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Which religions have the most premarital sex?

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Water flows downhill. Sex happens. But a recent study in the American Sociological Review reveals that even in this globalized, secular age, the religion you belong to still has major effects on how likely you are to have had sex with someone before marriage.

The paper, “Religion and Sexual Behaviors,” was written by Amy Adamczyk and Brittany Hayes, sociologists at the City University of New York. They were particularly interested in determining whether Muslims were less likely to have engaged in premarital sex than adherents of other major religions.

To answer that question they examined survey data of 418,000 people in developing countries. They found that Muslims were the least likely of all major religious groups to have had sex before marriage. (Even so, the rate was over 60 percent—but still significantly lower than for Buddhists or Jews.)

Sex is a notoriously difficult subject to study. There are all sorts of reasons people dissemble about what they do in the privacy of the bedroom, and you can imagine those incentives are even stronger when you’re a woman in a conservative Muslim household being asked whether you had sex before marrying your husband. Aware of these challenges, the researchers ran several statistical tests to assess respondents’ truthfulness. They found that Muslims and Hindus were actually the least likely of all religious groups to fib about premarital sex. This could suggest that Muslims and Hindus have fewer transgressions to lie about; or it could mean that Muslims and Hindus are better dissemblers, given the heightened consequences of premarital sex in those cultures.

All major religions prohibit premarital sex, but Muslims appear to take Islam’s proscriptions especially seriously. Why? Adamczyk and Hayes wanted to know whether the lower level of premarital sex among Muslims was driven more by individual choice or by the force of national culture. To test this, they looked at how the probability of a Muslim woman having had premarital sex changes depending on how dominant Islam is in the country where she lives. They found big effects: Muslim women living in countries with very few Muslims overall are more than three times as likely to have had premarital sex as Muslim women in countries where 90 percent of the population adheres to Islam.


While the researchers offer explanations for Muslim chastity, they have less to say about why Buddhists rank highest in premarital sex. They offer that it could be because Buddhism is not monotheistic and has fewer “strict rules about specific behaviors.” But of course Hinduism is not monotheistic, either, and, indeed, the field seems open for a follow-up paper on whether some religions effectively promote the search for pleasure.


The acorn people

Anna Gillespie of Bath, England, creates sculptures from natural materials, like found wood and beechnut

Anna Gillespie’s “Homage,” cast in bronze from acorn cups and mixed media.Anna Gillespie

casings. The materials give a sensual, organic life to her work, which often depicts figures in poses of despair or resignation. Her most striking sculptures, however, are made from acorn cups. The acorns create an oddly disjointed viewing experience—an aggressively tactile surface mingled with something more soothing, like the stillness of an oak tree growing in the forest.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.