Why extramarital sex is suddenly OK

  • (Author’s note: I’m starting 2013 with a series of blog posts about the huge changes that are rocking Western society – and their impact on men and the church. I am not advocating these changes; I’m simply trying to explain why they’re happening, to help believers respond with greater understanding to those they may disagree with.)

    Couple in separate yesDuring the recent presidential campaign, a Democratic activist was quoted on NPR, saying, “When it comes to sex, the Republican Party wants to set the clock back 100 years.” And she was right. Republicans and their fellow travelers (among them, many evangelicals) are indeed trying to restore the sexual mores that prevailed a century ago.

    What she didn’t say is that, when it comes to sex, the Democratic Party is trying to set the clock back 5,000 years.

    We tend to see the “sexual revolution” as something new. It is not. We are merely reverting to the loose and varied sexual practices that prevailed for millennia in preliterate societies. Sexually speaking, we are returning to the stone age.

    Thousands of years ago sex was much less controlled by society. That’s because the world was under populated. Humans were relatively scarce in most places on the globe. Populations were small. Diseases had no cures. Skirmishes between rival bands killed people all the time. Starvation was common.

    The only way to ensure the survival of a tribe was to have lots of children. And the only way to get lots of children was for adults of childbearing age to have lots of sex. Copulation = population.

    In many preliterate societies marriage as we know it today did not exist. Family structures varied greatly from tribe to tribe. Coupling was fluid. Girls started having sex as soon as they became fertile. Once word got around that a girl had her period, the elder men of the tribe would approach her for sex. Today we would consider an older man having sex with a 13-year-old girl predatory, but in ancient times it was a matter of survival. It was a way for the dominant males to pass their genes onto the next generation. And every woman was expected to bear 10 or more children in her lifetime, so girls started having sex early – with multiple partners. When these children bore children it was no big deal – the tribe took responsibility for their upbringing.

    You also must understand how prehistoric tribes handled food and property. Food was shared. If the hunters returned with game, everyone ate from the kill. There was very little private property since nomadic peoples could own only what they could carry with them. The extreme disparities in wealth that exist today were unknown in prehistoric times.

    But when the agricultural revolution began sweeping the globe, humans began to settle down on plots of land. For the first time there was private property – fields, homes, farm implements, flocks, household goods, etc. Food was no longer shared; it belonged to the farmer who grew it (and the king who taxed it). Thus, paternity became very important – fathers had to know who their sons were so those sons could inherit the farmland. Every family unit had to produce its own food – or it would starve.

    In this context, uncontrolled sex became a social menace. It confused bloodlines and threatened inheritances. It spread disease. And it created fatherless children and unwed mothers, who had no way to feed themselves.

    Since sex created so many problems, agrarian societies began placing it behind a series of locked gates. They said, “Want to have sex? Fine, you have to pass through our gates. And we hold the keys. Play by our rules and you can have all the sex you want. Violate our rules and we will punish you.”

    The most prominent of these gates was legal marriage. The union of a woman to a man for life was codified and elevated as society’s ideal, enforced by every religious institution. Marriage betrothed a woman and her children to one man who agreed to protect and provide for them. It stabilized families and formalized inheritances.

    Next, society built additional gates to keep people from having sex outside marriage.[1] Adultery and fornication became criminal offenses, punishable by death in many societies. (Adultery is still illegal in about a third of U.S. states, although these laws are rarely enforced today.) As polygamy fell out of favor, bigamy became illegal. Religious codes prescribed total sexual abstinence outside of legal marriage.

    Societies came up with stories and fables to help men resist the powerful allure of women. The legend of the sirens (mermaids) reminded sailors that the beauty and song of a female could lure a man to his death.[2] One of the most common characters in literature and film is the femme fatale, an attractive woman who leads an unsuspecting man to destruction.

    During the Victorian Era ever-higher gates were built to help men resist temptation. Women covered their arms and legs in public, even when swimming. Pornography and prostitution were made illegal. Dates were chaperoned. Many Victorian men never saw a woman’s thigh until their wedding nights.

    The gates survived into the 1950s. Only married people could rent a hotel room. Condoms were kept behind the drug store counter. Movies upheld high standards of virtue. TV couples like Rob and Laura Petrie slept in separate twin beds.

    But beginning in the 1960s, the Western world underwent a transformation known as The Sexual Revolution. In a single generation, thousands of years of accumulated sexual mores, rules, and expectations went out the window.

    All the gates were opened at once. Why? Oral birth control and abortion-on-demand all but eliminated the risk of an unwanted pregnancy. Moreover, Western nations guaranteed the survival of illegitimate children through newly minted welfare programs. Condoms became cheap and widely available, promising to slow the spread of disease. And as we left the farm and material prosperity grew in the West, issues of inheritance and paternity became less important. (When paternity really matters, DNA testing is available and highly accurate).

    Society looked at the gates we’d placed in front of sex and asked, “Why are these here? The risk is gone. An unexpected pregnancy is no longer a death sentence. We can plan parenthood now. And if a baby is born out of wedlock, we’re wealthy and compassionate enough to care for that child through our social welfare programs (i.e., sharing the kill).”

    So society began relaxing the rules that had kept sex under wraps. One by one, the gates swung open. Now, just as in prehistoric times, relationships are fluid, girls are having sex early (with multiple partners), bloodlines matter little and the tribe takes responsibility for raising children.

    These changes left Christians to defend agrarian morals in a post-agrarian age. This is why “biblical morality” seems so backward to postmoderns. They ask, “Why restrict a practice that’s natural, healthy and enjoyable? No harm will come of it.” The abortion clinic can clean up any mess it might create. If a child does survive to birth, the government will pay for it – and score political points for showing compassion toward single mothers.

    Once again, Christians find themselves standing on a shrinking island. Many of the obvious negative effects of loose sex are gone – or covered up. We still have a few secular arguments on our side: the emotional toll of promiscuity, the disruption of family and the societal costs of abortion and out-of-wedlock births. Even some secularists are beginning to recognize the damage fifty years of sexual license has wrought. But who cares about the long-term costs of sex when your hormones are screaming at you? We live in a day when wisdom whispers while pleasure shouts.

    I believe the sexual revolution is one of the main reasons men are giving up on marriage. The desire for sex used to drive men to the altar, but why make such a frightening lifelong commitment when the main benefit is so widely available at a lower cost? As the old saying goes, “Why buy the cow when the milk is free?” (And if you can’t find a real sex partner, an online simulation will do.)

    On the other end, the decoupling of sex from marriage means millions of boys are being raised by women, without a male role model of any kind. We’re only now assessing the damage this has caused. Some have suggested father estrangement played a role in the recent spate of young male suicides and gun massacres, all of which have been perpetrated by men.

    I recently read a heartbreaking post on Facebook. It was from a young lady I’ve known for decades. She has two children but no husband. Her significant other recently left her after 12 years. She wrote: “Our world has never had more sex and less love.” At the age of 36 she’s longing for that agrarian model of love that was once so common – a man and a woman, united ‘til death. A couple that stays together through thick and thin, not because of feeling but because of commitment. It’s a kind of love that was common a century ago, but which is passing away in our generation. And what will replace it? That’s the subject of my next post.

    This blog post is partially excerpted from my latest book, What Your Husband Isn’t Telling You. To order an autographed copy, click here.


    [1] Occasionally an individual society chose to open some of the gates. Think of ancient Rome, or Corinth. Sexual taboos were lifted (at least in certain circles). Vice laws were relaxed. But resulting wave of pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and impoverished, fatherless children weakened these societies. Sexually libertine civilizations never endure longthey always rot from within.


    [2] To see a truly terrifying depiction of the sirens, watch the film Pirates of the Caribbean 3: On Stranger Tides.

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    January 8th, 2013 | David Murrow | 24 Comments |

About The Author

David Murrow

David Murrow is the director of Church for Men, an organization that helps congregations reach more men and boys. In his day job, David works as a television producer and writer. He's the author of four books. He lives in Alaska with his wife, three children, three grandchildren and a dachshund named Pepper.

  • ukfred

    I think you have part of the answer here, David, but only part. You have not mentioned that part of the agenda of feminism is the breakdown of the traditional family with Mom, Pop and two point four kids. By pushing for no-fault divorce and courts having an in-built bias towards women, many men see a problem as being their wives can ‘play away’ then divorce them for ‘cash and prizes’ that the husband, usually, has built up over the length of the marriage by dint of his labour. Indeed there has been an article in the Huffington Post which points out that many wives want their husbands to have an affair so that they have an excuse for divorce.

    Nor have you mentioned that the higher the number of sexual partners a woman has had prior to marriage, the more likely it is that she will end up in divorce. Because marriage is taking place later and later, there is more likeliehood that a woman will have a higher partner count in the early twenty first century than she would have been able to rack up a hundred years ago.

    However the churches are not helping. I have never heard a sermon preached on the need to have regular sexual relations in marriage or any other aspect of 1 Corinthians 7. There is a seventy year old man in the congregation where I worship who was divorced from his first wife and married a divorced woman who has said of his first wife, “After she had the children she wanted she just shut me out completely.” It seems that the church only preaches that sex is evil, not that it is God’s gift to a married couple to help them cement their relationship and bring pleasure to each other as well as produce children. Some denominations, for example the Methodist Church in Britain, are producing such items as resources on cohabitation. We have a better way than cohabitation but no-one is willing to shout that our from the rooftops. I know of some who describe sex as the body language that says, “I love you without any reservation whatsoever”, and this can only be said within the context of an exclusive, life-long relationship.

  • http://www.churchformen.com David Murrow

    This excellent article from the NYTimes warns of the consequences of sexual license:


  • bryan

    David, thank you for having that balls to speak up and speak out about the harm that modern liberalism and many in the Democratic party are inflicting upon our nation and our churches. I wish our Pastors would man-up and speak out too.

  • PrescottJayErwin

    I’d be skeptical about a Study called “Courtship and Sexual Freedom in Eighteenth-Century America;” I’d check their primary sources very carefully. Those figures seem quite inflated.

  • CoffeeHoundPress

    Here’s Godbeer’s bio. What are your credentials?

  • PrescottJayErwin

    Credentials aren’t the issue, truth is. There have been many highly credentialed individuals who have skewed facts to further their own agendas, not to mention all of the highly credentialed heretics, atheists, and “nuts” (e.g., the “Unibomber”). All I have suggested is that the picture is SO different and counterintuitive that his study needs to be examined with a skeptical eye — and given his credentials (including his perhaps unhealthy fascination / preoccupation with sex), one would suppose that he would welcome such examination, unless there’s something wrong with his research or his conclusions. For instance, Oxford professor at All Souls College and Exeter College, Faramerz Dabhoiwala (who also taught at University of Sheffield) wrote a book of the year (2012) “The Origins of Sex” in which the statistic of 20% of women pregnant before marriage in the 15-1600s is directly contradicted, and only about 1% of children were born out of wedlock. Although the basic premise of a landmark change in sexual morality can be seen by the 18th century, it was not “rampant” prior to the 1700s, as you suggest. I suppose it’s the laissez faire attitude “oh, well, it’s always been that way” that’s most troublesome.

  • CoffeeHoundPress

    Prescott, you are entitled to your opinion.

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    Let me step in. I think you’re both right. There has always been extramarital sex – the difference is society’s attitude toward it. Until about 50 years ago very few societies publicly tolerated it. It may have been going on, but always under the disapproval of society. What’s so remarkable about our society is how open we are about something that’s been a near universal taboo. The church has always had a very reasonable explanation for its aversion to extramarital sex – it creates the potential for unwanted pregnancies. With birth control and abortion those two rationales have faded away. We’re left with “thus saith the Lord” which is not the most persuasive argument to a secularist.

  • CoffeeHoundPress

    David, I agree. Now the question becomes: “What do we say from the pulpit”? The morality is one thing the three of us all agree on. But what to do with reality? We know that 74% of never-married white conservative Protestants age 20-29 have had already had sex.*

    What message do you give in the pulpit? What did Jesus do with sexual sinners?

    * Source (sorry for the caps, I didn’t want to retype out the title): THE NATIONAL CAMPAIGN TO PREVENT TEEN AND UNPLANNED PREGNANCY | DCR REPORT

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    We keep to the impossible standards of the Bible. When Jesus told us, “when a man looks lustfully at a woman he has already committed adultery in his heart .” he knew the impossibility of keeping this in daily practice. So why would he say it? To keep us constantly dependent on the Holy Spirit to empower our obedience. If the commands of Jesus could be obeyed in our own power, then we would be no different than any other religion or philosophy.
    This is why it is so dangerous to reinterpret Biblical commands or lower the bar. The moment Christianity becomes something we can do in our own strength – that’s the moment it ceases to be true Christianity. God’s power goes out of the picture and it’s merely our flesh doing good works through our own willpower.
    So It doesn’t matter if 100% of young single Christians are having sex – the standards of discipleship must never change. He calls us to do the “super-natural” and we cannot do it without his infilling.

  • PrescottJayErwin

    Well said, brother David.

  • CoffeeHoundPress

    I agree that “adultery in the heart” was what Jesus said to the Pharisees who held themselves up as better than other people. But what did Jesus say to those who were sexual sinners?

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    Go and sin no more.

  • PrescottJayErwin

    What He said to sexual sinners was likely the same as to sinners of every other stripe, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand… Repent and believe the Gospel… unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Mat 4:17; Mar 1:15; Luk 13:3, 5). What Jesus said to repentant sexual sinners was likely, “Go and sin no more” (we know He did to at least one).

  • PrescottJayErwin

    Here’s my favorite line in your article, David: “In prehistoric times, sex was much less controlled by society. That’s because…” Really? In pre-historic times? How do we know THIS if it was PRE-historic? :-)

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    I should have said, “preliterate.” We know a great deal about preliterate societies from the work of anthropologists. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • PrescottJayErwin

    That would work for “modern” preliterate societies, but the sexual practices of bygone cultures is necessarily the stuff of speculation, albeit educated speculation.

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    Not so. Anthropologists studied many preliterate societies before they were affected by modern culture. These cultures had changed little in thousands of years, based on archaeological evidence. Their oral traditions point back to events (volcanic eruptions, eclipses, etc) that we can place in time, so we know they’ve changed little since then.

  • PrescottJayErwin

    But, of course, that they had changed little in thousands of years in some ways based on archaeological evidence and oral tradition does not necessitate that they had not changed in others. There are some things we can know and others that can never be known with precision.

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    That’s true. One thing we’re quite sure about – formal marriage as we know it did not gain traction until society became agrarian. The two went hand in hand, for the reasons I’ve mentioned. Thanks for your comments.

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    I’m sorry for you discomfort with what I had to say in the book. I tried to be as truthful as possible. If you’ve been hurt by a man I’m truly sorry for that. If you come across my book again please don’t vandalize it – you’re just shooting the messenger.

  • Adeline Burtt

    I think your timeline is a bit off. 5,000 years ago Egyptians were practicing marriage, as were other ancient civilizations (such as the Minoans and Romanian Cucutelli) I’m a common sense Christian, meaning I don’t believe the world is 30,000 years old. Otherwise, your article was meh. So-so writing. Questionable sources.

  • Adeline Burtt

    But of course men can’t help themselves! The superior sex is NEVER at fault when it comes to sex. Get raped? You must have been asking for it, being a woman and RIGHT THERE and all. Get cheated on, even mentally? Hey, just a guy! Want some respect as a human being, because God made you equal yet different? HEY, NOW…..

  • Adeline Burtt

    But hey, it’s never the man’s fault! After all, why buy the cow….