What, if anything, does premarital sex have to do with marital stability? This research brief shows that the relationship between divorce and the number of sexual partners women have prior to marriage is complex. For women marrying since the start of the new millennium: But sexual attitudes and behaviors continue to change in America, and some of the strongest predictors of divorce in years gone by no longer matter as much as they once did.
Could the same thing have happened with sexual behavior? Somewhat surprisingly, the answer appears to be no.
Even more noteworthy has been the decline in the proportion of women who get married having had only one sex partner in most cases, their future husbands. Forty-three percent of women had just one premarital sex partner in the s. By the aughts, this was down to 21 percent.
Neither of these two trends changed much after the first decade of the twenty-first century. Following in the wake of the sexual revolution, the s have been characterized as a decade of carnal exploration.
Even in the s, slightly over half of women had a maximum of one sex partner before walking down the aisle. Things looked very different at the start of the new millennium. By the s, only 5 percent of new brides were virgins. At the other end of the distribution, the number of future wives who had ten or more sex partners increased from 2 percent in the s to 14 percent in the s, and then to 18 percent in the s. Certainly fewer men entered marriage with the expectation of a virgin bride. All of the fanfare associated with hooking up is evidence that some young people have become comfortable with the idea of sex outside of serious relationships.
Be that as it may, this prediction is only partially borne out by the data shown in Figure 1. The following chart depicts the percentage of first marriages ending in divorce within five years of wedlock according to the decade the wedding took place and how many sex partners a woman had prior to marriage. However, there are considerable differences by marriage cohort. For all three cohorts, women who married as virgins had the lowest divorce rates by far. Eleven percent of virgin marriages on the part of the woman, at least in the s dissolved within five years.
This number fell to 8 percent in the s, then fell again to 6 percent in the s. For all three decades, the women with the second lowest five-year divorce rates are those who had only one partner prior to marriage. Even so, premarital sex with one partner substantially increases the odds of divorce.
In the s and s, the highest five-year divorce rates were reserved for women who had two partners. The effect was particularly strong in the s, when these women had divorce rates of 28 percent, substantially higher than those of their peers who had ten or more sex partners prior to marriage 18 percent. Even in the aughts, women who had two partners had, at 30 percent, the second highest divorce rates in the table. The highest five-year divorce rates of all are associated with marrying in the s and having ten or more premarital sex partners: Perhaps it is not unexpected that having many partners increases the odds of divorce.
The greater surprise is that this only holds true in recent years; previously, women with two partners prior to marriage had the highest divorce rates. NSFG, How can these findings be explained?
Obviously, one of the most common reasons for premarital abstinence is religion, and NSFG data support such an interpretation. NSFG, Generally speaking, women who have multiple sex partners are less likely to be regular churchgoers. Women who marry having had just one sex partner are unlikely to have had children with another man. This is another reason why divorce rates are lower for women who marry having had only one sex partner, or none at all.
These sexual experiences convince women that sex outside of wedlock is indeed a possibility. The man involved was likely to have become a partner in the course of a serious relationship—women inclined to hook up will have had more than two premarital partners—thereby emphasizing the seriousness of the alternative.
Having two partners may lead to uncertainty, but having a few more apparently leads to greater clarity about the right man to marry. But not too many oats, if one married after the start of the new millennium. The highest divorce rates shown in Figure 1, 33 percent, belong to women who had ten or more premarital sex partners. This is the result most readers of this brief probably expected: This is an extreme example. Most of the time, spuriousness probably has less measurable causes.
The odds of divorce are lowest with zero or one premarital partners. Two caveats are in order. First, the 33 percent divorce figure for women with ten or partners who married in the s is not statistically significantly higher than the 30 percent five-year divorce rate for women who had two partners.
Second, it is unknown as to why having ten or more partners has become more strongly linked to divorce only recently. Perhaps this acceptance is more complex than has been acknowledged. In any event, a full understanding is beyond the scope of this report. Finally, I sought to explain the relationship between premarital sexuality and marital stability via multivariate analysis.
Generally speaking, major social and demographic differences between survey respondents explain only a small portion of the relationship between numbers of sex partners and marital stability. At best, these differences account for about one quarter of the observed association between sex partners and divorce. At worst, they make essentially no difference. Due to the design of the NSFG, a limited number of socio-demographic variables were amenable to analysis, including race, family structure of origin, urban vs.
Similarly, people who grew up without both parents had more partners and divorced more. Detailed psychometric data would be necessary to further explain the relationship between numbers of sex partners and marital stability.
That said, this research brief paints a fairly complicated picture of the association between sex and marital stability that ultimately raises more questions than it answers. Bradford Wilcox Oxford University Press, The figure depicts life table five-year marriage failure rates. The sample sizes are too small to look at sex partners and divorce for marriages formed in the s and the s. Second and more important is the fact that church attendance is measured at the time of the NSFG interview, so it might be a consequence as well as a cause of marital behavior.
Divorce affects religious participation: Accordingly, findings concerning religion should be viewed as suggestive rather than definitive. Results are hazard ratios indicating increased odds of divorce compared to reference category of 0 partners total abstinence before marriage. For all tables, Ns are: