org/blog/religious-service-attendance-marriage-and-health/.
Wilcox, W. Bradford, and Nicholas H. Wolfinger. Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Wilcox, W. Bradford, et al. “Welfare and Marriage in Fishtown.” National Review, National Review, 28 July 2016, www.nationalreview.com/2016/07/welfare-marriage-penalties-may-keep-some-couples-unmarried/.
Wu, Lawrence. “Reexamining Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States.” Demographic Research , vol. 38, no. 21, 27 Feb. 2018, pp. 727–736., www.demographic-research.org/volumes/vol38/27/38-27.pdf.  

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Divorce and Premarital Sex in a Changing America. (2020, Jun 09). Retrieved December 1, 2022 , from

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