Was premarital sex uncommon in days past?

Sex seems to be everywhere nowadays, and people hardly bat an eye at the idea of premarital sex. This was not true not so long ago. But were people significantly less likely to engage in sex before marriage 50, or 100, or 500 years ago, or is that just our perceptions? I suspect part of it’s that it just wasn’t talked about. And the fact that people now are less likely to marry “because they to” means there are more single parents. On the other hand, when you marry when you’re 15, it’s hard not to wait. So, in the general public of the Western World, how common was it to not wait 'til marriage in the past?

Yes, and no. And I’ll answer this based on two different approaches:

a) The rambling approach.

People back then had less free time to “hang out with friends”. The risk of premarital sex was greater, with society frowning upon it, a lot. People were, possibly, more religious and were more afraid of eternal damnation. There were a lot less options for contraceptives.

On the other hand there was no sex-ed, so the line “you can’t get pregnant the first time” probably worked a lot better, along with “you can’t get pregnant if we do it standing up” etc. There was no TV, or radio, or record player, so what else was one to do in the evening? And, apart from becoming a monk or nun, you future was in getting married and having kids, so getting a little practice was only sensible.

b) The “based on church records” approach.
I do quite a bit of genealogical research, and I find quite a few kids born out of wedlock, quite a few born “just before wedlock” and quite a few who must have been conceived out of wedlock. So there must have been at least some premarital sex, even if much of it was with in a monogamous relationship bound for marriage.
Also they didn’t marry at 15, or even before 20 in many cases. Of course this varies. The typical 15 year old marrying in history is a princess, or noblewoman being married off to create an alliance. Your typical well off farmer wouldn’t marry until he was in his late 20s, early 30s and had saved up enough to buy a place of his own and could support a family. And your typical poor tenant farmer or laborer would marry at an earlier age since there was no chance he’d ever be able to buy a place of his own anyway.

Well, IANA Historian, but there certainly was a much greater social stigma on premarital sex, so that would seem a very logical reason to keep it hush. Much like the stigma on say, illicit drugs, just because most people aren’t openly declaring it doesn’t mean it’s not going on. :wink:

In the UK, it’s been estimated that a third of all Victorian brides were pregnant. So much for “Victorian morals”. This was particularly true for farmers - it was essential that they have children to pass the farm on to, and would not marry until they knew that their prospective brides could bear children.

There was a lot of prostitution in London in the supposedly staid Victorian era.

My aunt’s grandfather was a country doctor

  • she quoted him as saying: ‘well that is what haystacks are for’

UK Country House parties were … well wife swapping parties

If one reads Chaucer, quite a lot of it is pretty raunchy

In the UK, until comparatively recently, single motherhood was not a very practical proposition, which possibly lead to marriages of convenience.

I don’t have a cite but I bet it has always been around. People like to fuck, and they always have.

People never change.

Moralists and religious leaders have been trying to set fences and bounds around fucking since time immemorial. They’ve never even come close to succeeding and they never will.

People like to screw, and most of all, young people like to screw. Even if they believe they’ll be condemned to hellfire for eternity for extra-marital hanky-panky, they’ll still fuck like bunny-rabbits.

And long may they continue to do so!

An “action for the breach of promise” was a lawsuit in past centuries, under British law, in which a girl sued a man who had promised to marry her if she had sex with him, for not marrying her. It was only brought if she was pregnant, I do believe. IANAL.

I wouldn’t be surprised if:

  1. Men were more likely to obtain professional services.
  2. Girls did some mutual handling.

Moreso than in modern day.

It’s more than impossible to make generalizations about what “we” were like in the past. There wasn’t a “we” then just as there isn’t a “we” now.

Even if you look at societal norms and averages, there would be many groups that didn’t conform. Just as today the behavior of teens in strongly religious groups may be very different from teens in other groups.

Teenagers: An American History, by Grace Palladino is an interesting but flawed book on the subject. Flawed because IMO the earlier sections where she deals more directly with subjects like teen sexuality and other “misbehavior” are better done than later sections that concentrate more heavily on social responses like teens and rock.

I took the book out from the library so I’m going from memory on this, but she does document that the emergence of teens as a separate group socially and economically (even the name teenager was a later coinage) occurred after World War I. And from the moment that happened the language and concerns of adults are essentially identical. Teens are disobeying their parents, they have enough mobility so that parents can’t watch them, they’re smoking, they’re using drugs, they’re having sex, they’re even dancing. (Footloose lives!)

The exact percentages of who’s doing what are impossible to verify, and again vary considerably among income, class, religion, immigrant status, area of country, etc. We do know that the average age of first marriage decreased after WWI and hit its all-time low (for modern America) after WWII. There was the greatest expectation in the 1950s, just as cliché would have it, that girls would marry right out of high school or college.

Premarital sex was a constant in that it always existed, but was always lower than it is today. Lack of reliable contraception is the major factor, but it’s also easier to “save” oneself for marriage when marriage is at 18 rather than 25.

There was a presumption that lower (working) class kids had lower morals than middle class kids but I don’t think this is confirmed by what limited data is available. Same with the presumption that “Negro” youth had lower morals. Although they may have had somewhat higher percentages of unwed mothers, they also didn’t have the ability to go “visit an out-of-town aunt” the way middle class pregnant teens once did.

Data from the 19th century is made harder to obtain. The church was the leading body in everybody’s lives then even more than it is today. Towns and settlements were built around churches, and this was the launch of hellfire and brimstone preachers, not to mention the huge influx of European Catholics and strict priests. Even so, there appears to be evidence that marriage was not the institution that it is today. People paired off and the marriage made it official, but waiting until after marriage for sex was not a huge cultural requirement. Often a marriage occurred to legitimize the child that was already on the way. That was the most important issue, not when the sex occurred.

I’m not even going to try to address the issue for countries other than America for the last 500 years. You’d need a 1000-page book even to begin the discussion.

What’s basic to remember is that while the words marriage, sex, premarital, teens, remain the same, their definitions in what they meant culturally change from group to group and decade to decade and place to place. Generalizations are even less meaningful for this question than they usually are. Some things just can’t get answered on a message board. Sorry.

This is indeed the legal definition of “seduction”. cite

There was plenty in the '50s. And then, in the late '60s, there was no doubt a slight increase with the publicity of the so-called sexual revolution. Whether it was actually translated into a significantly larger increase in pre-marital sex or not is questionable, as the Mapcase indicates. Your question raises the much larger question of perception vs reality, which emerges in all sorts of social acivities and which confounds all manner of our everyday interactions. Another one, for example, that stirs the same pot is crime. Ask someone if they know someone who’s been a victim of a crime. Ask someone if they know anyone who knows anyone else who’s been a victim of a crime. Ask someone if they’ve been a victim of a crime. The degrees of separation are significant - the perception of its presence are much greater than the reality, and the same thing is true with sexual activity. Who’s doing it? Who knows someone who’s doing it? Etc.

Going back to the Puritans*, they considered any child born within six months of the marriage date as being legitimate, a clear sign that they acknowledged premarital sex was going on.

They also invented “bundling” (two unmarried people sharing the same bed). Supposedly a “bundling board” kept them apart, but they knew it didn’t.

*Puritans were much more free in their attitudes toward sex than they are given credit for.

A practice that still goes on today in the more culturally conservative sects of the Amish, at least in our area. I remember learning that in my teens and being quite shocked.

You mean even babies born six months BEFORE the marriage were legitimate?

Okay, clearly that’s what you must mean, because otherwise the statement makes no sense. <slink away in shame>

True, but the age group was recognized earlier under a slightly different name. Teener, with the same meaning as teenager, is attested in American English from 1894. (See Etymology Online. )

Well, in many cases at least, females married significantly younger than males.
The answers to the OP’s question vary widely according to time, place, social class, etc. In some contexts, at least…

…a man who “got a girl in trouble” was expected to “make an honest woman out of her.”

…an unwed mother was a very bad thing to be, and she was looked upon with pity and/or contempt, depending on whether she had been victimized by a predatory man or had brought her condition upon herself through her loose morals.

…there was a double standard: premarital sex was acceptable, or at least forgivable, in men but not in women. (See Tess of the D’urbervilles.) This is at least partly because it was the women who suffered the conseuqences (i.e. pregnancy). (And one reason a man wanted to marry a virgin is that that way he could be sure she wasn’t carrying another man’s child.)

…unmarried men and women were not supposed to be together unchaperoned. Young women typically lived with their families until they were married, and they seldom lived alone. Opportunities for premarital fooling around were rarer and involved sneaking around.

My wife and I have a ‘bundling board’.
It’s called a wall, nowadays. :smiley: