One question that young singles often ask when confronted with the Church’s traditional teaching that one should not engage in sex until marriage is “Why should I wait?” It is a reasonable question to ask when everyone in our sex-soaked culture is bombarded with the assumption in every movie, television show, and pop song ever produced that of course healthy young people will be sexually active before marriage. Indeed, one young Christian lady in Europe, when hearing that some of her fellow Orthodox in Canada regarded pre-marital sex as out of bounds, responded, “Oh, we’re not prudish about that in Europe.” Prudish? In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” A prudish person is one who will not even talk about sex before marriage. A person who will talk about it but not do it is not a prude, but simply a Christian following the Scriptures.
But the question still requires an answer. If, for example, one is in love with another person and planning to marry that person one day or even soon, what is the problem with having sex before the matrimonial knot is officially tied? Why wait? The answer is two-fold.
First of all, many relationships come undone before the matrimonial knot is tied. I remember one fine young Christian lady in the Australia who met a fine young Christian man, and they affirmed that they were both in love, and would marry in due course. Why wait? They didn’t wait, but consummated a marriage that had not yet taken place—a marriage, as it turned out, which never did take place, for not long afterward they both decided that they were not as compatible as they had thought and they went their separate ways. But a gift had been given which could not be taken back, and when the young lady later meets another young man and they marry, she will not have that gift to give, for it has already been given to someone else. In the case of other more secular people, sometimes the gift is given to many someone elses, to the diminishment of the actual wedding night. If the young Australian woman had known the marriage would never take place, she would not have given the gift, for it was given on the understanding that of course marriage would follow.
The point is that the rule “No sex before marriage” can seem, if not prudish, then certainly arbitrary. The Australian couple certainly did not see the point of the rule, which is why they did not keep it. But it turned out that the rule was not in fact arbitrary, but rather based upon the possibility of circumstances they did not foresee. And here’s the kicker: the apparent arbitrariness and inflexibility of the rule turned out to be the only thing that could have saved them from the folly their action. They didn’t have such a rule, so they didn’t keep it. If they had said, “We can’t have sex yet because we have this rule”, they would’ve been happier in the end.
That of course is the point of rules—they are pretty inflexible, even to the point of appearing arbitrary. In this matter guidelines will not work quite so well as rules. I remember a scene in the original Ghostbusters movie with Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver. A ghost-possessed Weaver attempts to seduce Murray, and he demurs, saying that he has a rule never to sleep with possessed people. When Weaver grabs him, straddles him and kisses him passionately, he says, “Actually, it’s more of a guideline than a rule”. Ghosts and comedy aside, this is not just the Ghostbuster’s experience, but that of every hormonal teenager who has indulged in such behaviour. In the heat of the moment, rules can often become mere guidelines, to be disposed of quickly enough. If one has no rules but only guidelines to begin with, they will melt away even faster. In a world drowning in sexual images and propaganda for promiscuity, young people need all the help they can get, regardless of how hormonal they are. They don’t need guidelines or abstract theology. When the storm comes, they need rules. Only rules can save from the onset of a hormonal storm or the vicissitudes of changing relationships.
The second reason for waiting involves the honour due to the matrimonial moment itself. Say for example that the issue was not the gift first given on the wedding night, but a gift given on Christmas morning. If you gave me a Christmas present on December 1, carefully and colourfully wrapped, and I tore it open immediately or perhaps as soon as I returned home, would you not detect in me a certain cultural insensitivity and even greedy ingratitude? The point of the giving was not just that I should have the gift, but that I should have it as part of the celebration of Christmas. Waiting to open the gift means that the exchange of merchandise is not just about me and my pile of possessions, but also about Christmas, and how to honour something greater than myself. If I tried to defend my action in opening the present early by saying, “Well, I would have opened it eventually anyway, so why wait?” one might well conclude that I didn’t understand Christmas and was not honouring it properly. We honour Christmas by leaving the presents wrapped and waiting under the tree until Christmas Day is upon us. Otherwise the gift-giving is not about Christmas, but only about getting stuff.
It is the same, for Christians anyway, about the wedding ceremony. The ceremony is not simply about wearing an expensive dress or having a party. It is about a mutual exchange of lives, the moment when an intention to give one’s life fully and permanently to another person become an actuality. The intention alone is not worthless, but it falls short of the actuality, as broken engagements testify. Waiting until intention becomes actuality is not only a protection against failed intentions and changed plans. It is also a way to honour the reality that the wedding produces.
For the wedding consists of a promise finally given—a promise to stay with the other person for the rest of one’s life. That promise, when kept, becomes the security in which one can safely embrace the vulnerability that comes with sex. Sexual intercourse involves mutual vulnerability, and can sometimes lead to a broken heart, as well as unwanted pregnancy. The promise to build a life together (which is the essence of the wedding ceremony) provides a bulwark against such tragedies. The wedding ceremony is the time when this promise is given and the bulwark is built. Before the ceremony, the two people are still separate, and so can go their separate ways. After the ceremony, they are one, and bound to each other by promises and vows (and legal obligations).
Waiting to give the mutual gift of sex until this reality occurs is the way we honour that reality. Enjoying the gift before that day would be like greedily tearing into a Christmas present before the dawn of Christmas Day. We understand that we should not open Christmas presents early because we understand what Christmas is. Our society has largely forgot what a wedding is. That is why it cannot understand why the gift of sex should not be given before the wedding day. Instead it asks, “Why wait?”