We’ve written previously about casual sex, discussing its contributions to our health (both good and bad) and to our psychological wellbeing (also both good and bad).
While lots of people choose not to have sex outside committed relationships, a few take that one step further, and reserve sexual contact for the bonds of marriage.
It’s not a lifestyle most people practise any more (although there are good historical reasons to think that not many people ever did), but we’ve decided to catch up with some of those who maintain it, or did before they were married. What, if anything, can be learned about intimacy from couples who don’t connect sexually?
To find out, we spoke to four people from four separate couples. Two of our interviewees (Will and Amelia) are married, and didn't have sex with their partners before marriage. The other two (Charlotte and Bryony) are in relationships, and are currently waiting until marriage to have sex.
Here's a mini-profile of each. All are UK-based except Will, who lives with his wife in the US.
Charlotte: age 26, she's been in a relationship for 8 months with her partner (34)
Bryony: age 25, she's been in a relationship for 10 months with her partner (26)
Will: age 26, he's been married to his wife (26) for 5 years.
Amelia: age 32, she's been married to her husband (33) for 4 years.
Charlotte: It was an active choice based on religion. I think the absence of religious morality understandably creates a slightly hedonistic moral atmosphere, in which people think “if I’m not harming anyone and everyone consents, what’s the problem?”
Bryony: Essentially, my Christian beliefs - not just that God said no sex before marriage or anything, but that sex has its own role in a Christian marriage as something that's uniquely shared between the couple.
Will: We got married in 2017 after growing up in extremely conservative religious communities and meeting/dating at a Southern Baptist university. No sex until after the wedding. Nowadays, we’ve both grown and changed a lot, and neither of us are religious.
Amelia: I didn’t want to date around, as it had caused me hurt in the past. Then I started looking at studies – overwhelmingly in favour of marriages that had fewer sexual partners – and basically that was it. You could call it confirmation bias. I also became religious again coincidentally, after years of agnosticism, and that sealed it for me.
Charlotte: I don’t think a chaste relationship could work unless both came separately to the conclusion that that’s what they wanted. I’ve been a chaste partner in a relationship with a reluctantly chaste person before, and I don’t believe it can work in a loving and healthy way. I think both need to be separate individuals with very very similar views.
Will: Yes, it was a mutual decision (which was also strongly encouraged by external influences, and assumed by us to be the default for our relationship).
Amelia: Yes. I told him I would wait until marriage, and he agreed to do it together. He had not planned to do so from the start. That being said, we were married 1.5 years after meeting.
Charlotte: We don't do any sexual acts whatsoever. We have sexual intimacy in the sense of kissing, or being wrapped up in each other’s arms, but nothing that’s generally referred to as ‘performing sexual acts’.
Bryony: So: no oral sex or anything, and underwear stays firmly on - but we do make out. And the whole No Sex Outside Marriage thing precludes watching porn, for example.
Will: When we visited each other while dating (to meet family and such), we slept in separate rooms. Sexual intercourse was deeply taboo, and we abided by that. We went on dates and had meals and did activities together, but we were pretty much always together in places that were at least semi-public.
Amelia: All sex acts were off the table. Only kissing and holding hands were ok, and they didn’t start happening until well after 3 months together.
Will: There was a much bigger “learning curve” than we anticipated when it came to exploring sexual intimacy, and learning how to be good sexual partners for each other. Because of the strong religious taboos and culture of shame surrounding anything sexual, my wife was deeply uncomfortable with pretty much anything sexual for the first 2 years of our marriage. She had to work through a lot of complicated shame and religious trauma via therapy before she really “unlocked” her sexuality and it became enjoyable for her.
Obviously this is all anecdotal, and we can’t know what would have happened in a counterfactual universe, but we both feel like our religious upbringings (and their culture of shame surrounding sex) harmed our relationship more than they helped. She, in particular, had to untangle a lot of unhelpful patterns of thinking that had been hammered into her for her entire life. But our marriage survived and we’re still together 5 years later. We’re quite happy together now.
Amelia: Completely. It was a full-on commitment from the start. I do think our relationship is incredibly strong and solid because we dated and we became friends first.
Charlotte: I don’t want to go into too much detail about this, but briefly: one of us had had multiple sexual partners and experiences before. But there was a necessary gap between that and the time of our relationship.
Bryony: For him: no, I'm his first girlfriend. For me: I haven't had sex, but did once have a very abortive attempt at giving a secular boyfriend a handjob.
Will: I had had none whatsoever. She had kissed 2-3 people in high school.
Amelia: Sure, I had a previous relationship that was, let’s say, conventional – and I felt deep regret at not having waited until marriage.
Charlotte: I feel like I’m much closer to my partner for having a long, set period of chastity with them. It’s allowed us to know one another truly and share everything. I’ve felt as if we’ve truly loved one another for who we actually are.
Bryony: Emotional intimacy becomes more important to work on, because you don't necessarily have the immediate feeling of intimacy from having sex.
Will: There’s disorienting whiplash when you switch — literally overnight — from “sex is taboo to even speak openly about” to “all things are permitted.” Sexual intimacy was extremely difficult for the first two years of our marriage. Rather than accomplishing the supposed goal of preparing us to enjoy intimacy at the proper time, our religious upbringing instilled deep-rooted sexual shame that took years of work to dislodge. We both felt like we were stunted in one specific area of human development, and we had to play catch-up to figure out things that no one prepared us for.
Amelia: To be blunt, being in love and certain they'll stay with you is a completely different feeling to not knowing if the other person feels the same or not, and not even knowing where things are going. Intimacy is much easier.
Charlotte: I would like to say no, but the answer is yes. There’s obviously truth to the old stereotype of 21-year-old Christian Union types getting married after third year, which I think can be unfortunate and rushed - but the whole point about chastity should be that taking your time, and truly getting to know the person, results in a more loving and whole understanding of the person. Getting married quicker than most should come from the fruits of chastity, nor from the desire to break it.
I would like to marry and have sex with my partner, whom I love very much. But I love them so much that if they were paralysed from the neck down tomorrow, it wouldn’t affect our relationship in any way.
Bryony: Yes I do, and sort of. The cliché is that Christians get married earlier through the horn, and it's not not a consideration (see "better to marry than burn"). But there are other factors too, such as seeing marriage as a goal from the outset, and working out from the beginning if we were compatible for that.
Will: I had frighteningly little exposure to people outside my religious tradition. But I have a very strong suspicion that if you plotted all the data, you would find a clear trend of younger marriages than in the general population. I certainly grew up thinking it was common and normal for people to get married around the age of 19-22.
Anecdotally, the desire for sexual intimacy was hugely influential in pushing me towards young marriage. And you’d have a hard time convincing me that’s not the case for most similar young religious couples.
Amelia: No, because we were both in our 20s and wanted the same thing: marriage. We were dating with marriage in mind, although he hadn’t planned to wait until marriage for sex. He wanted to get married after 3 months, but I said let’s wait and see and be 100% sure. But I guess with younger people that’s probably sometimes part of the motivation.
Charlotte: Secular friends can be quite cutting about it, but one or two are curious and supportive. I don’t really discuss it with family, so I’m unsure if they even know! I try to be open about it with personal friends/colleagues etc when it comes up naturally as I think it’s something they wouldn’t often come across and it’s a bit of a quiet revelation sometimes to know that people they actually like act in ways they might find odd or disagree with. As long as you’re happy to answer questions and not be preachy, people react more positively to you as an individual than they do to the general idea of ‘chaste christians.’
Bryony: Christians think it's good (obviously); some people are kind of patronising ("Oh, that's sweet"); some of them think it's deeply weird and I'll regret it. I don't think it makes it easier or harder either way. And it's quite easy to predict what a given person's reaction would be.
Will: I think [our religious family backgrounds] were helpful in that they provided a community that was supportive of our relationship and cheering for our success. It also exposed us to a lot of examples of mature couples and cohesive families, many of whom were healthy, positive role models in terms of building a relationship. But I think the actual beliefs, rules, and expectations did more harm than good.
Amelia: When I made the decision, it was (and still is) a deeply unfashionable view, and I couldn't talk to many people and friends about it as they would think I was insane. Now, we never discuss it with others much apart from our religious friends. But people would be surprised if they knew. I guess we both know society thinks people like us are bonkers/old fashioned. It never influenced our relationship to one another apart from that.
Charlotte: Somewhat neutral. Not indifferent per se, but disconnected. I think they should be chaste because I think it would be better for them in virtually every way, but I just leave it up to God and to them. I’m happy to talk about my own experiences if they ask, but equally happy (especially after a drink or two) to listen to them talk about something that’s kind of exciting and novel.
Bryony: So I feel for me it would be morally wrong, but also it is basically what everyone else does and I can see that they're not just doing it because they can't be bothered to wait. I think it comes down to two different views of marriage and relationships that aren't really compatible. But most of my circle in general is not waiting.
Will: No feelings, I suppose? It just truly doesn’t feel like any of my business.
Amelia: I feel that women have much less power, because men have access [to sex] and have very little to do for that access. Women mostly end up begging men to stay or marry them, and so have less bargaining power upfront. Looking at the cases of women who are single mothers, it’s just awful. And you won’t have that happening if you wait for full-on commitment. I'm not saying married men can't walk out, but it happens much less.
Charlotte: Yes, to everyone. Waiting allows love to grow in a more earnest and discerning way. I obviously think everyone should just for the sake of their soul, but from a secular perspective: if you want to build and grow a long-term loving marriage, and they go off a few months in and shag someone else, you’ve managed to rid yourself of someone who would have been a shit partner.
Bryony: This is the first relationship I've been in where waiting until marriage has felt actually quite hard sometimes – rather than easy because I didn't really fancy the guy, and was too afraid to really articulate this. So I can see how it would be difficult now. I would recommend it as long as you are both on the same page, properly, about it. Otherwise you end up with resentments because one partner secretly wishes they were having sex.
Will: I really wouldn’t go around making recommendations to others. Every connection between two humans is unique, and largely illegible to everyone except the participants. We use big labeled buckets like “dating,” “friendship,” and “marriage” to help us understand each other, but every relationship contains complexity that can't be understood without actually being in it. If someone has willingly committed themselves to abstaining from premarital sex, I wouldn’t consider it my place to argue with them or try to convince them otherwise. If someone were to be undecided, I would share my anecdata in the hope of enabling them to make the best decision possible for their relationship.
It would be presumptuous of me to say that abstaining from premarital sex is always a mistake. Traditions exist for real reasons; often because they solve a problem that may not be visible to us. Abstinence probably leads to the best possible outcomes in certain circumstances, times, and places.
Amelia: Yes, and even if they're not religious – at least half a year! By then you know the person you have in front of you, and how much of a stake they're willing to put into the relationship.
Some names have been changed. If you've got an unconventional or distinctive love life, we'd love to hear about it: get in touch at email@example.com.