Virgins Last Longer! Where Has All the Science Gone?

You might have recently read about a study that concluded that couples who wait until they are married to have sex have longer, stronger marriages than those who fornicate before they get hitched. The study was originally published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology and has been picked up by Live Science, , WebMD , AOL Health, and U.S. News Health Report.

The findings of the study were based on results from an online marital assessment called “RELATE.” Researchers selected a sample of 2,035 married individuals from the database to match the demographics of the married American population. The press release does not indicate which demographic study results they used to match their sample to, nor does it detail whether the demographics of the married population included homosexual couples, common-law marriages or polygamous relationships.

The crux of the study results hinge on the assessment question: “When did you become sexual in this relationship?” Results of the study showed the relationship stability of the abstainers was 22 percent higher than those who had relations before marriage, the abstainers’ relationship satisfaction was rated 20 percent higher, the sexual quality of their relationship was rated 15 percent better, and their communication was rated as 12 percent better than those hussies who shamelessly rolled in the hay before the wedding.

Lead study author Dean Busby, professor at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life is quoted as saying: “There’s more to a relationship than sex, but we did find that those who waited longer were happier with the sexual aspect of their relationship.”

According to Brigham Young University’s press release: ‘because religious belief often plays a role for couples who choose to wait, Busby and his co-authors controlled for the influence of religious involvement in their analysis.’ Busby also says: “Regardless of religiosity, waiting helps the relationship form better communication processes, and these help improve long-term stability and relationship satisfaction.”

The press release then goes on to quote sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin, who was not involved with the study, and just happens to be the author of “Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the lives of American Teenagers” and the forthcoming “Premarital Sex in America,” a study of the sexual lives of emerging heterosexual adults. Regnerus teaches courses like The Making of American Christianity and Introduction to Sociology, Judaism and Christianity in Sociological Perspective. Regnerus had this to say: “Couples who hit the honeymoon too early – that is, prioritize sex promptly at the outset of a relationship – often find their relationships underdeveloped when it comes to the qualities that make relationships stable and spouses reliable and trustworthy.”  What those qualities are, exactly, he does not share with the class.

Nowhere in the articles published on the news sites did it state that Brigham Young University is run by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and nowhere in the articles was the question of bias in a supposed scientific study addressed. Strengthening the traditional family structure is a core tenet of the Mormon doctrine. What is distressing is not the result of the study, but the manner in which the study has been treated in the media as hard fact. Brigham Young University has a vested interest in determining that sex before marriage is damaging to marriage overall, because that corresponds to their belief system. It’s no accident that the studies they cite in their own research were conducted by people who share their own values. Scientific enquiry is meant to be objective to reduce biased interpretations of results. These results must also be verifiable by other researchers in order to accurately reproduce the findings.

For the sake of science and full disclosure, I took the test myself. The RELATE questionnaire costs twenty bucks to get a complete report of the findings, which was a rip-off considering that my report seemed largely void of numbers, did little but reiterate the answers I gave when filling out the questionnaire and ignored altogether the section that asked very personal questions about when I first had sex with my partner. The report for the most part is full of colorful bar graphs that are not defined by any other data but the answers that I gave. The following Summary Graph seems rather vague and non-specific.

The only numbers in the report are to help you interpret your overall score, showing the total percentages of the respondents collective answers.

“For example, approximately 90% of partners who reported 3 challenge areas in their relationship said that they were satisfied with their relationship, while only approximately 63% said they were satisfied when they reported nine challenge areas in their relationship.”

Wowie! Even though I am a fornicating atheist, I am part of the 97% of highly satisfied respondents. Hmmm.

The section of the RELATE assessment that includes the “when did you bone your partner” question is Section E. The respondent is asked to describe their marital status, whether or not they have cohabited with a partner prior to marriage, who in the relationship is moving faster toward marriage, how long it will be until they are married, if there are premarital kids kicking around, how long they have been dating or dated before they were married, how often they want to have sex with their partner, and the million dollar question: HOW SOON DID YOU AND YOUR PARTNER HAVE SEXUAL RELATIONS? RELATE then asks you how many people you’ve had sex with, how often you and your current partner get dirty, and what your relationship is with the person you describe as partner, whether it is casual, occasional or serious.

A section of the assessment is about spiritual orientation and asks the respondents for their opinions of the following statements: ‘Some doctrines or practices of my church (or religious body) are hard for me to accept,’ ‘Spirituality is an important part of my life’, ‘How often do you pray (commune with a higher power)?’ and ‘How often do you attend religious services?’

My test results state: “RELATE Institute Findings: Research has shown that religiosity is strongly related to marital satisfaction and marital commitment. These findings are particularly true when both the husband and wife are highly religious.” This statement is not followed by any citation or data to back up that claim.

According to my test results, part of the Challenge Checklist includes age as a factor in “lifelong, high quality relationships.” “Age at marriage has consistently been found to be highly related to later marital quality (Holman & Linford, 2001). Teenage marriages are considerably less stable than those that take place when couples are in their early to mid-twenties (Glenn & Marquardt, 2000). Holman and his colleagues (2001) have offered the hypothesis that marriages that take place when partners are too young are at risk because the couple may not be mature enough to handle the responsibilities and stresses of marriage. First marriages that occur too far above the
mean age for marriage (25 for women and 27 for men) could be problematic as well. The concern here is whether or not these individuals can be flexible enough in their preferred style of living to adjust to another person’s needs and preferences.”

These citations would not be problematic if they weren’t the results of studies conducted for the most part by Brigham Young University, and it doesn’t help that one of the cited researchers, Elizabeth Marquardt, is vice president and director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values. Marquardt is also co-author of the report “Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Dating and Mating Today,” a report commissioned and funded by the Independent Women’s Forum. The IWF grew out of the group “Women For Judge Thomas” founded in 1992. That’s right, Judge Clarence Thomas, who was famously accused in 1991 of sexual harassment by Professor Anita Hill and is a vocal opponent of abortion. IWF Executive Director Carrie L. Lukas is the author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism,” and the organization relentlessly publishes position papers opposing health care, discrimination against men, and just about anything that comes out of President Obama’s mouth.

How the research team at BYU interpreted the non-specific colorful bar graphs and turned it into numerical percentages seems a vague process at best. It’s interesting that the results of a study conducted by researchers who are transparently prejudiced against premarital sex are being reported in mainstream psychological journals and news agencies as provable evidence instead of partisan opinion. Flawed data presented as fact is nothing new. Drug, cosmetic and food companies fund studies all the time to support results to help them turn a profit. The RELATE study is a soft sell; stay chaste until you’re hitched, have a happier marriage.

About Roxanna:
Roxanna is a freelance writer and artist educator who likes comic books, subjecting others to angry tirades, and coffee.


  1. freewomyn says:

    Great job picking this study apart, Roxanna. You make some important arguments about the bias in the data. I want to know how race intersects with all of this data, as well as class. There is a questionnaire called the Marital Satisfaction Index. It has been validated over and over again, and it has been used by researchers for decades to look at marital satisfaction. Questions about sex are included. But not surprisingly, the survey has consistently shown that money and differences of opinion over parenting styles are the top sources of conflict between spouses. The MSI has been used to look at racial differences, but it hasn’t been validated yet for use with same-sex couples. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that money and kids are the biggest source of conflict for queers, as well as the heteros.

    You said it well – the RELATE study is just junk “science.”

  2. freewomyn says:

    Another point that I think is relevant is that the tenure process at BYU is a huge source of bias in this study. Professors at BYU are not allowed to publish in journals that are not approved by BYU – most academic journals would not get the thumbs up from BYU since they allow people to publish articles that state that sex, gender, and race are socially constructed, just for starters.

    Of course the researchers in this study used questions that support belief in religion – BYU is a religious school. And of course they use their results to argue that sex before marriage is bad for relationships. To openly question Mormon doctrine would mean that the professors would be at risk of losing their jobs. And since the tenure process is so heavily skewed at BYU, these professors would have a difficult time finding another job if they did leave, because their work is not considered to be “peer reviewed.”

    Martha Beck talks about all of this tenure hoopla in her book “Leaving the Saints.” It’s totally worth checking out, regardless of your point of view about organized religion.

  3. The questionnaire does ask you what race/ethnicity you are and what your family income is, as well as a few questions about purchasing items and being thrifty-but the response does not address those questions either.

    That is appalling-I definitely want to read that book; I think the process of peer review in itself can be quite biased without the issue of faith thrown in.

  4. Theron Quist says:

    Without defending this particular study (because I have not been able to read it yet), I would like to point out that some of the comments posted here are not accurate. A simple review of the publications lists of BYU professors working in the social sciences will demonstrate that they do in fact publish in the standard peer-reviewed journals related to social sciences. The administration does not discourage that in any way. It is true that they are not allowed to openly attack church positions while working at BYU, but publishing findings that show no effect (or negative effects) for church-recommended actions would be permissible.

    Also, I might question the assumption that someone’s research is worthless science just because they work for an institution with a particular ideological postion. It seems to me that much social science is conducted by advocates for various causes (or people with obvious agendas), which is why the peer review process is so critical. In fact, I don’t know many social scientists who study a topic with a truly neutral approach, and I think publication pressures almost make that impossible today.

    In terms of disclosure, I will tell you that my bachelor’s and master’s degrees came from BYU, but not my doctorate. I taught at a large state school for several years, and now have been teaching in a private liberal arts college for 12 years and love it. I would not choose to go back to BYU at this point, even if I could – but more because it is like most division I research schools, rather than the opposite. Finally, you might be surprised to find that feminist theory was more highly regarded by the faculty at BYU than it was at the three other institutions I am most familiar with.

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