I saw on KSL that that some Utah Valley University faculty did some research on intimacy issues in couples who have remained abstinent prior to marriage. Given the available population in the area, it didn’t surprise me that 91% of the participants were married and that average length of marriage was 12.3 years. Well, as a Mormon who has been married 11.97 years, I can’t help but add my commentary to this. I’m hoping that my time spent getting an M.S. in counseling as well as work as a marriage counselor will allow me to add some interesting insights.
Now, my biggest frustration with the article is that they say that they have found that a lack of information and communication leads to intimacy problems for couples, and they say that about 56% of previously abstinent couples don’t have enough communication, but they never share the percentage that had intimacy issues or how long those issues persisted following the wedding night. I think it is important to note that this is a pilot study and that nothing has been published thus far. My other frustration is that whenever an article is published like this, those who have left the Church over sexual intimacy issues (which typically have more to do with family-of-origin issues than church doctrine) like to use these articles as a hammer to beat the church with.
Both of my above frustrations come down to a common misconception in the public that (a) remaining abstinent prior to marriage unusual, and it MUST (b) lead to intimacy problems do to lack of knowledge, therefore (c) sexual exploration as a teenager and young adult is necessary for maturation. I’d like to attack each of the premises and the conclusion individually, starting with the conclusion. First off, all one has to do is watch about 5 minutes of a reality show on E! or MTV to realize that sexual activity has no bearing on adult maturation. Plenty of people in the world are sexually active and no sense of how to behave as an adult. Conversely, there are plenty of people in the world who are wholly incompetent at sex (many of whom are married) and yet are very capable of all other aspects of life. To debunk the first premise, I’d like to point out that remaining abstinent is not unusual in a quantitative or percentage sense. In the US about 8-13% of people do not have sex prior to marriage, which is in the order of millions; what more, the numbers were far greater just 50 years ago, so it is not even historically unusual. And lastly, to debunk the second premise I have to point out that not having sex is not the same as not having knowledge about sex. One can learn a great deal about sex without having it. There are lots of skills where we require a base level of knowledge before we allow people to engage in the activity: flying aircraft, driving cars, rock climbing, skiing, skydiving, etc. Yes, we eventually do get to do the activity, but classes and reading always come first. So it should be with sex in marriage. Also, let’s not forget that at least half of these marriages studied didn’t have problems. So just because problems happen for some does not mean it is an eventuality for all; it is simply a possibility. And what this researcher is saying is that it is a possibility that with some modest changes could be minimized or eliminated without changing our belief or commitment to pre-marriage abstinence and most-marriage fidelity.
There are lots of people out there who waited until they were married to have sex and who loved the experience on their wedding night and honeymoon (my wife and I for example!). There are lots of people out there who have had sex with all sorts of people including their spouse prior to marriage and end up having sexual problems once married.
My big takeaway is this: If sex isn’t working for you, talk about it. If talking about it with your spouse (or fiancee if you are about to tie the knot) does not produce the desired result, find a competent additional person to talk to. I offer the follow recommendations: a professional counselor, a gynecologist, a general practitioner, a sex therapist, a local clergy. If you are like me and place value on abstinence prior to marriage, then find one of the above who shares your values. If you are not like me and don’t place value on this, well then it will probably be easier to find someone who shares your values, but still get help.
One of these days I’ll get around to writing a book specifically for LDS couples about to be married, and how to broach the topic of sex and prepare for it. In the meantime, if you’re having issues and can’t reach out to any of the above. Let me know, and I’ll be happy to help.