The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Virginity Still the Best Route to Marriage


Nicole M. King


For decades, the media and even various policy groups have told Americans that it’s OK—nay, it’s good and healthy—to explore multiple sexual relationships with multiple partners. Merely watching television may lead one to conclude that most Americans lead sex lives that are wildly promiscuous and adventurous. But a new study out of the Institute for Family Studies suggests that A) sexual mores have changed less than some would have us believe, and B) there is still much to be said for chastity. 

In a study for the Institute for Family Studies, Nicholas Wolfinger seeks to better understand the relationship between premarital sex and later marital quality. “The 1960s,” he opens, “changed premarital sex. Prior to the sexual revolution, unmarried heterosexual sex partners tended to marry each other (sometimes motivated by a shotgun pregnancy); in more recent decades, first sex usually does not lead to marriage.” Nonetheless, Wolfinger continues, while those trends have certainly been dramatic, the numbers of married Americans who report only one lifetime sexual partner have actually held pretty steady for a number of decades: around 40% for women, and inching toward that for several years for men. 

Furthermore, respondents of a previous survey “who tied the knot as virgins had the lowest divorce rates, but beyond that, the relationship between sexual biography and marital stability was less clear. Having multiple partners generally doesn’t increase the odds of divorce any more than having just a few does.” Wolfinger seeks to better understand this relationship.

Analyzing almost 30 years worth of data from the General Social Survey, Wolfinger notes that “[o]verall, 64% of respondents report very happy marriages. . . . Also, most Americans have less exciting sexual histories than the media would have us to believe. The median American woman born in the 1980s has had three sex partners in her lifetime. The median man has had six partners, but only four if he’s a four-year college graduate.”

There are even some notable trends that support the concept of “waiting” until marriage. “Women who’ve only slept with their spouses are, at 65%, most likely to report very happy marriages,” while “the lowest odds of marital happiness, 52% in the baseline model, accord to women who’ve had six-to-10 lifetime sexual partners.” For men, 71% percent of those who report one lifetime sexual partner also report being very happy in their relationships, and this number “drops to 65% for men who report two or more sex partners.” 

Wolfinger notes that the differences in happiness that accrue with more sexual partners are not terribly significant for either men or women. That is, the clear difference in later marital happiness is not in whether a man has had three versus six partners, but whether he has had more than one—and the same for women. 

Wolfinger can’t quite account for who these certain Americans are who seem to hold to more traditional patterns of sexual behavior—and gain greater happiness rewards in marriage. Religiosity, he says, is one obvious influence, but cannot account for the differences. Nor do genetics. But such Americans “are likely different from their fellows in ways that predict both premarital sexual behavior and marital happiness.” 

Wolfinger limns a number of limitations in this study, not least of which is that “data on sexual partners are likely prone to errors of boastfulness, shame, and memory.” Nonetheless, this brief overview suggests that even in this age of sexual abandon, fewer Americans are drinking the Kool-aid than is often believed. Furthermore, those Americans who are bucking the trends and report only one lifetime sexual partner are also the ones who report the highest levels of marital happiness. 

(Nicholas Wolfinger, “Does Sexual History Affect Marital Happiness?” Institute for Family Studies, Web, October 22, 2018.)