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Religion and premarital sex

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 15, 2013 11:53 AM

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Water rolls down hill. Sex happens. But a recent study in the American Sociological Review reveals that even in this globalized, secular age, the religion you belong to still has major effects on how likely you are to have taken a turn in bed before marriage.

The paper, “Religion and Sexual Behaviors,” was written by Amy Adamczyk and Brittany Hayes of the City University of New York. They were particularly interested in determining whether Muslims were less likely to have engaged in premarital sex than adherents of other major religions.

To answer that question the sociologists examined survey data of 418,000 people in developing countries. They found that, true to Islam’s conservative reputation, Muslims were the least likely of all major religious groups to have had sex before marriage:

Religion Chart.jpg

Sex is a notoriously difficult subject to study. There are all sorts of reasons people dissemble about what they do, and you can imagine those incentives are even stronger when you’re a woman in a conservative Muslim household being asked whether you had sex before marrying your husband. Aware of these challenges, the researchers ran several statistical tests to assess respondents’ truthfulness. They found that Muslims and Hindus were actually the least likely of all religious groups to fib about premarital sex. This could suggest that Muslims and Hindus have fewer transgressions to lie about; or it could mean that Muslims and Hindus are better dissemblers given the heightened consequences around premarital sex in those cultures.

All major religions prohibit premarital sex, but Muslims appear to take Islam’s proscriptions especially seriously. Why? Adamczyk and Hayes wanted to know whether the low level of premarital sex among Muslims was more a matter of individual choices (micro level effects) or national cultural forces (macro level effects). To test this, they looked at how the probability of a Muslim woman having had premarital sex changes depending on how dominant Islam is in the country where she lives. They found big effects, leading them to conclude that national culture has stronger effects than individual preferences:

If this woman lives in a nation where 1 percent of residents are Muslim, her predicted probability of reporting premarital sex would be .72. In a nation where 23 percent of residents are Muslim… the woman’s predicted probability would be .61. Finally, in a nation where 90 percent of residents are Muslim…the woman’s predicted probability of reporting premarital sex would tumble to .28.

While the researchers offer explanations for Muslim chastity, they have less to say about why Buddhists—perhaps surprisingly—rank highest in premarital sex. They offer that it could be because Buddhism is not monotheistic and has fewer “strict rules about specific behaviors.” But of course Hinduism is not monotheistic, either, and indeed, the field seems open for a follow-up paper on the religious dimensions of allowance.

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