Pre-marital sex is sexual activity practiced by persons who are unmarried. Historically considered taboo in many cultures and considered a sin in numerous religions, it has become more commonly accepted in the last few decades.
Until the 1950s, the term "pre-marital sex" referred to sexual relations between two people prior to marrying each other. During that period, Western societies expected that men and women marry by the age of 21 or 22; as such, there were no considerations that one who had sex would not marry. The term was used instead of fornication, due to the negative connotations of the latter.
The meaning has since shifted, referring to all sexual relations a person has prior to marriage; this removes emphasis on who the relations are with. The definition has a degree of ambiguity. It is not clear whether sex between individuals legally forbidden from marrying, or the sexual relations of one uninterested in marrying could be considered premarital.
Alternative terms for pre-marital sex have been suggested, including non-marital sex (which overlaps with adultery), youthful sex, adolescent sex, and young-adult sex. These terms also suffer from a degree of ambiguity, as the definition of having sex differs from person to person.
In some cultures, for example in many modern-day Western cultures, sexual abstinence before marriage is not valued. In some cultures, sexual abstinence is discouraged.
Historically, at least a significant portion of people have engaged in premarital sex, although the number willing to admit to having done so was not always high. In a study conducted in the United States, 61 percent of men and 12 percent of women born prior to 1910 admitted to having premarital sex; the gender disparity may have been caused by cultural double standards regarding the admission of sexual activity or by men frequenting prostitutes.
Starting in the 1920s, and especially after World War II, premarital sex became more common; this was especially prevalent among women. By the end of the 20th century, between 75 and 80 percent of Americans had vaginal intercourse before the age of 19. This has been attributed to numerous causes, including the increasing median age at marriage and the widespread availability of efficient contraceptives.
According to a 2001 UNICEF survey, in 10 out of 12 developed nations with available data, more than two thirds of young people have had sexual intercourse while still in their teens. In Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States, the proportion is over 80%. In Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, approximately 25% of 15 year olds and 50% of 17 year olds have had sex. In a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation study of US teenagers, 29% of teens reported feeling pressure to have sex, 33% of sexually active teens reported "being in a relationship where they felt things were moving too fast sexually", and 24% had "done something sexual they didn’t really want to do". Several polls have indicated peer pressure as a factor in encouraging both girls and boys to have sex. The increased sexual activity among adolescents is manifested in increased teenage pregnancies and an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. The rates of teenage pregnancy vary and range from 143 per 1000 girls in some sub-Saharan African countries to 2.9 per 1000 in South Korea. The rate for the United States is 52.1 per 1000, the highest in the developed world – and about four times the European Union average. The teenage pregnancy rates between countries must take into account the level of general sex education available and access to contraceptive options.
The cultural acceptability of premarital sex varies between cultures and time periods. Western cultures have traditionally been disapproving of it, on occasions forbidding it. In other cultures, such as the Muria people of Madhya Pradesh, sexuality prior to marriage is accepted and at times expected.
Individual views within a given society can vary greatly, with expectations ranging from total abstinence to frequent casual sex. These views are dependent on the holders' value system, as formed by his or her parents, religion, friends, and the media.
Sex before the public marriage ceremony was normal in the Anglican Church until the Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753, which for the first time required all marriages in England and Wales occur in their parish church. (The law also applied to Catholics, but Jews and Quakers were exempt.) Before its enactment couples lived and slept together after their betrothal or "the spousals", considered a legal marriage. Until the mid-1700s it was normal and acceptable for the bride to be pregnant at the nuptials, the later public ceremony for the marriage. The Marriage Act combined the spousals and nuptials, and by the start of the 19th century social convention 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.
During the colonial period, premarital sex was publicly frowned upon but privately condoned to an extent. Unmarried teenagers were often allowed to spend the night in bed together, though some measures such as bundling were sometimes attempted to prevent sexual intercourse. Even though premarital sex was somewhat condoned, having a child outside of wedlock was not. If a pregnancy resulted from premarital sex, the young couple were expected to marry. Marriage and birth records from the late 1700s reveal that between 30 to 40 percent of New England brides were pregnant before marriage.
The growing popularity of the automobile, and corresponding changes in dating practices, caused premarital sex to become more prevalent. Alfred Kinsey found that American women who became sexually mature during the 1920s were much less likely to be virgins at marriage than those who became mature before World War I. A majority of women during the 1920s under the age of 30 were nonetheless virgins at marriage, however, and half of those who were not only had sex with their fiances. A 1938 survey of American college students found that 52% of men and 24% of women had had sex. 37% of women were virgins but believed sex outside marriage was acceptable. Prior to the middle of the 20th century, sexuality was generally restricted. Sexual interactions between people without plans to marry was considered unacceptable, with betrothal slightly lessening the stigma. However, premarital sex was still frowned upon.
Beginning in the 1950s, as premarital sex became more common, the stigma attached to it diminished. Love began to become enough for a reason to practice sex, instead of marriage or engagement. By 2000, roughly a third of couples in the United States had lived together prior to marriage. Premarital sex has become, if not acceptable, tolerable.
Physically, premarital sex poses the same risks as post-marital sex. It can be a disease vector, transmitting chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, HIV and other such diseases. There is also a risk of an unplanned pregnancy in heterosexual relationships.
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