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  • A person’s beliefs about appropriate contexts for sex explained 45% of the lower intercourse rate associated with higher religiosity; another 40% was explained by friend environment. Tweet This
  • Religiosity increases condom use among those not using hormonal contraception. Tweet This
  • Isabel McLoughlin Brooks and Abigail Weitzman's new analysis reveals a far more complex relationship between religiosity, premarital sex, and contraceptive use. Tweet This

A typical caricature of highly-religious young women is that their plans to remain sexually abstinent until marriage leave them vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancies when they falter. Anecdotal evidence lends support to this caricature. For example, one of my undergraduate students at the University of Maryland attended a Christian weekend retreat that revitalized her commitment to reserve sex for marriage—she went off the pill but later became pregnant. Another young single woman I knew who was preparing for ordination had a similarly unplanned pregnancy. There are also stories in Alexander Weinrab and Jenny Trinitapoli's Religion and AIDS in Africa of highly-religious people in profound denial regarding how they may have contracted HIV. 

These distressing stories represent only part of the truth. Isabel McLoughlin Brooks and Abigail Weitzman's new analysis reveals a far more complex relationship between religiosity, premarital sex, and contraceptive use. Who would have guessed that greater religiosity corresponds with more condom use among sexually active women not using hormonal methods?

This is a nuanced finding that I have roughly represented here:

More religious women, while less likely to be sexually active outside of marriage, are less likely to use hormonal contraception when they do have sex—a finding that fits with the conventional wisdom. The new finding Brooks and Weitzman uncovered is that when not using hormonal contraception, highly-religious women are more likely to use condoms than their less religious counterparts.

Thus, religious women’s “shortfall” in hormonal contraceptive use is compensated by both greater shares abstaining and greater shares using condoms when not using hormonal contraception, which is represented in the diagram by the red background that isn’t covered by something. (Note that religious women are not more likely to use condoms overall, but they are more likely to use condoms in the absence of hormonal contraception. Less religious women have higher rates of dual method use).

Brooks and Weitzman are able to tell us this fairly nuanced story about religion, sex, and contraception because they had far more information than any of us have gathered from our social networks. Their data were from the Relationship Dynamics and Social Life study, a survey that followed 18-19-year-old women for 2.5 years. Every 12 weeks, participants provided weekly information on sexual activity, contraceptive use, attitudes, and more.1 That means the researchers were able to observe how women’s ideas, attitudes, and emotions translated into behavior and vice versa. The participants were from one county in Michigan, but they were typical of young women in the United States in being 75% Christian. 

The story that emerged indicated that religiosity increases condom use largely through anticipated guilt. Imagine a young Christian woman not wanting others to know that she was sexually active: would she choose a hormonal method that required medical consultation and possibly visits to pharmacies, or a method that could be procured with less chance of being observed by other community members? If you guess that she would minimize the risk of others knowing about her sexual activity by avoiding both pills and condoms, you are apparently not giving the same weight to risk that the Christians in the study did. With hormonal contraception, condoms, and unwed pregnancy all deemed largely inappropriate for single Christian women, condoms appeared to be the least of the three evils.

So how much does disavowing the possibility of sex because of religiosity matter? Brooks and Weitzman focused on sex and contraception—not pregnancy and STIs—but their work nonetheless informs us about sexual risk taking.

  1. Highly-religious women really do have less premarital sex. Many who disavow the possibility of sex actually remain abstinent. A person’s beliefs about appropriate contexts for sex explained 45% of the lower intercourse rate associated with higher religiosity, and another 40% was explained by friend environment.2 This means that highly religious young women have more social support for abstinence.
  2. The “shortfall” in hormonal contraceptive use associated with higher religiosity was fully compensated for by higher rates of abstinence. Given that both abstinence and hormonal contraception are highly effective at preventing pregnancy, religiosity does not increase pregnancy just because it reduces the use of hormonal methods.
  3. Disavowing the possibility of sex seems to increase the change of pregnancy more than the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms are not as effective at preventing pregnancy as hormonal methods, but they offer some protection against STIs. 

Of course, there are some who disavow the possibility of sex and end up engaging in it without using any method of contraception. Both anecdotal evidence and the research literature supports the fact that religious teens sometimes engage in sexual and contraceptive behaviors that elevate their risk of unintended pregnancy and STI transmission. What Brooks and Weitzman have added is that religiosity increases condom use among those not using hormonal contraception, and thus the caricature of religious young women being woefully unprotected is overstated. It may not be flattering to religious women to demonstrate that they are motivated by anticipated guilt, but at least the notion that their outcomes are driven by denial has been effectively undermined.

As a final note, Brooks and Weitzman also used these longitudinal data to show that religiosity affects sexual behavior and not the other way around. If all we knew was that sexually active women were less religious, it could be that they became less religious in order to have less guilt over their sexual behavior. These data showed that greater religiosity in the first interview predicted less sexual activity throughout the 2.5-year follow-up. 

Laurie DeRose is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, and Director of Research for the World Family Map Project. 

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.

1. Those who share my skepticism that people actually provide reliable data this frequently can be reassured by 1) A randomized experiment that showed that the frequency of re-surveying generally had a negligible effect on women’s behavioral and psychological outcomes, 2) fairly high survey retention rates, and 3) the fact that more religious women were more likely to complete all follow-up waves of the survey (this makes it unlikely that they concealed new sexual activity by dropping out).

2. Own religiosity and friend’s religiosity had previously been shown to be about equally predictive of premarital intercourse among teenagers.