Since 29-year old track Olympian Lolo Jones discussed her commitment to virginity before marriage on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" a month ago, every media outlet from People.com to the Washington Post has had something to say about her "bombshell" statement. Most have said Jones "deserves praise" for her personal commitment to "the hardest thing" she has done in her life. But she has also been roundly criticized for her statement.
And why? Because Jones said her commitment wasn't just for her own sake — but for God, her future husband, and the bond she hopes to have with him. Her reasoning would have been easier to swallow if she had just said she was doing it for herself.
Perhaps without realizing it, critics of Lolo Jones' reasoning have highlighted the real crux of our cultural struggle around sexuality and marriage. If there is one thing Jones learned growing up with a single mom of five children who had to move eight times in eight years to make ends meet while her father spent much of his time in state prison, it is that decisions about sexuality influence far more than one's personal life.
And is she right? For decades now researchers have known that pre-marital sexual relations and cohabitation are each predictors of divorce. Jay Teachman's seminal work in 2003 found that women who had premarital sex had a significantly higher risk of marital break up than women who were abstinent. If a woman had premarital sex and cohabited only with her future husband, there was no statistically significant increase in divorce rates. But women who cohabited only with their future husband were also much more likely to have had sexual relationship with someone other than their husband (73 percent vs. 41 percent). Every sexually intimate relationship prior to marriage with someone other than the future husband seemed to increase the likelihood of divorce later on.
But this is not the message our culture communicates to those like Lolo Jones who are making decisions now that will dramatically affect their future romantic happiness. Students I taught at a large state university confessed after hearing these statistics that the strongest message they heard about romantic relationships before coming to college was that this was their last chance to live it up and that they needed to do things for themselves now because they would be tied down in the future. What we may not realize is that when we communicate the "do what feels good to you now" message, we handicap their ability to realize dreams for future happiness in family life.
Thankfully, Jones is not alone in her reasoning. Comparisons of sexual behavior across the period from 1995-2002 showed a significant decline in the proportion of teens who had ever had sex. From 2002 to 2006, the decline continued, though it was not a significant change. And what is the most common reason given for not having had sex? Similar to Jones, 41 percent of females (48 percent of non-Hispanic white females) and 31 percent of males identified something higher than themselves — saying it was "against religion or morals." In contrast, teens were least likely to choose important but self-protective reasons like "I don't want to get a sexually transmitted disease" as the reason for not having had sex.
In spite of strong messages to the contrary, teens and college students are taking stands against the "do what you want now" culture of promiscuity. In 2005, a group of students at Princeton University started a student society that led to a host of abstinence advocacy student groups across The Ivy League including Harvard, MIT, Yale and Stanford. The catalyst? Their own university sponsored safe-sex education, which seemed more like institutional encouragement of promiscuity than institutional efforts to protect students' safety or relationship happiness. Princeton's Anscombe Society has drawn on philosophical-ethical arguments as well as psychological and sociological rationale to make a strong non-religious case against pre-marital sex and found that many students at other universities hunger for the same reasoning.
Like Lolo Jones, these students have dreams of creating the kind of bond with a future spouse that their children's hearts can rely upon. And they recognize that creating that solid bond means a commitment to something beyond themselves. Though critics may not realize, it is precisely because these students realize that their sexual behavior today affects future others that they are willing to make such personal effort.
Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.