The Logical Result of Abstinence Education: Marry Younger!

About a week or so ago, I saw an article in Christianity Today called “The Case for Early Marriage” that argued, among other thing, that abstinence was the only acceptable option for young people, it was creating a dilemma when coupled with the fact that young people are simultaneously waiting longer before they get married.

Written by Mark Regnerus, author of “Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenager,” the article’s solution is for young people to just get married at an earlier age:

[O]ver 90 percent of American adults experience sexual intercourse before marrying. The percentage of evangelicals who do so is not much lower. In a nationally representative study of young adults, just under 80 percent of unmarried, church- going, conservative Protestants who are currently dating someone are having sex of some sort. I’m certainly not suggesting that they cannot abstain. I’m suggesting that in the domain of sex, most of them don’t and won’t.

What to do? Intensify the abstinence message even more? No. It won’t work. The message must change, because our preoccupation with sex has unwittingly turned our attention away from the damage that Americans—including evangelicals—are doing to the institution of marriage by discouraging it and delaying it.

Without getting into the various arguments Regnerus makes in favor of his position, I just wanted to highlight this one section in which he claims that younger marriage is good for everyone, as it prevents young women from turning into a barren spinsters and makes young men “grow-up” faster:

The ratio of devoutly Christian young women to men is far from even. Among evangelical churchgoers, there are about three single women for every two single men. This is the elephant in the corner of almost every congregation—a shortage of young Christian men.

Try counting singles in your congregation next Sunday. Evangelicals make much of avoiding being unequally yoked, but the fact that there are far more spiritually mature young women out there than men makes this bit of advice difficult to follow. No congregational program or men’s retreat in the Rocky Mountains will solve this. If she decides to marry, one in three women has no choice but to marry down in terms of Christian maturity. Many of the hopeful ones wait, watching their late 20s and early 30s arrive with no husband. When the persistent longing turns to deep disappointment, some decide that they didn’t really want to marry after all.

Given this unfavorable ratio, and the plain fact that men are, on average, ready for sex earlier in relationships than women are, many young Christian women are being left with a dilemma: either commence a sexual relationship with a decent, marriage-minded man before she would prefer to—almost certainly before marriage—or risk the real possibility that, in holding out for a godly, chaste, uncommon man, she will wait a lot longer than she would like. Plenty will wait so long as to put their fertility in jeopardy. By that time, the pool of available men is hardly the cream of the crop—and rarely chaste. I know, I know: God has someone in mind for them, and it’s just a matter of time before they meet. God does work miracles. But the fact remains that there just aren’t as many serious Christian young men as there are women, and the men know it.

Men get the idea that they can indeed find the ideal woman if they are patient enough. Life expectancies nearing 80 years prompt many to dabble with relationships in their 20s rather than commit to a life of “the same thing” for such a long time. Men have few compelling reasons to mature quickly. Marriage seems an unnecessary risk to many of them, even Christians. Sex seldom requires such a steep commitment.

As a result, many men postpone growing up. Even their workplace performance is suffering: earnings for 25- to 34-year-old men have fallen by 20 percent since 1971, even after accounting for inflation. No wonder young women marry men who are on average at least two years older than they. Unfortunately, a key developmental institution for men—marriage—is the very thing being postponed, thus perpetuating their adolescence.

Apparently, the logic at work here is that young Christian men want to have sex and chaste Christian women don’t, forcing the men into sexual relationships with not-chaste Christian women, thus postponing the development of their emotional maturity and ultimately narrowing the pool of eligible and acceptable marriage partners for women, leaving them to become childless, husband-less ascetics.

Thus, the obvious solution is just for people to get married at a younger age.

And that idea seems to be gaining traction among the Religious Right, judging by this recent Associated Press article:

Among evangelicals, there’s a tendency to wait because many believe God “is going to deliver me a spouse right to my door,” so they don’t actively seek one, said Glenn Stanton, director of family formation studies for the evangelical ministry Focus on the Family, a young marriage promoter.

Then there’s what Stanton calls the “eHarmony philosophy” — the belief God will deliver someone perfect.

Stanton doesn’t blame the abstinence movement. “I don’t think that it’s so much to much focus on abstinence, but the silence on marriage makes the abstinence message sound so much louder,” he said.

At Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., associate pastor Michael Lawrence emphasizes that marriage is a covenant, not a convenient arrangement, and offers advice to young couples on overcoming arguments over money, sex and family.

“We probably haven’t served our young people well by on the one hand emphasizing abstinence, but on the other hand telling them to wait to get married,” Lawrence said. “It seems to be setting them up to fail.”

Like most proponents of young marriage, Lawrence does not set an arbitrary “right” age for marriage. Waiting until after college might be advisable if the alternative is crushing debt or dropping out, he said.

Supporters of abstinence programs promote them as both marriage-preparation tools and longer-term support systems for those who don’t marry.

Jimmy Hester, co-founder of True Love Waits, part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Christian Resources, disagreed with the argument that abstinence past a certain age is too much to ask.

“There are too many examples of people who have done it,” he said. “And not out of their own strength, even, but out of a relationship with God who gives them strength.”