One of our world’s most persistent myths is that religion is the enemy of good sex. The idea of Christians as repressed Puritan prudes—as historically inaccurate as that is—still exerts enormous power over our imaginations.
The other side of that myth is perpetuated in the glamorous portrayals in movies and TV of sexual liberation juxtaposed alongside frigid marriages. The message is clear: Faith and tradition are shackles that must be shed if we are to enjoy the kind of freedom the sexual revolution promises.
But here’s the truth: It’s a false promise—as false as the idea that religion puts a damper on sex. A sweeping new study by the Institute for Family Studies at Brigham Young University reveals that, in terms of both sexual satisfaction and relationship quality, highly religious couples fare better than the non-religious.
In their report, entitled, “The Ties that Bind: Is Faith a Global Force for Good or Ill in the Family?,” the authors looked at data from eleven countries, including the U.S., the U.K., France, Canada, and Argentina. What they found was striking: Highly religious couples “enjoy higher-quality relationships and more sexual satisfaction,” have more children on average, and are far less likely to have cheated on their spouse.
The correlation of religion with good relationships was especially pronounced among women. Those in highly religious marriages were fifty percent more likely to report being “strongly satisfied” sexually than their secular and less religious counterparts. And in a relationship quality index that took into account attachment, commitment, satisfaction, and stability, highly religious women whose husbands shared their faith were ahead of every other group.
So why are religious couples so doggone smitten? Why is religious devotion, in particular, such a powerful predictor of marital bliss? There are a couple of possible reasons.
First, as Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone write in The Atlantic, American young adults have been hit by two major recessions: one of happiness and the other of sex. Wilcox and Stone think the two are related. After all, as one Dartmouth study found, having sex at least once a week provides the same happiness boost as a $50,000 raise.
To be blunt, married couples get more raises. Contrary to the sitcom portrayals of marriage as the old ball-and-chain, those who say “I do” and stick with it have sex five times more often than their unmarried neighbors.
Second, another quirk the IFS report offers is that couples who regularly attend religious services—which overwhelmingly means Christian churches—enjoyed a boost in satisfaction and relationship quality regardless of whether they identified as progressive or traditional. Wilcox and his co-authors theorize that this may have to do with the strong correlation between religious observance and involved, committed fathers.
In other words, even religious husbands who think traditional gender roles are outdated still tend to stick around for their wives and kids more often than the less religious or secular. In doing so, they offer a kind of provision that goes well beyond bringing home the bacon.
Even more than that, I’d venture that religious commitment—especially Christian commitment—serves as a silent but inescapable reminder of what sex is for. In a time when meaningless encounters are pushed over on an increasingly miserable, lonely populace, religion serves as a signpost to couples that there’s meaning to sex beyond their own pleasure, beyond their own bodies. In essence, when they become “one flesh” they participate in God’s “very good” created order.
Whether I’m right about that or not, David French is certainly right as he observes that “sexual liberation has all too often brought neither sex nor liberation.” The science is clear: If you want a healthy, lasting, and yes—sexually satisfying relationship, go to the altar, and then stay in church.
[Editor’s Note: “This commentary originally reported that married couples have sex, on average, five times as often as singles, citing a 2010 study from Indiana University [hyperlink = https://nationalsexstudy.indiana.edu/ ]. The study actually reports that a quarter of married couples have sex five times as often as the average single. An average of 61 percent of all singles say they haven’t had sex in the past year, compared with only 18 percent of married people. The study itself requires a subscription, but you can read more about it here: [hyperlink = https://www.huffpost.com/entry/marriage-sex_n_1422644 ]. We apologize for the mistake.” ]