Correlates of Premarital Sex Norms

Cultures that require or value chastity among the unmarried appear to be responding to practical problems associated with premarital sexual activity. People in many societies with restrictive premarital sex norms will tell you that they disapprove of premarital sex because they wish to avoid premarital pregnancies. Of 28 cultures permitting premarital sex, 38% condone sex before marriage as long as the girl does not become pregnant (Frayzer, 1985).

Pregnancy presents a special set of problems for some kinds of cultures, and in fact it is in just these societies that premarital sex tends to be prohibited. Societies in which descent is traced through the father are predictably restrictive because, where a child obtains his social identity from his father, out-of-wedlock births produce children who must live in social and legal limbo. Similarly, where individuals are expected to marry and then go to live with or near the kin of the husband, children born to single mothers disrupt living arrangements. Where descent and residence are traced through a mother and her relatives, premarital pregnancies are less disruptive, and in fact, in these cultures, premarital sex norms tend to be permissive (Goethals, 1971).

Cultures also tend to restrict premarital sexual activity when a bride receives some kind of money or property at marriage. This may be because adults worry that some boy may want to make a girl pregnant so that he can marry her and gain control over the property that she will receive at marriage. Adults in these cultures want the authority to make a match for their unmarried female relatives and so they try to minimize the chances that a pregnancy will interfere with their matchmaking. In fact, where there is no property exchange at marriage, societies are overwhelmingly permissive regarding their attitudes toward premarital sex (Schlegel, 1991). Premarital sex norms also tend to be restrictive when class structure is fluid (Broude, 1981). Again, parents may be trying to protect their daughters from boys who want to form a connection with a wealthy woman.

Permissive premarital sex norms, by contrast, are typical of small communities. Perhaps this is because people all know one another so that the father of an out-of-wedlock child can be tracked down and a marriage can be arranged. Finally, premarital sex norms tend to be permissive where women contribute to the subsistence economy, perhaps because in such cultures women are relatively independent and therefore have some control over their own behavior (Eckhardt, 1971).

While premarital pregnancies are often disruptive, in some societies pregnancy in an unmarried girl is considered to be a good thing. This is usually because such a pregnancy indicates that the girl is fertile. Among the Lepcha of Tibet (Gorer, 1938), a pregnancy makes girl more attractive because it is now clear that she can conceive. In the Caribbean, a Callinago couple will marry only after a woman has demonstrated that she is fertile, and often a woman will already have a number of children by different men before she marries (Taylor, 1946).

Premarital sex norms are also predictably found alongside other customs and beliefs about sex. Where attitudes toward premarital sex are restrictive, people tend not to talk about sex. Homosexuality and extramarital sex for females are condemned, and in fact women do not typically have extramarital affairs. Societies with restrictive premarital sex norms are also more likely to practice love magic, and marriages tend to be arranged by third parties (Broude, 1975).

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