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Not to be confused with formication.

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]

Abrahamic religions[edit]



The Pauline epistles contain multiple condemnations of various forms of extramarital sex. The First Epistle to the Corinthians states "Flee from sexual immorality" and lists adulterers and "those who are sexually immoral" among a list of in a list of "wrongdoers who...will not inherit the kingdom of God." [1 Corinthians 6:9][1 Cor 6:18] First Corinthians and the Epistle to the Galatians also address fornication.[Galatians 5:19][1 Corinthians 7:2] The Apostolic Decree of the Council of Jerusalem also includes a prohibition of fornication.

Christianity and 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.[12]

The American Episcopal Bishop and writer John Shelby Spong believes that the New Testament is not against sex before marriage.[13] The discussion turns on two Greek words—moicheia (μοιχεία, adultery) and porneia (el:πορνεία, from which the word pornography is derived). 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 First Corinthians, incest, homosexual intercourse (according to some interpretations)[14] 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.[15]

In modern English, fornication typically refers to voluntary sexual intercourse between persons not married to each other. Given that modern definition, a verse that condemns fornication (such as 1 Corinthians 6:9 which is often cited by various denominations as biblical opposition to pre-marital sex) would appear to be clear. However, in the New Testament, fornication is the word used to translate the Koine Greek word porneia into English. In Ancient Greek, the word porneia meant "illicit sex" or "illegal sex". Early Christians interpreted this word to encompass activities such as: adultery, incest, and bestiality. Modern evangelical Christians tend to prefer the definition of premarital sex, or will even choose to broaden the term to also include activities such as homosexuality, prostitution, masturbation and pornography, while progressive Christians tend to limit the interpretation of the word to illegal sexual activities such as incest, bestiality, and child sexual abuse.

In the 1170s, "it was common practice for ordinary couples to co-habit before marriage and for cousins to marry one another".[16] Sex before marriage only became equated with sinfulness with the passing of the Marriage Act 1753.[17]

A survey undertaken by the American Sociological Review between 2000 and 2008 covering 31 developing countries found that "94 percent of Jews... reported having premarital sex, compared to 79 percent of Christians, 65 percent of Buddhists, 43 percent of Muslims and 19 percent of Hindus."[18]


According to Susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks in their book, Luther on Women, Martin Luther felt that "The sex act was of course sinful outside of marriage ..."[19]

In the current day, 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."[20]

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."[21]

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."[22]

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland's stance on the issue is ambiguous. It strictly condemns extramarital sex but in relation to pre-marital sex it states only that "Sexuality disconnected from love and from responsibility enslaves people, bringing harm to themselves and others."[23]

According to the Kinsey Institute, "Today, the Swedish Lutheran Church is very liberal in action, but careful not to take formal stands in most sexual issues, such as premarital sex, cohabitation, and sex education."[24]


Calvinism traditionally asserted that engaging in premarital sex was a sin.[25] 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.[12] 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.[26][27] 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.[28] 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.[29]

In summary, 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.[30] 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.[29]

The Presbyterian Church (USA), like other Christian bodies [in the United States], has viewed marriage as a prerequisite to sexual intercourse and considered sex outside marriage a sin."[31]


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.[17]

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".[32]

Prince William and Kate Middleton on the balcony of Buckingham Palace

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".[33]

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."[34]

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."[34]

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.[35]

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, did not believe sex outside of marriage to be a sin.[36] 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."[37][38] He reiterated this belief again later in 2013, further noting that "To abandon the ideal simply because it's difficult to achieve is ridiculous."[39] 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."[40]

The Kinsey Institute comments that "Prior to the 1950s, the religious influences forming sexual constructs [in Britain] came almost exclusively from "the official church" of England, and "unofficially" from the other Christian denominations. In recent decades, the picture has become more complex. Since midcentury, the Church of England's approach to social morality and sexuality has fluctuated between two poles, the traditionalists and the modernists, or the "permission givers" and the "orthodox moral directors." With the national religious scene resembling the circular approach of the politicians to sexual knowledge and attitudes, the sociosexual control and influence appears to bounce back and forth between church and state according to a mutually cooperative formula. ... This doctrinal "pendulum" is confusing for the majority of the population who are not experts at moral and theological niceties and subtleties. The people themselves are part of the system of confusion: While expecting clear and definite moral messages from both establishment and Church, they reserve the right to judge the validity of those messages, even when they are biblically based."[41]


The Methodist theologian and pastor, Ben Witherington III, believes that "virginity in a woman was highly valued before marriage [in Biblical cultures]. ... In early Jewish law if you had sex with a woman you were considered married to her or you had shamed her. See the story of Mary and Joseph. Porneia can refer to all sorts of sexual sin including deflowering a virgin ... there was no dating or physical intimacy prior to an arranged marriage in the vast majority of cases. The notion of dating doesn’t exist in Jesus and Paul's world. Second, honor and shame cultures placed a high value on sexual purity. Notice how prostitutes were stigmatized. Women were mainly blamed for sexual immorality. Finally Jesus gave his disciples two choices in Mt. 19—fidelity in heterosexual marriage or being a eunuch! This means no sex outside marriage."[42]

By contrast, the Uniting Church in Australia is still formulating its views on the subject. It recognises the changes in marriage practice and lifestyle that have resonated throughout society and that the UCA is perceived by the public of being more accepting of the realities of humanity than many other denominations.[43][44] A report noted that scripture is not really about marriage as understood in contemporary western societies and, in fact, has very little to say about it. In the report, the church also acknowledged that many unmarried people had sex but neither condemned nor endorsed it, instead noting that there were many different views within the church.[43]

The United Methodist Church in the United States is not prepared to say that premarital sex is sinful. Rather, their official position statement is simply "Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are only clearly affirmed in the marriage bond."[45]

Roman Catholicism[edit]

Catholicism equates premarital sex with fornication and ties it 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.[46]

In the early middle ages, although the Church theoretically disapproved of nonmarital sex, it approved of it in practice, at least for males (females could be punished) and the practice was commonplace. The Third Council of Aachen (862) noted that premarital sex was quite permissible,[47] declaring it was "rare, almost unheard-of, for a man to remain a virgin until marriage."[48] (At the same time, the Church's attitude to the keeping of concubines was ambivalent.)[49]

Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church did not begin to actively condemn pre-marital sex until 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.[16]

Up until this time, marriage was considered a private contract between two people. They would make a pledge to each other and, from that moment on, they were considered married. This pledge could take place anywhere; it did not have to occur in a church and neither the church nor the state were involved. It was during the twelfth century that the Roman Catholic Church took control of the process of marriage. From that point on, to be legally recognised, a marriage had to take place in a church with a formal service conducted by a priest. At the same time, pre-marital sex came to be regarded as sinful. Hence all marriage and sexual activity now came under the control of the Church and marriage eventually came to be viewed as one of the Church's seven sacraments.[50]

In his 1930 Encyclical, Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI strongly condemned premarital sex and all forms of "experimental" marriage.[51]

To give an indication of the extent of opposition to premarital sex in the Roman Catholic Church up until recently, it should be noted that "Conservative Catholic teaching [in the first half of the twentieth century] denied children of unmarried parents baptism and therefore burial in consecrated land."[52]

In 2014, a survey of German Roman Catholics showed that most disputed the Church's ruling against premarital sex.[52]


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."[53]

A 2014 press release from online dating websites announced the results of a poll of 2,600 Americans in their attitudes towards dating and sex.[54] The poll found that 61 percent of Christians believed they would have sex before marriage. Fifty-six percent found it appropriate to cohabit with a romantic partner after dating for a time between six months and two years. Fifty-nine percent said it doesn't matter who the primary breadwinner of the family is. And 34 percent responded that they would marry someone of a different faith.[55]

Southern Baptist convention[edit]

A 2013 study of married couples in Southern Baptist churches in Texas found that over 70% of respondents reported having had premarital vaginal or oral sex.[56] The Southern Baptist scholar Frank Stagg interpreted the New Testament as saying that sex is reserved for marriage.[57] 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.


Islam explicitly forbids all sex outside of marriage, both premarital sex and sex outside marriage (zina).[58] Qur'an states:[59][60]

Nor come nigh to adultery: for it is a shameful deed, and an evil, opening the road to other evils.

Quran 17:32

The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication - flog each of them with a hundred stripes: Let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah, if ye believe in Allah and the Last Day: and let a party of the Believers witness their punishment.

Quran 24:2

Sharia considers premarital and extra marital sex as two of six hudud crimes, that is, it is a crime against Allah.[61] As a hudud crime, it must be dealt with a fixed punishment.[62] Islam requires that Muslim society punish both the boy and the girl, who have engaged in premarital sex, with 100 lashes in public; for extra marital sex, the punishment required by Sharia is 100 lashes followed by stoning to death in public.[63] These punishments are also prescribed in Sahih Hadiths, the books most trusted in Islam after Quran,[64]

'Ubada b. as-Samit reported: Allah's Messenger as saying: Receive teaching from me, receive teaching from me. Allah has ordained a way for those women. When an unmarried male commits adultery with an unmarried female, they should receive one hundred lashes and banishment for one year. And in case of married male committing adultery with a married female, they shall receive one hundred lashes and be stoned to death.

Sahih Muslim, 17:4191

Beyond being a crime requiring punishment in worldly life, fornication is a sin leading to chastisement in after-life in Islam.[65]


The Torah does not consider premarital sex a capital crime, unless one was already betrothed.[66]

To quote two sources, "The Torah does not outlaw it—as it does many other types of sexual relationships—and the child of such a union is not considered a mamzer (illegitimate). Nonetheless, marital sex is considered ideal, and premarital sex is traditionally not approved of. The negative attitude toward premarital sex, to a large degree, reflects the overwhelmingly positive attitude toward sex within marriage."[67] Likewise, "The only limits placed on sexual activities in the Torah are prohibitions against adultery and incest. In Biblical times, a man was not prohibited from having sexual relations with a woman, as long as it led to marriage. The Bible never explicitly states a woman and man may not have sexual intercourse prior to marriage; therefore, no sanction was imposed for premarital sex, but it was considered a violation of custom."[68]

Despite the fact it is not condemned in the Torah, Orthodox Jews are opposed to premarital sex.[69]

Eastern religions[edit]


In Hinduism sexual matters are not part of religious or moral law, but left to the judgment of the those involved.[70] Sexual behavior of Hindus are also governed by the prevalent practices of the society. Cynthia Graham states that British colonial influence from 1612 to 1947 likely influenced "the shift to conservative sexual values from the earlier laissez-faire approach" to consensual sex among Hindus.[70]

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.[71]



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.[72] 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[73] and Utah,[74] 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,[75] Afghanistan,[76][77][78] Iran,[78] Kuwait,[79] Maldives,[80] Morocco,[81] Oman,[82] Mauritania,[83] United Arab Emirates,[84][85] Qatar,[86] Sudan,[87] Yemen,[88] any form of sexual activity outside marriage is illegal.

See also[edit]


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  6. ^ O'Gorman, James F. (1998). ABC of Architecture. U of Pennsylvania P. pp. 106–107. ISBN 9780812216318. Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
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