I can’t answer that question unless I answer the question of what constitutes marriage. And none of the definitions I have for marriage really hold up to scrutiny:
1. A marriage is a legal contract. But for the vast majority of human history, marriages were not legal contracts, so are we to say that all those people—from the Prophet Muhammad to Mary and Joseph—weren’t really married?
2. A marriage is a life-long monogamous romantic relationship. Well, this is patently untrue. 40% of marriages end in divorce; is it immoral for those people to have had sex during their marriages simply because their marriages later ended? If I’m single, meet a girl in Las Vegas, marry her, have sex with her, and divorce her the next day—is that somehow less ethically problematic than two unmarried people in a committed relationship having sex?
The question is further complicated by the fact that many people in the United States are legally prohibited from ever marrying. So if you argue that one must always wait for marriage, you end up arguing that gay people in New York can have sex after they get married, but that gay people in Alabama will never be able to have sex, at least until and unless gay marriage becomes legal in Alabama.
Which brings me to the biggest issue of all: To answer your question, I must not only define marriage (which turns out to be really hard to define); I must also define sex. What is sex? Is it actions that can result in procreation? Is it any kind of sexual intimacy? If so, is kissing sex? Is hugging sex if it happens to result in arousal?
We’ve created this aura around virginity as if one’s virginity is a real and tangible thing—but of course it isn’t. Sex and virginity are socially constructed concepts. Are you a virgin if you engage in oral sex? Are you a virgin if you’ve kissed a girl? Are you a virgin if it was just the tip? Are you a virgin if your hymen breaks from tampon-insertion?
In my opinion, our obsessive focus on virginity and sexual purity doesn’t serve anyone. Losing one’s virginity is not an event; it’s a process. Similarly, weddings are events, and signing your marriage license is an event, but marriages are not events. They are processes.
So no, I don’t think it’s inherently wrong to have sex before marriage, because I don’t know what sex means, and I don’t know what marriage means. I think people should feel empowered to make their own decisions about their own bodies in thoughtful and open conversations with their romantic partners.
And use condoms. The End.
I miss the days when romance was analog.
Courtship used to involve risk and effort: phone calls on landlines where guys had to run the risk of your father picking up the phone, and having to be grilled by him for a few minutes after having delivered some sort of polite salutation, often akin to “Good evening, sir, may I please speak to your daughter?”
With the advent of pagers, we managed to find a way around that. One’s suitor would page you first and ask if it was convenient to call. In this way, you could wait by the phone and take the call and he could by-pass the gate keepers: your father/ mother/ protective older brother.
But even though it was a direct means of reaching the girl you fancied, paging still involved effort. All that memorization of pager numbers. All that repetitive dictation to operators who weren’t all that fluent in English. Not only did they have to listen to thousands of lovesick teenage boys spill their guts to the object of their desire, but they sometimes got the message garbled, and often in embarrassing ways (a pre-cursor to auto correct?).
There was also “pager speak”, little short-cuts we developed to pack more meaning into a message that allowed only a limited number of characters. 143 meant “I Love You”. Go figure. And let’s not forget JAPAN (Just Always Pray At Night) and ITALY (I Trust And Love You).
Then there was the trusty fax machine. I had an admirer who used to fax me drawings and handwritten love letters. How can I forget the thrill of seeing those illicit messages slowly unfurl as the machine regurgitated thermal paper from the slot. He once made a drawing of me in a Chun Li outfit, complete with two buns on either side of my head. He had drawn my body like man’s, but with huge boobs and an overly taught ass. A teenage-boy fantasy.
In the same era came mixtapes. There is nothing more romantic than a mixtape. It involves not only thought, but time. You had to first and foremost own copies of the songs you wanted to include, then you had to really think about the order of which you wanted them arranged on the mix tape.
Unlike a burned CD which involves dragging files into a window on a computer screen and clicking on “burn”, a mixtape involved actually listening to a song in its entire duration as you recorded it from cassette A to cassette B, or from a CD. Plus, there was a very precise way of pressing the “pause” button very softly after the song had ended. Press that button heavy-handedly and unwanted noise would register on the recording.
A good mix-tape maker also knew just how much silence to include in between each song, like rests in a symphony. An especially zealous suitor would include recorded messages of his voice in between each song.
Then there was the final, crucial step: packaging. Writing the song list in teeny, tiny penmanship on the free stickers that came with blank cassettes, and of course, thinking of an appropriate title for your lovingly made compilation and writing it decoratively on the insert. Let your creativity run wild!
My most memorable one came from my first love. He took me to the prom and had made a mixtape especially for the occasion to play on the car stereo during the drive to the venue. When he brought me home, he kissed me and gave me the mix-tape to keep. I must have played it a thousand times, from side A to side B. With the same mix-tape, we slow-danced to “Always With Me, Always With You” by Joe Satriani in my living room.
When the relationship ended in a bitter break-up, I smashed the cassette into a million pieces with a hammer. But I still remember every song that was on it. Such was the power of a mix-tape.
Courtship nowadays involves all-too-direct text messages, and impersonal, all-too-convenient chat boxes. Youtube links to music videos have replaced the mixtape. It’s just a matter of copy and paste. How easy, how effortless, how un-risky. How blah.
I miss the days of analog romance.