Sex is No Longer Reserved for Marriage, and Neither is Sexual Empowerment

So what is the relationship between sex and marriage? I decided to conduct an informal poll of my friends, who vary in marital status, religiosity, race, and sexual orientation.

Traditionally, marriage has institutionalized sex for women. Women have been expected to reserve sexual activity for marriage and then engage in sex exclusively with one’s spouse. While this relationship between marriage and sex may remain the underlying cultural ideal, it is no longer a practiced reality for the majority.

I recently read a piece in the Atlantic that says, "Sex before marriage is the new norm. The average American woman now has a decade of sexual activity before her first marriage at the age of 27. The availability of contraception, abortion, and divorce has permanently altered the relationship between sex and marriage….'marriage no longer organizes the transition into regular sexual activity in the way it used to.'"

American women are continuing to get married even though they don't need marriage for sex like they did in the past. So what is the relationship between sex and marriage? I decided to conduct an informal, unscientific poll of my friends, who vary in marital status, religiosity, race, and sexual orientation. I typed up a few questions and asked them to send any thoughts, anecdotes, or half-formed opinions my way. Their responses painted a complex picture of how women navigate sexual empowerment and identity in the face of cultural baggage around sex and marriage.

The Relationship Between Sex and Marriage

For me, the relationship is more important than the sex part. I want to figure out the relationship and then deal with the sex.

I first asked, “how much weight do you give sex when considering whether or not to get married?” For most of my friends, sex was not a direct factor in thinking about marriage. First and foremost, several friends contested the assumption that marriage is always monogamous.

“I think the legal status of a relationship doesn't have much bearing on the sex. If you're in a long-term polyamorous relationship and you get married, you’re likely still polyamorous, and I imagine it’s the same for most monogamous couples.”

Others wished to make the distinction between legal marriage and an exclusive committed relationship.

“I would say that sex hasn't been a deciding factor in whether or not I'm in an exclusive relationship. I want sex if I'm exclusive with someone, but knowing that person is the only person I'll be having sex with hasn't bothered me.”

One friend theorized that enjoying a fulfilling sex life with one’s partner may positively contribute to one’s desire to marry that person. Meanwhile, a friend who grew up in the church had the exact opposite experience:

“I have always been taught that sex was supposed to be saved for marriage, for the person you would spend the rest of your life with. Sex is one of the ways that two people become one. Sex is the most intimate way to connect with your spouse.”

For her, sex was not the reason she married, but its exclusive relationship with marriage was undeniable. Another friend, who grew up in the Catholic Church, did not save sex for marriage, but her religious beliefs still affect her interpretation of marriage as a sacred and desirable relationship:

“For me, the relationship is more important than the sex part. I want to figure out the relationship and then deal with the sex.”

Sexual Empowerment & Identity Within and Outside of a Relationship

I also asked my friends how they think getting married affects one’s sexual empowerment or sexual identity.

I think about sex like it's a practice, similar to yoga.

One woman feels much more empowered when single:

Outside of a relationship I feel very free. I am attracted to people no matter their gender, and I can go with the moment and how I'm feeling or the vibes I'm receiving. Within a relationship I feel my personality slowly begin to dim. I'm not as exciting and vibrant as I once was.”

She’s not the only one who feels empowered as a single woman. Another friend agrees:

“I take pride in the life I've led as a single woman, and I like the freedom to experiment with my identity and sexuality.”

She acknowledges that being single allows her to fully experience cultural changes around sex:

“One night stands, dating apps, protection options, sexting — there's so much happening with feminism, technology, and sex combined that it seems like it could be alienating to not be able to participate due to marriage. But then again, I am also aware that marriage culture is exciting and evolving and I am not able to participate.”

Another woman sees value in having a variety of sexual partners over time, stating that her sexual desire is directly related to her sexual liberation. She also acknowledges the value of sexual experience:

“Orgasms came after I started dating men who had more involved sexual histories.”

The perspective that more sexual experience leads to a sense of greater sexual empowerment is corroborated by one married woman:

“For me, marrying at a young age precluded opportunities for sexual identity exploration, leaving unanswered questions and lingering curiosity as I get older.”

The opposite perspective is offered by a single friend who has not experienced an exclusive romantic relationship:

“It's much harder to grow in your sexual identity without a long-term partner. That being said, I have had to use long-term sexual relationships with non-partners as moments for growth, and I definitely have grown within them in terms of trying different things and becoming more comfortable with my body as a sexual body.”

A few friends who are married or in committed partnerships acknowledge how being in a relationship has allowed them to grow in their sexual empowerment and identity.

One married woman states:

“The sex, as well as other functional aspects of our relationship, like our communication and how we fight, has only gotten better with time and practice. Part of what I've gotten from choosing my partner and knowing he has chosen me (i.e. getting married) is feeling like we have a safe space to express ourselves, whereas in the earlier years of our dating there may have been more restricted communication.”

She goes on to define sexual empowerment:

“I think I equate feeling sexually empowered to feeling comfortable talking with him about sexual needs and asking for what I want, as well as identifying what works for him and what works for me without judgment.”

Open communication leading to a feeling of sexual empowerment was a theme for women both within and outside of long-standing relationships. One friend elaborates:

“I think about sex like it's a practice, similar to yoga.”

When communication around sex is not open within a marriage, there can be consequences for the marriage:

“Most people need to have sex, and not talking about issues related to sex in a marriage may drive people to seek fulfillment outside of their marriage.”

Sex and Marriage Don't Exist in a Vacuum

There is no singular relationship between sex and marriage because we all attribute different meaning, value, and cultural baggage to sex and marriage respectively.

The claim we no longer get married for money isn’t true! People still get married for money. I want to get married so I can afford an apartment. We can’t depend on the state to take care of us, so we still need marriage for security.

One friend expresses caution around the concept of marriage after observing her parents’ unhealthy, but enduring marriage. Others make personal choices in response to the idealized heteronormative marriage model and the long-standing exclusion of same sex couples from the institution of marriage. And certainly many are affected by deeply ingrained religious values around sex and marriage.

One woman, explains:

“I was taught that being a virgin was the best thing I could offer to a future spouse. This was extremely unhelpful and harmful as I entered into my first relationship. I had a difficult time battling with desires that I felt I shouldn't be acting on and then feeling so ashamed for going too far. I still believe that saving sex for marriage is the best for both parties, and I'm grateful that I did. However, I so wish I had known that my worth was not in my virginity.”

Even women who did not grow up in a religious tradition feel the effects of Judeo-Christian values around sex and marriage:

The one thing I regret missing out on that people in both marital and long-term relationships get to experience is having sex with someone they love. This is how we are taught to regard sex when we are young — as something you do with someone you love very much — and it's a concept that falls away (justifiably) for many of us as we get older. I imagine inserting love into sex is something that only serves to make it better in most cases.”

Simultaneously, marriage is put on a cultural pedestal. One single woman explains,

“I imagine that if I got married I would feel socially affirmed. I think it would give my identity a boost in confidence because society rewards people for getting married. It does seem like a rite of passage.”

Others see past cultural value judgments and assess marriage practically based on the perceived security it provides. One friend rebutted the claim that women no longer need to marry for money.

“The claim we no longer get married for money isn’t true! People still get married for money. I want to get married so I can afford an apartment. We can’t depend on the state to take care of us, so we still need marriage for security.”

In trying to understand a woman’s interpretation of sex and marriage, we must first understand that cultural values, personal experiences, and practical considerations are all at play, creating a complex environment in which women take risks, make choices, and experiment with romance, sex, and identity. A sense of sexual empowerment is independent of relationship status, but it likely comes with time, practice, open communication with one’s sexual partner, and confidence to keep at it in spite of all the messiness this process entails.


Liz Susong is the Editor of Catalyst. She's a transient adventurer who can call anywhere home as long as there is a good wifi connection.