Mormon Essays on Sex and Family
Built-in Resistance in Mormon Culture to Secular Trends
Harold T. Christensen
[p.67]Some two decades ago a report of mine which showed an increase in premarital coitus among the females of my Mormon-based sample created concern among authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a letter to me dated 5 February 1971 Elder Alvin R. Dyer, a counselor in the First Presidency, cited the following sentence from a news release: “Christensen said the percentages of college women who had premarital coitus increased from 10 percent in 1959 to 32 percent in 1968 at a western university `which represents the highly restrictive Mormon culture.'” President Dyer went on to say, “It would be helpful to us to have further information of this alarming condition.” A little later he asked, “How and by whom was the survey made which produced these percentages?”
I answered him, in part, as follows: “[M]uch as I would like to comply with your present request, I am unable to do so because of my responsibility as a researcher to protect the anonymity of the individuals and institutions studied; and indeed my commitment to do so in the case of the Intermountain sample. To do otherwise would violate my sense of integrity, and so I must ask that you respect my [p.68]commitment and responsibility as a scientist. One would not ask the physician to betray the confidences of his patients nor the marriage counselor, to give another example, to reveal the secrets of his clients. The researcher has a similar responsibility to his subject.…
“All questionnaires were administered in classes, by permission of those in charge, and were returned anonymously. I do want you to know that this research has been done either by me or under my direction and that I take full responsibility. If there are ways in which I can be of help within the framework of this position, I am not only willing but anxious to do so.” With that, the matter apparently was dropped for I heard no more.
I mention the above incident because it throws light on the sensitivity regarding sexual research. This sensitivity explains why, in reports dealing with my cross-cultural sex research, I consistently refer to my Mormon-based samples as “Intermountain,” without further identification.1
This report focuses on the LDS portion of responses to a questionnaire concerning premarital sexual attitudes and behavior which was administered in 1978 to students at an “Intermountain” university located in the western United States. For comparative purposes non-Mormon responses from that same university, as well as additional non-Mormon responses from a large Midwestern university, are also examined. Furthermore, with respect to premarital coitus, 1978 data are viewed alongside equivalent data for 1968 and 1958 to give a twenty-year picture of this narrow but important facet of contemporary Mormon history.
It should be pointed out that the analysis reported in this essay represents one phase of an ongoing, long-range, cross-cultural investigation dealing with the phenomenon of premarital sex. It has involved samples from sexually-permissive Denmark, moderately-restrictive Midwestern United States, and highly-restrictive Mormon culture within the Intermountain region of the western United States. To date, some two dozen journal articles reporting on one or another aspects of the study have appeared.2 This present report is the first to involve the 1978 data with a focus on the Mormon condition.
Research data rather consistently have shown lower rates of premarital coitus among Mormons than the surrounding culture.3 But the contemporary American scene has been dominated by a [p.69]so-called “sexual revolution” of perhaps unprecedented proportions. So the questions become: How is the Mormon norm of chastity holding up under modern conditions? Is the church able to successfully resist current trends toward sexual permissiveness? And, if so, to what extent and how is it accomplished?
Even though the central concern is with Mormon responses, it is important to know how these compare with non-Mormon responses in order to assess where we are. For present purposes, I shall ignore the Danish segment of my investigation, for it represents a different culture—one with a long history of sexual permissiveness—and shall compare Mormon responses against non-Mormon data from two American subsamples: my Midwestern samples and the non-Mormon portions of my Intermountain samples.
Most of the data to be reported are structured within the framework of non-coitus—that is, virginity or chastity—rather than sexual activity. This is because premarital chastity is the norm in Mormon culture.
There are a few additional points concerning the present data which need to be made. In Figure 1, I deal with each of the three time periods in order to measure trends; whereas in Tables 1 through 3, I restrict myself to 1978 data alone. Furthermore, in the first instance I report responses from sociology classes only. This refinement was necessary in order to achieve comparability from year to year.4
It may be presumed that sexual permissiveness, or lack of it, will vary within a university from academic department to academic department.5 The 1978 Intermountain sample presented a problem in this regard, for each of the others had been derived from sociologically-oriented classes. In the 1978 Intermountain sample were circumstances beyond my control which cut off sociology class responses at just under 100. Fortunately, I was able to supplement that small group with more than 200 additional returns from classes in the Department of Family and Human Development. Since comparability is not a key issue in the tables (as it is in Fig. 1) I have combined sociology and non-sociology responses for the sake of larger numbers.
We turn now to the results of this investigation. They are to be reported in terms of four data-induced propositions, with some attempt at interpretation even when this takes me a little beyond the [p.70]examined evidence. Statistical evidence seldom tells the whole story. This is especially true in this instance since some of my Intermountain samples are small and my classroom approach to data-gathering even throws the criterion of representativeness into question. The statistical “purist” is left plenty of room to raise questions. Still, my data are comparable from culture to culture and from one time period to the next. Furthermore, the findings seem to demonstrate a certain consistency and logic. Nevertheless, I would like to emphasize that I regard the evidence given here as only suggestive, not conclusive. I present my generalizations at the level of hypotheses—reasonable speculations that invite further empirical testing.
Proposition 1. Mormon premarital sex norms are strikingly conservative. Evidence of sexual conservatism in Mormon culture can be found at two levels: attitude and behavior. Attitudes describe what one believes or feels about something, while behavior indicates what he or she does. Figure 1 presents one important measure of each: percent virgin, which, of course, reflects behavior; and percent preferring to marry a virgin, which is a good indicator of attitude. These are shown separately for the three years studied and for both the Mormon and the two non-Mormon subsamples used as reference groups.
First to be noted is that for each time period and within each sample actual virginity is lower than preference for marrying a virgin. This seems to reflect a general human tendency to be more demanding in choosing a marriage partner than in governing one’s own premarital sexual behavior.6 While keeping this differential in mind, it is worth noting that these two measures form similar patterns; in broad outline they vary together, both across cultures and from one time period to the next. Since attitude is a precursor to behavior, this is expected.
The most striking generalization to be derived from Figure 1—and most important—is that Mormon percentages are considerably and consistently higher than those for the non-Mormon respondents. This is true with respect to both measures and within each of the sample years.
It is of particular significance, I think, that while premarital virginity (chastity) dropped to a minority position in one of the non-Mormon groups as early as 1968 and in the other by 1978, [p.72; figure 1 comprises all of p. 71]chastity in the Mormon group always was and is now a majority phenomenon. In 1978 nearly three-fourths of Mormon respondents still claimed to have abided by the chastity standard. This proportion is more than three times larger than for the Intermountain non-Mormon group and nearly two times larger than for the Midwestern non-Mormon group. Surely differences of such magnitude cannot be viewed as occurring by chance.
Parenthetically, I would like to call the reader’s attention to a tendency for Intermountain non-Mormons to stand out in even sharper contrast to the Mormons than the Midwestern non-Mormons. This can be seen in Figure 1 and in most of the comparisons presented in the tables. Apparently, living in close proximity to Mormons has the effect of turning some non-Mormons on an opposite course, perhaps as a reaction against the perceived ultraconservatism of the church. Perhaps conservative non-Mormons more often yield to conversion efforts than their liberal neighbors, as well.
Table 1 presents three additional measures of attitudes that bear on sexual behavior. First are the percentages of respondents who disagreed with the statement, “It is best not to try to prohibit erotic and obscene literature and pictures by law, but rather to leave people free to follow their judgments and tastes in such matters.” By rejecting that statement they, in effect, favored censorship of pornography. As might be expected, many more Mormons than non-Mormons were found to favor censorship.
The next percentages address the question of intimacy in dating. The questionnaire defined necking as “light kissing and embracing,” petting as “body fondling below the neck, and coitus as “complete sexual intercourse.” Respondents were asked to consider a hypothetical eighteen-month dating period characterized by normal love development and to mark on an appropriate scale the points at which they would approve of necking, then petting, and finally coitus. By subtracting the point on the scale at which necking is first approved from the point at which coitus is first approved, it is possible to come up with a rough measure of what students considered an ideal love relationship offering promise of marriage. According to this measure, Mormon respondents perceive intimacy development as best when spread out over a twelve-month period, which is two-thirds of the hypothetical eighteen-month courtship span they were asked to [p.74; table 1 comprises all of p.73]consider. In contrast, non-Mormon respondents see a more rapid development as being appropriate–some nine or ten months in most instances or a period extending over about one-half of the hypothetical courtship time-span.
On the scale just described, many—especially the Mormon respondents—checked first coitus as occurring only after marriage (Table 1, line 3). Again we see the Mormon response standing in sharp contrast to the non-Mormon response; fully nine-tenths of the former declare themselves on the side of premarital chastity as compared with about one-fifth to one-fourth of the latter.
Thus we have four attitudinal measures (disapproval of premarital coitus, preference for marrying a virgin, favoring a gradual pattern of sexual development, and favoring censorship of pornography) and one behavioral measure (remaining virginal until marriage) all pointing to the same conclusion: Mormons are disproportionately high on the chastity norm. Considered together, these comparisons clearly underline the fact that Mormons are more apt to opt for a temptation-reduced environment and self-control in their personal lives. Typically, they see the most intimate forms of sexual expression as belonging only to marriage and they commit themselves to putting on the brakes, so to speak, in order to “keep the law of chastity” which they regard as a commandment from God. While premarital sex now characterizes a “new majority” in American culture generally, the Mormon subculture continues to stand out as an exception.
Proposition 2. Mormon conservatism tends to be remarkably resistant to change. Up to this point we have stressed Mormon/non-Mormon differentials regarding sexual conservatism but with almost no attention given to the phenomenon of movement over time. Yet every one of the trend lines in Figure 1 moves downward. Whether with reference to attitudinal or behavioral measures, movement over the two decades covered by the study has been consistently away from the chastity norm. This means, of course, that the sexual revolution has taken a toll.
Each of the trend lines for Mormon respondents declines only slightly between 1958 and 1978 whereas the non-Mormon lines—all four of them—drop dramatically. This suggests that, with respect to chastity, Mormons and non-Mormons may be pulling farther apart.
Support for these findings comes from a parallel study of several [p.75]thousand student responses drawn from seven different colleges and universities in the northwestern United States. The researcher was Wilford E. Smith, and the years covered are 1950, 1961, and 1972. Smith’s data, like my own, show much higher percentages of Mormon than non-Mormon respondents reporting no coitus out of wedlock and also show a trend away from chastity for non-Mormons.7
Still another investigation relevant to this phenomenon was carried out by Christensen and Cannon comparing more than 1,000 Brigham Young University Mormon student responses between 1935 and 1973. Every one of the thirty-six topics which were reported (and which pertain to attitudes and behavior in the areas of religion and ethics) showed a shift toward greater conservatism over the more than one-third of a century that was covered by the study. We interpreted this as a swing back toward fundamentalism, which we did not feel was typical of American culture in general. And while we could not be certain how much of this conservative movement was due to increasing religious selectivity and socialization at BYU and how much of it represented change that was churchwide, it was our strong feeling that the latter played a prominent role. The Mormon church as a whole is believed to have been moving toward greater uniformity. Three of the thirty-six questions have particular relevance to our present concern: attitudes toward premarital necking, premarital petting, and premarital coitus. Percentages who considered these levels of sexual intimacy morally wrong were for 1935 and 1973, respectively: necking, 16 and 35; petting, 77 and 90; and coitus, 88 and 98. This upward shift rather clearly indicates that at the attitudinal level Mormon sexual conservatism is more than holding its own–it appears to be increasing.8
In an earlier paper based on parts of my cross-cultural data, I noted for both my Danish and my Intermountain Mormon groups an almost level trend line in premarital coitus for the decade 1968-78. While premarital coitus within my Midwestern samples continued to increase over the second as well as the first decade of the study, in the other two cultures there was practically no movement over the second decade. With respect to the Danish samples, I explained this as very likely due to a ceiling effect: rates were so near their upper limits (around 95 percent) that there was little room for further increase. But percentages showing coitus in my Intermountain Mor-[p.77; table 2 comprises all of p. 76]mon samples remained at the 25 percent level. I explained the almost-no-trend phenomenon observed within my Mormon data as likely due to a braking effect resulting from religious teachings and pressures.9
Proposition 3. Mormon deviants, although proportionally fewer, pay a heavier price. Evidence for this somewhat surprising finding comes from the value-behavior discrepancy exhibited by Mormon respondents (Table 2, line 1) coupled with negative reactions following premarital coitus (line 2). “Value-behavior discrepancy” is a term that I earlier coined to describe the violation of one’s own standards.10 It is measured here by using participation in premarital coitus as the base (coital percentages were obtained by subtracting Fig. 1 values from 100) and calculating percentages of participants who disapproved of such behavior even though they themselves had been involved.
Value-behavior discrepancy and negative effects are different sides of the same coin. When a person violates his or her standards, it stands to reason that he or she will experience more guilt or other undesirable feelings. The important thing to observe is that proportionately more Mormon than non-Mormon respondents found themselves caught up in this syndrome.
This is not to say that the overall effects of promoting chastity are harder on Mormons, for the church’s efforts do produce lower indulgence rates. My present investigation does not carry over into marriage and possible effects that may derive from conformity with sexual norms. But nonconformity does produce negative effects in societies where the behavior in question is strongly condemned–in this case, premarital sex in the Mormon culture.
The situation in some ways is analogous to alcoholism among drinkers. During the mid-1950s in a book called Drinking in College Mormon college students were reported to have the lowest drinking rate among religious groups. But of drinkers, Mormon students showed up with an extremely high rate of alcoholism.11 In an earlier attempt to explain this phenomenon I wrote: “In a sexually restrictive culture, such as the Mormon of the Intermountain region of the United States, morality tends to be rigidly fixed; things are regarded as either black or white, good or bad. In judging an act, little allowance is made for conditions or circumstances; hence a thing that [p.79; table comprises all of p.78]is considered wrong is wrong—period! This results in a narrow range of tolerance and discourages deviation and the development of subcultures.”12
While continuing to work for conformity, perhaps it is time that our religious culture directs increasing attention to the offender–preventing, if it can, some of the more devastating aspects of the trauma and finding improved ways for helping him or her to cope in the face of culturally induced guilt.
Proposition 4. Religious socialization is the major variable. After looking at these various unique aspects of Mormon sex standards—the conservative stance, the successful resistance to secular trends, the greater negative effects when standards are violated—one asks, “Why?” My data suggest a particular kind of religious socialization to be the reason.
But before discussing that, permit me to mention two other studies that have reached essentially this same conclusion–the first with reference to religiosity in general and the second, like our own, focusing on Mormon culture. From his voluminous body of research, Alfred Kinsey found that religiously devout men and women participate less than the non-devout in virtually all socially disapproved forms of sexual behavior. He concluded that religion is the “most important factor in restricting premarital activity in the United States.”13 In the Wilford Smith study previously cited, religious activity in the Mormon samples was found to be associated with increasing chastity levels between 1950 and 1972, whereas the reverse was true with both the inactive Mormon groups and the non-Mormon groups. Smith said, “Mormons of both sexes who reported infrequent church attendance reported increasing heterosexual activity right along with the non-Mormon, especially in 1972.”14
My own study supports these others by, first of all, demonstrating a positive relationship between church attendance (presumed to represent overall religious commitment) and the absence of premarital sex.15 It then goes on to compare Mormons and non Mormons on frequency of church attendance, the presumption being that differences would reflect and help explain differences in chastity maintenance. The attendance differences were of high magnitude: well over four-fifths of Mormons attended church once a week or more as [p.80]compared with only about one-fourth of non-Mormons (Table 3, line 2).
An equally important finding is that “moral or religious teachings” was named by substantially more virginal Mormons than virginal non-Mormons as their reason for stopping short of coitus (Table 3, line 1). Overall, this item stands out as the major explanation that respondents give for refraining.16
When these two different approaches are viewed together—high church attendance and high motivation from moral and religious teachings—it is not difficult to understand why premarital sexual indulgence is as well controlled as it is in Mormon culture. From infancy on Mormons are socialized into viewing unchastity as a sin and chastity as one of the highest virtues. This is continually stressed: in the home, from the pulpit, in programs of the several church organizations, and in articles carried by church publications. Promiscuity carries severe sanctions ranging from disapproval to being denied entrance into the temple to being either disfellowshipped or excommunicated. Of course repentance followed by forgiveness provides a way back into the full graces of the church. But overstepping in the sexual area is not taken lightly and the perspectives the church holds on these matters, together with the pressures that it exerts, provides a powerful means of social control. Thus there exists a kind of built-in resistance to secular influence.
Interestingly, it is the Mormon male, in comparison to other males, who lays disproportionate claim to moral and religious motivation. It happens that this item is not the only one in my study where the Mormon male reveals himself to be uniquely conservative—more so than normally expected. This characteristic shows up in several of the comparisons: most notably with respect to favoring censorship of pornography (Table 1), disapproving premarital coitus (Table 1), and attending church frequently (Table 3). In addition—although not shown in Figure 1—I have run separate male and female percentages for both virginal preference regarding a marriage partner and being virginal oneself and found that here too the Mormon male, in most instances, stands out as being uniquely conservative. With respect to these six items at least, intersex difference is less with Mormon than non-Mormon respondents. It appears that there is something operating in Mormon culture to religiously socialize the Mormon male [p.81]disproportionately to other males and in this manner make him less like other males and more like Mormon females. While the evidence from present data is not final, it certainly is suggestive.
Mormon males are made to feel important and to function in ways that are religiously meaningful to them. Leadership in the church is drawn from lay membership. Females may serve in one or more of the church auxiliary organizations, but they can neither hold the priesthood nor serve in the central governing structure as men do. Girls and women are told to honor the priesthood and to share in its blessings through their husbands, but they cannot be ordained as most men are.
I believe that it is because of this program for keeping the male religiously active and the female supportive of him that so many of the sexual measures which we have employed show male-female differences to be less in the Mormon than the non-Mormon segments of our samples. The Mormon male–probably because of his role as holder of the priesthood–is more effectively socialized into religious conformity, including observance of the chastity norm, than is true with males generally. The norm in Mormon culture is chastity for both sexes. It is a restrictive single standard, approached by means of “taming” the male, not a permissive single standard, achieved by means of liberalizing the female (such as in Scandinavia, for example).
HAROLD T. CHRISTENSEN is professor emeritus of sociology at Purdue University. “The Persistence of Chastity: Built-in Resistance in Mormon Culture to Secular Trends” was first published in Sunstone 7 (Mar.-Apr. 1982): 7-14.
1. George R. Carpenter, my collaborator, met with resistance as he gathered data from the Mormon-oriented university. In order to proceed, we agreed with administrators to protect their anonymity in all our publications. But these early difficulties—and similar problems in follow-up studies—resulted in smaller samples from the Intermountain segment. No such difficulties were experienced with either the Midwestern or the Danish universities. The resistance encountered at the Intermountain university is believed to be prima facie evidence of sexual conservatism in Mormon culture.
A number of graduate students and faculty members worked with me [p.82]during different phases of the investigation. Their collaborations have been acknowledged in the publications that apply. Invaluable assistance in gathering the 1978 data came from Kathryn P. Johnsen, Erik Manniche, Jay Schvaneveldt, and Kaare Svalastoga.
Questionnaires were administered during regular class periods. Introductory explanations stressed the scientific nature of the investigation and the anonymity of responses. Students were urged to answer honestly for the purpose of helping enlarge society’s understanding of an illusive area of behavior. They were told that participation was strictly voluntary and that, if they so chose, they could either leave early or hand in the questionnaire blank. Very few did.
3. Ibid. See also Harold T. Christensen and Christina F. Gregg, “Changing Sex Norms in America and Scandinavia,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 32 (Nov. 1970): 616-57; and Wilford E. Smith, “Mormon Sex Standards on College Campuses, or Deal Us Out of the Sexual Revolution,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 10 (Autumn 1976): 76-81.
4. Since this has resulted in rather small samples, I have based Figure 1 on total or combined male-female responses. The combined numbers, from which the percentages of this figure were calculated, are as follows for 1958, 1968, and 1978 respectively: Intermountain Mormon, 135, 154, and 56; Intermountain non-Mormon, 35, 63, and 43; and Midwestern non-Mormon, 352, 480, and 544.
5. The Family and Human Development (FHD) portion of my 1978 Intermountain sample proved to be considerably more conservative on most items than did the sociology portion. For example, percentages for premarital coitus are as follows for the FHD and sociology respondents, respectively: males, 22.5 and 51.7; females, 18.2 and 44.4. When just the 1978 data are used—as is the case in Tables 1 through 3—it does not appear that combining the FHD and sociology portions biases the results.
6. This, however, seems to be much less true of females. A separate analysis from my data has revealed that many more females are willing to marry a non-virgin. When there is a discrepancy between what one does and what one wants in a marriage partner, it typically is the female who accepts and the male who rejects a partner with greater sexual experience.
7. See the Smith reference cited in n3. Smith limits himself to reporting data pertaining to present premarital sexual activity (coitus, petting, masturbation, and homosexuality) explaining his reason for omitting total or cumulative data as being that the two data sets are very similar.
I have in my possession an earlier and expanded draft of his Dialogue article which is titled “Sexual Behavior Reported by Mormon and non-Mormon College Students over Three Decades by Church Attendance.” In Table III of that paper Smith does give the cumulative percentages for non-coitus. These are as follows for 1950, 1961, and 1972 respectively: Mormon males, [p.83]66.4, 70.7, 76.9; non-Mormon males, 41.0, 58.4, 27.3; Mormon females, 87.1, 85.9, 87.0; non-Mormon females, 79.8, 87.4, 43.1. It is interesting to observe that these percentages are not greatly different from those shown in my Figure 1. But the most meaningful parallels from these two studies lie in the identical directions and similar magnitudes of our Mormon/non-Mormon and our over-time comparisons.
Still additional data from Smith’s valuable research on this subject may be found in his “The Constancy of Mormon Chastity,” in Glenn M. Vernon, ed., Research on Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Association for the Study of Religion, Inc., 1974), 624-41.
9. Harold T. Christensen, “Two Measures of Premarital Sexual Behavior Compared Across Cultures and Over Time,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the California Council on Family Relations, Santa Barbara, California, 27 Sept. 1980.
For a more recent exposition of the leveling and perhaps dysfunctional effects of overriding orthodoxy in Mormon culture, see Marvin Rytting and Harold T. Christensen, “The Effect of Religious Orthodoxy: A Statistical Analogy,” Journal of Psychology and Religion 8 (Winter 1980): 314-22.
15. This relationship held for both the Mormons and non-Mormons. With respect to the former, over nine-tenths of frequent church attenders (once a week or more) were virginal compared to about half of infrequent attenders. For non-Mormons the proprotions were approximately two-thirds and one-third, respectively.
My study tested other factors to determine if they associated with premarital chastity: age and happiness in one’s parent’s marriage, for example. With age, there was found to be a slight relationship: the younger respondents reflected greater chastity. With parental happiness, there was a somewhat stronger relationship: respondents from a happy family environ-[p.84]ment showed greater chastity. No factor, however, reflected an association as strong as church attendance.