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Fornication is generally consensual sexual intercourse between two people not married to each other.[1][2] For many people, the term carries an overtone of moral or religious disapproval, but the significance of sexual acts to which the term is applied varies between religions, societies and cultures. The definition is often disputed. In modern usage, the term is often replaced with a more judgment-neutral term like extramarital sex.

Etymology and usage[edit]

The word derives from Latin, fornix meaning "arch", supposedly as a euphemism for "brothel".[3] The first recorded use in English is in the Cursor Mundi, c. 1300; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records a figurative use as well: "The forsaking of God for idols".[4]

Fornicated as an adjective is still used in botany, meaning "arched" or "bending over" (as in a leaf). John Milton plays on that and its sexual meaning in The Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty (1642): "[She] gives up her body to a mercenary whordome under those fornicated [ar]ches which she cals Gods house."[5] In architecture, the term refers to vault; this usage, by way of prostitutes in Rome who supposedly "frequented the vaulted arcades surrounding the Colosseum", has given rise to its current meaning.[6]

In the English translations of the Bible the Greek term πορνεία (porneia) has given rise to some dispute. The traditional translation of the term into English has been fornication,[7] but has also been translated as whoredom.[8] More recent translations have preferred the alternate translation of sexual immorality or simply immorality.[9]

According to the New Testament Greek Lexicon, it is defined "illicit sexual intercourse", which is then further defined as "adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc.", "sexual intercourse with close relatives", "sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman" and "metaph. the worship of idols".[10]



In England in 1650, during the ascendancy of the Puritans, fornication was made a felony. At the Restoration in 1660, this statute was not renewed, and prosecution of the mere act of fornication itself was abandoned. However, notorious and open lewdness, when carried to the extent of exciting public scandal, continued to be an indictable offence at common law.[11]



Hinduism condemns pre-marital sex.[12] Rigveda(1700 BC - 1000 BC) regard adultery to be "evil".[13]

Some Hindu communities believe that its incorrect for a man or women to marry second time, due to the vows that are taken during saat phere. Although Hinduism itself doesn't forbid remarriage but gives no importance to divorce either.[14]


An imperative given in 1 Corinthians says, "Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins people commit are outside their bodies, but those who sin sexually sin against their own bodies."[1 Cor 6:18] Those who are sexually immoral or adulterers are listed in 1 Corinthians 6:9 in a list of "wrongdoers who...will not inherit the kingdom of God." Galatians 5:19 and 1 Corinthians 7:2 also address fornication. The Apostolic Decree of the Council of Jerusalem also includes a prohibition of fornication.

Premarital sex[edit]

There is much debate amongst Christians as to whether or not sex between two people who have never been married constitutes a form of fornication. The Bible itself is silent on the issue of consensual, premarital sex between an engaged couple.[15]

The American Episcopal Bishop and writer John Shelby Spong believes that the New Testament is not against sex before marriage.[16] The discussion turns on two Greek words — moicheia (μοιχεία, adultery) and porneia (el:πορνεία, fornication see also pornography). The first word is restricted to contexts involving sexual betrayal of a spouse; however, the second word is used as a generic term for illegitimate sexual activity. Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, incest, homosexual intercourse (according to some interpretations)[17] and prostitution are all explicitly forbidden by name (however, the Septuagint uses "porneia" to refer to male temple prostitution). Paul is preaching about activities based on levitical sexual prohibitions in the context of achieving holiness. The theory suggests it is these behaviours, and only these, that are intended by Paul's prohibition in chapter seven.[18]

In the 1170s, "it was common practice for ordinary couples to co-habit before marriage and for cousins to marry one another".[19] Sex before marriage only became equated with sinfulness with the passing of the Marriage Act 1753.[20]


The Lutheran Church of Australia holds to the belief that premarital sex equates to the sin of fornication. It believes that sexual activity belongs within the marriage relationship only and that the practice of pre-marital sex is in "violation of the will of God."[21]

In the United States, pastors of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod undertook a survey on premarital sex amongst their congregations in 2010. "These Lutheran pastors reported that over 57 percent of the couples they now marry are living together prior to the wedding, and that the rate of cohabitation in their congregations is increasing." Despite this trend, the Synod believes that "Regardless of the reasons given for living together, cohabitation is simply wrong for Christians."[22]

Alternatively, the Wisconsin Synod takes the view that a Christian couple could engage in sex before marriage but for the fact it would be an act of defiance against civil and religious norms in society. On being asked this question by a couple, the Church's Paul Kleim stated that "Were there no civil laws regulating marriage or Christian rite publicly uniting couples in marriage, your commitment to each other before God would be sufficient basis for you to begin living together as husband and wife. However, the civil and religious expectations that prevail make it wrong for you to practice marriage without a license... In your wedding ceremony you will be asking God to join you in marriage, and you will be testifying to state and church that this is the beginning of your marriage. While sexual intimacy during your engagement might not be fornication, it would certainly be civil disobedience and spiritual dishonesty. And that's wrong before God."[23]


Calvinism traditionally asserted that engaging in premarital sex was a sin.[24] Calvin himself said little on why he thought engaged couples should not have sex but he did seek to reduce the length of engagements amongst couples in Geneva to less than six weeks, to reduce the temptation of premarital sex.[15] However, some modern Swiss and French Reformed theologians, such as M. Cornuz, believe that it is permitted if the sexual activities take a form which respects the partner and helps the relationship grow in intimacy. These theologians hold that it is when a relationship is exploitive that it is sinful.[25][26] Hence, engaging in sex with prostitutes is always sinful as it is an exploitive relationship and does not allow the participants to grow in dignity.[27] This change has come about within the last two generations in Switzerland. Prior to that, the cultural norm was that the couple would not engage in sex before marriage. Modern Reformed theologians have endeavoured to meet the challenge of applying Christian teaching to this very different culture from that of the past.[28]

Ultimately, the Swiss and French Reformed theologians of today feel that one should always be true to one's individual conscience, so if the person feels sex before marriage is sinful, that person should listen to his or her conscience and abstain.[29] Hence, it is up to the couple themselves to decide if engaging in premarital sex or remaining virgins is the best way for them to reflect the love of God in their relationship.[28]


Prior to the Marriage Act 1753, British couples could live together and have sex after their betrothal or "the spousals". Until the mid-1700s, it was normal and acceptable for the bride to be pregnant at the nuptials, the later church public ceremony for the marriage. With the Act in force, for the first time in British history, all marriages in England and Wales had to take place in their parish church. (The law also applied to Roman Catholics, but Jews and Quakers were exempt.) The Act combined the spousals and nuptials and, by the start of the 19th century, social convention and the Anglican faith prescribed that brides be virgins at marriage. Illegitimacy became more socially discouraged, with first pregnancies outside of marriage declining from 40% to 20% during the Victorian era but returning to 40% by the start of the 21st century.[20]

The 1984 Anglican booklet Forward to Marriage was also tolerant of premarital sex but strongly endorsed marriage as "a necessary commitment for a long-term relationship".[30]

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, commenting on Prince William and Kate Middleton's decision to live together before their wedding, said that the royal couple's public commitment to live their lives together today would be more important than their past. Sentamu said that he had conducted wedding services for “many cohabiting couples” during his time as a vicar in south London and that "We are living at a time where some people, as my daughter used to say, want to test whether the milk is good before they buy the cow".

He also said, "For some people, that’s where their journeys are. But what is important, actually, is not to simply look at the past because they are going to be standing in the Abbey taking these wonderful vows: "for better for worse; for richer for poorer; in sickness and in health; till death us do part"."[31]

In the United States, the Episcopal Church only approves "of sex between men and women who are married. In 1979, the U.S. church's governing body voted down a resolution to approve other sexual activity."[32]

Earlier, in 1987, Spong's Newark Diocese had commissioned a report that concluded that the "Episcopal Church should recognize and bless committed non-marital sexual relationships between homosexuals, young adults, the divorced and widowed..." The report aimed "to ignite a new debate on sexual ethics among leaders of the nation's 3 million Episcopalians in the hope that they will amend church doctrine to embrace all believers... Spong, an advocate of the recommendations... said his views are a minority position in the church."[32]

In 2011, there was a televised debate between Barbadian Anglican priests Charles Morris and Errington Massiah as to whether pre-marital sex was indeed the sin of fornication or not.[33]

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, did not believe sex outside of marriage to be a sin.[34]

By contrast, in 2013 his successor, Justin Welby stated that "My understanding of sexual ethics has been that, regardless of whether it's gay or straight, sex outside marriage is wrong."[35][36] He reiterated this belief again later in 2013, further noting that "To abandon the ideal simply because it’s difficult to achieve is ridiculous."[37]

After Welby made his first statement, a Sunday Times poll found that "A majority of adults (69%, including 76% of those professing no faith) believe Justin Welby to be wrong in condemning sex outside marriage, while 17% think he is right (including 30% of Anglicans and UKIP supporters), and 13% are unsure."[38]

Roman Catholicism[edit]

Catholicism ties fornication with breaking the sixth commandment ("Thou shalt not commit adultery") in its Catechism:

Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.[39]

Historically, the Roman Catholic Church began to condemn pre-marital sex in the twelfth century. The Paris-based "Reform Church" movement was a Catholic faction that attempted to refocus society's moral compass with a particular emphasis on sex and marriage. The movement sent priests to Wales where it was, up until that time, the norm for Christians to live together prior to marriage.[19]

In 2014, a survey of German Roman Catholics showed that most disputed the Church's ruling against premarital sex.[40]

Southern Baptists[edit]

The Southern Baptist scholar Frank Stagg interpreted the New Testament as saying that sex is reserved for marriage.[41] He maintained that the New Testament teaches that sex outside of marriage is a sin of adultery if either sexual participant is married, otherwise the sin of fornication if both sexual participants are unmarried.


In his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, Mark Regnerus notes that "Evangelical Christian teens are more likely to have lost their virginity earlier than mainline Protestants. They start having sex on average at age 16.3 and are more likely than other religious groups to have had three or more sexual partners by age 17."[42]


Fornication laws are mostly tied to religion and the legal and political traditions within the particular jurisdiction. Laws differ greatly from country to country.

United States of America[edit]

Ethical issues arising from sexual relations between consenting heterosexuals who have reached the age of consent have generally been viewed as matters of private morality, and so, have not generally been prosecuted as criminal offenses in the common law.[43] This legal position was inherited by the United States from the United Kingdom. Later, some jurisdictions, a total of 16 in the southern and eastern United States, as well as the states of Wisconsin[44] and Utah,[45] passed statutes creating the offense of fornication that prohibited (vaginal) sexual intercourse between two unmarried people of the opposite sex. Most of these laws either were repealed, were not enforced, or were struck down by the courts in several states as being odious to their state constitutions. See also State v. Saunders, 381 A.2d 333 (N.J. 1977), Martin v. Ziherl, 607 S.E.2d 367 (Va. 2005).

Some acts may be prohibited under criminal laws defining the offense of sodomy, rather than the laws defining the offense of fornication. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) rendered the states' remaining laws related to sodomy unenforceable. Lawrence v. Texas is also presumed by many to invalidate laws prohibiting fornication: the decision declared sodomy laws unconstitutional, saying that they interfered with private, consensual, non-commercial intimate relations between unrelated adults, and therefore were odious to the rights of liberty and privacy, such rights being retained by the people of the United States.

Islamic nations[edit]

In some Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan,[46] Afghanistan,[47][48][49] Iran,[49] Kuwait,[50] Maldives,[51] Morocco,[52] Oman,[53] Mauritania,[54] United Arab Emirates,[55][56] Qatar,[57] Sudan,[58] Yemen,[59] any form of sexual activity outside marriage is illegal.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Fornication". Student Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  2. ^ "Fornication". Retrieved November 25, 2013. 
  3. ^ "Fornix, n.". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. 2001. 
  4. ^ "Fornication, n.1". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. 2001. 
  5. ^ "Fornicated, adj.". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. 2001. 
  6. ^ O'Gorman, James F. (1998). ABC of Architecture. U of Pennsylvania P. pp. 106–107. ISBN 9780812216318. Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  7. ^ Vine's Dictionary of New Testament Words
  8. ^ Young's Literal Translation
  9. ^ "The English Standard Version". Retrieved 2 August 2013. 
  10. ^ "The Greek Lexicon". Retrieved 4 February 2014. 
  11. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "Fornication". New International Encyclopedia. 1906. 
  12. ^ "The Cultural Context of Sexual Pleasure and Problems: Psychotherapy with Diverse Clients", p. 175, by Cynthia A. Graham, Kathryn Hall
  13. ^ Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty. The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. University of California Press. p. 7. 
  14. ^ "Studies in Hindu Law and Dharmaśāstra", publisher = Anthem Press, by Ludo Rocher, p. 293
  15. ^ a b Witte, John (2005). Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin's Geneva: Courtship, engagement, and marriage. ISBN 9780802848031. 
  16. ^ John Shelby Spong, The Living Commandments.
  17. ^ arsenokoitēs (masc. noun of fem. 1st declension), literally a man who shares a bed with other men (see LSJ and BDAG).
  18. ^ Koltun-Fromm, Naomi (April 2006). "Hermeneutics of Holiness: Syriac- Christian and Rabbinic Notions of Holy Community and Sexuality" (.doc). Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  19. ^ a b "Gerald of Wales: Patriotic Welshman or arrogant agent of English imperialism?". Wales Online. 3 October 2002. Retrieved 14 October 2013. 
  20. ^ a b "The no-sex 'myth'". BBC. 3 October 2002. Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  21. ^ "Attitude to Birth Control" (PDF). 1968. pp. 1–2. Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  22. ^ Bergmann, Rev. Kevin (June–July 2011). "Where Practice Doesn't Make Perfect". The Lutheran Witness. Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  23. ^ Kelm, Paul E. (January 1984). "Premarital sex, tithing, and cremation". Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  24. ^ Helm, Paul (July 2006). "Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin's Geneva, Volume 1: Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage". Reformation21. Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
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  26. ^ "Sexualité, relations avant ou après mariage... qu'en dit la Bible?" (in French). 12 September 2004. Retrieved 2 August 2013. 
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  31. ^ Ross, Tim; Wynne-Jones, Jonathan; Rayner, Gordon (29 April 2011). "Royal wedding: Archbishop backs William and Kate's decision to live together before marriage". The Telegraph (London). Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
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  35. ^ ""Whether it's gay or straight, sex outside marriage is wrong" Archbishop Justin Welby". Anglican Mainstream. 17 March 2013. Retrieved 3 August 2013. "My understanding of sexual ethics has been that, regardless of whether it's gay or straight, sex outside marriage is wrong." 
  36. ^ Doughty, Steve (17 March 2013). "'My wife keeps an eye on my drinking and I never do it alone': Archbishop of Canterbury reveals his fears of following father into alcoholism". The Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  37. ^ Kellaway, Lucy (10 May 2013). "Lunch with the FT: Justin Welby". Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  38. ^ Field, Clive (17 March 2013). "Sunday Times Religion Poll". British Religion in Numbers. Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  39. ^ "Catechism of the Catholic Church - The sixth commandment". 29 October 1951. Retrieved 2 August 2013. 
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  41. ^ Stagg, Evelyn and Frank. Woman in the World of Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978. ISBN 0-664-24195-6
  42. ^ Gilmour, Maggie (7 May 2010). "Let's face it, sex happens". CBC News. Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  43. ^ Jim Thompson, The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Nov. – Dec., 1958), pp. 350–356
  44. ^ Jim Thompson The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Nov. – Dec., 1958), pp. 350–356, 353
  45. ^ "Utah Code, Title 76, Chapter 07. Offenses Against the Family". 
  46. ^ Jordan, Mary (21 August 2008). "Searching for Freedom, Chained by the Law". The Washington Post. Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  47. ^ Ernesto Londoño (2012-09-09). "Afghanistan sees rise in 'dancing boys' exploitation". The Washington Post (DEHRAZI, Afghanistan). 
  48. ^ "Home". AIDSPortal. Retrieved 2 August 2013. 
  49. ^ a b "Iran". Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  50. ^ "United Nations Human Rights Website - Treaty Bodies Database - Document - Summary Record - Kuwait". Retrieved 2 August 2013. 
  51. ^ "Culture of Maldives". Every Culture. Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  52. ^ Nakim, Nora (9 August 2012). "Morocco: Should pre-marital sex be legal?". BBC. Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  53. ^ Interpol"
  54. ^ "2010 Human Rights Report: Mauritania". 8 April 2011. Retrieved 2 August 2013. 
  55. ^ "Education in Dubai". Retrieved 2 August 2013. 
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  57. ^ ""Sex outside of marriage is a criminal offense here," PH ambassador to Qatar warns Pinoys". 12 September 2011. Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  58. ^ "Sudan must rewrite rape laws to protect victims". Reuters. 28 June 2007. Retrieved 2 August 2013. 
  59. ^ "Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - Yemen". Retrieved 2 August 2013.