New York — Premarital sex, defined as voluntary sexual intercourse between unmarried persons, is increasing worldwide. While traditional values, religious instructions and the laws of some countries continue to prescribe abstinence until marriage, the rapid societal changes that have occurred across all regions during the past half-century have resulted in the growing prevalence and acceptability of premarital sex.
A global survey conducted several years ago involving 40 countries, covering three-fourths of the world's population, found a minority, 46 percent, saying that sex between unmarried adults was morally unacceptable. However, a distinct split in attitudes concerning the acceptability of premarital sex was observed between developed and developing countries (Figure 1).
Among developed countries minorities considered sex between unmarried adults to be morally unacceptable. In France, Germany and Spain, for example, less than 10 percent said that sex between unmarried adults is unacceptable. And in Japan, Russia and the United States the proportions of those who said premarital sex is morally unacceptable were less than one third.
In contrast to the views indeveloped countries, large majorities in most developing countries said that sex between unmarried adults is morally unacceptable. Among those countries were some of the most populous, including China (58 percent), Egypt (90 percent), India (67 percent), Indonesia (97 percent), Nigeria (77 percent), Pakistan (94 percent) and the Philippines (71 percent).
The attitudes of most developed countries concerning premarital sex in the recent past were likely not dissimilar from the current views of the less developed countries. In the United States, for example, whereas the proportion of those who viewed premarital sex as unacceptable was nearly universal at the start of the 20th century, it declined to about 70 percent by midcentury, 40 percent by the 1970s and is approximately 25 percent today.
While surveying the public's views on the moral acceptability of premarital sex can be challenging at times, arriving at reliable estimates of premarital sexual behavior is a far more difficult undertaking. In addition to social disapproval, moral sensitivities and the desire for personal privacy, premarital sex is unlawful in a number of countries, including Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Sudan, and was unlawful in some developed countries in the recent past. Consequently, reported estimates of premarital sexare likely to underestimate actual levels.
Survey data for many developed countries found that at the beginning of the 21st century more than two thirds of young people had premarital sex while still in their teens. The proportion was over 80 percent in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Available survey data for various developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America also report increased prevalence of premarital sex. The rise in premarital sex in China is particularly noteworthy. Whereas a generation ago, 15 percent of Chinese reported having premarital sex, recent surveys find that about 70 percent admit to having sex before marriage. Even in countries where premarital sex is still a taboo, such as India, Indonesia and Iran, studies report its increasing prevalence.
A major factor in the worldwide increase in premarital sex is the improvement in contraceptive technology that occurred over the past half-century.The use of modern contraception, such as the oral pill and the intrauterine contraceptive device (IUD), has virtually eliminated the fear of an unintended pregnancy. According to recent surveys, more than 90 percent of women aged 15 to 24 years know about at least one contraceptive and most are familiar with more than one. In addition, the percent of adolescent women using contraceptives has increased markedly in many countries over the past several decades.
The movement away from marriage to cohabitation, especially evident in developed western countries, has also contributed to the rise in premarital sex. Among the 28 members of OECD, for example, the average percent of young couples aged 20 to 34 years who were cohabiting in 2011 was more than 40 percent (Figure 2). In some of those countries, including Denmark, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom, the majority of young couples were not married, but cohabiting.
Increased levels of cohabitation have also been reported among Latin American countries. Among men aged 25 to 29 years in 2010, for example, more than half were cohabiting in Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.
Even in traditional Asian societies, such as China, India, Iran and Japan, increasing numbers of young couples, especially in urban areas, are choosing to live together before deciding whether or not to marry. Among the explanations for the rapid rise of cohabitation is that it allows individuals to assess compatibility with a partner while keeping future options open.
The trend towards later marriage in many countries is another factor that has contributed to the rise in the prevalence of premarital sex. Delaying marriage to older ages increases the temporal opportunities for premarital sex. The gaps between ages at first sexual intercourse and first marriage have become substantial, especially for men (Figure 3).For example, the gaps between median ages at first sexual intercourse and first marriage for men and women born between 1965 and 1969 are11 and 7 years in the United States and 8 and 5 years in Great Britain.
Modern urban life styles, including more years of schooling, career development, independent living, tolerance of diversity and greater degree of anonymity, have also contributed to the rise in premarital sex. The migration to urban centershas rapidly transformed many historically rural developing countries, such as China, Indonesia, Iran and Turkey, to predominantly urban societies.
The globalization of mass media, most recently through the Internet, has also contributed to transforming traditional normative values regarding sexual behavior, including premarital sex. The strong relationship between themedia and the sexual expression of teenagers may be due to the media's role as an important source of socialization for young men and women.
Traditional attitudes and behavior of men and women with respect to premarital sex have changed relatively rapidly worldwide over the past half-century. Large majorities of the populations in developed countries no longer view premarital sex as morally unacceptable. In addition, young men and women are increasingly having sex prior to marriage as well as cohabiting before deciding whether to marry or not.
In developing countries, in contrast, large majorities continue to consider premarital sex morally unacceptable. However, the prevalence of premarital sex in those countries is increasing, especially in urban centers. The dichotomy between attitudes and behavior with respect to premarital sex observed in many developing countries poses serious challenges to traditional practices, religious values and cultural norms requiring abstinence until marriage.
While governments, religious groups and social conservatives may continue to insist on abstinence until marriage, global trends of premarital sex over the past half-century suggest otherwise. In sum, based on the available evidence attempts to regulate the premarital sexual behavior of young men and women in hopes of returning to the abstinence-until-marriage era are unlikely to succeed, which will consequently necessitate adjusting to the realities of the sexual revolution that is continuing to spread worldwide.