Fornication is generally consensual sexual intercourse between two people not married to each other. The significance of sexual acts to which the term is applied varies between religions, societies and cultures. In modern usage, the term is often replaced with a value judgment term like extramarital sex.
Etymology and usage
Prostitutes in ancient Rome waited for their customers out of the rain under vaulted ceilings, and the Latin word for vaults, fornix, became a euphemism for brothels, and the Latin verb fornicare referred to a man visiting a brothel. The first recorded use in English is in the Cursor Mundi, c. 1300; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records a figurative use as well: "The forsaking of God for idols".
Fornicated as an adjective is still used in botany, meaning "arched" or "bending over" (as in a leaf). John Milton plays on the double meaning of the word in The Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty (1642): "[She] gives up her body to a mercenary whordome under those fornicated [ar]ches which she cals Gods house."
The Greek term porneia (πορνεία), meaning "illicit sexual intercourse", was translated as "fornication" in the 1611 King James Version of the bible and has also been translated as whoredom, sexual immorality or simply immorality.
The Pauline epistles contain multiple condemnations of various forms of extramarital sex. The First Epistle to the Corinthians states "Flee from sexual immorality" and lists adulterers and "those who are sexually immoral"/practicing-fornicators in a list of "wrongdoers who... will not inherit the kingdom of God". [1 Corinthians 6:9][1 Cor 6:18] First Corinthians and the Epistle to the Galatians also address fornication.[Galatians 5:19][1 Corinthians 7:2] The Apostolic Decree of the Council of Jerusalem also includes a prohibition of fornication.
Throughout history, most theologians have argued that any and all forms of premarital sex are immoral. An historical example is the medieval English monastic, John Baconthorpe. A more contemporary example is the modern-day theologian Lee Gatiss who argues that premarital sex is immoral based on scripture. He states that, from a Biblical perspective, "physical union should not take place outside of a "one flesh" (i.e. marriage) union... In [1 Corinthians] chapter 7 Paul addresses the situation of two unmarried Christians who are burning with passion (7:8–9) who should either exercise self-control or be permitted to marry (cf. verses 36–38). The underlying assumptions are the same as those in Deuteronomy 22."
However, a minority of theologians have argued in more recent times that premarital sex may not be immoral in some limited circumstances. An example is John Witte, who argues that the Bible itself is silent on the issue of consensual, premarital sex between an engaged couple.
Some of the debate arises from the question of which theological approach is being applied. A deontological view of sex interprets porneia, aselgeia and akatharsia in terms of whether the couple are married or non-married. What makes sex moral or immoral is the context of marriage. By contrast, a teleological view interprets porneia, aselgeia and akatharsia in terms of the quality of the relationship (how well it reflects God's glory and Christian notions of a committed, virtuous relationship.)
The debate also turns on the definition of the two Greek words moicheia (μοιχεία, adultery) and porneia (el:πορνεία, from which the word pornography is derived). The first word is restricted to contexts involving sexual betrayal of a spouse; however, the second word is used as a generic term for illegitimate sexual activity, although many scholars hold that the Septuagint uses "porneia" to refer specifically to male temple prostitution. Elsewhere in First Corinthians, incest, homosexual intercourse (according to some interpretations) and prostitution are all explicitly forbidden by name.
Paul is preaching about activities based on sexual prohibitions laid out in Leviticus in the context of achieving holiness. One theory therefore suggests that it is these behaviours, and only these, that are intended by Paul's prohibition in chapter seven. However, most mainstream Christian sources believe that porneia encompasses all forms of premarital sex. For instance, in defining porneia/fornication, Kittel and Friedrich's 1977 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states that "The NT is characterized by an unconditional repudiation of all extra-marital and unnatural intercourse". Likewise, Friberg's Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament defines porneia as being "generally, every kind of extramarital, unlawful or unnatural sexual intercourse".
Lee Gatiss also argues that porneia encompasses all forms of premarital sex. He states that "the word "fornication" has gone out of fashion and is not in common use to describe non-marital sex. However, it is an excellent translation for porneia, which basically referred to any kind of sex outside of marriage... This has been contested... but the overwhelming weight of scholarship and all the available evidence from the ancient world points firmly in this direction. "Flee sexual immorality (porneia) and pursue self-control" (cf. 1 Thess 4:1–8) was the straightforward message to Christians in a sex-crazed world."
Jesus and the early church
Attitudes towards marriage and sexuality at the time of Jesus stemmed from a blend of Roman and Jewish ideas. For instance, during the lifetime of Jesus, there was a strong social disapproval among Romans of polygamy. This made its way into Judaism and early Christianity, despite the Old Testament portraying examples of this behaviour among patriarchs and kings.
Jewish marriage in the time of Jesus was a two-stage process. First, there was a betrothal in which the man claimed the woman to be his only bride. Secondly, there was the marriage contract that specified what the bride and groom's families would give the couple and what the bride would obtain if she divorced. "At the time of Jesus, and in rural areas like Galilee, a young couple might well cohabit before the contract was signed 'in order to get acquainted'. The betrothal was held to be enough of a marriage that a divorce would be needed if the couple split up between betrothal and contract."
New Testament scholar N. T. Wright asserts that Paul absolutely forbade fornication, irrespective of a new Christian's former cultural practices. Wright notes "If a Corinthian were to say, ‘Because I’m a Corinthian, I have always had a string of girl-friends I sleep with, that’s part of our culture,’ Paul would respond, ‘Not now you’re a Christian you don’t.’... When someone disagreed with Paul’s clear rules on immorality or angry disputes, the matters he deals with in Colossians 3.5-10, he is... firm, as we see dramatically in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. There is no place in the Christian fellowship for such practices and for such a person."
The early Church's statements on marital affairs mainly concerned acceptable reasons for divorce and remarriage. Whilst Paul, in his epistles to early believers, emphasised that both celibacy and marriage were good forms of life, after his life the Church felt that celibacy was more virtuous and liberating. This focus came about because the early church was very ascetic, possibly due to the influence of Greek philosophical thought. The focus on celibacy meant that other issues relating to sexual morality for the non-celibate remained under-developed.
Augustine of Hippo's views strongly influenced how later Christians thought about sex. Before becoming a Christian, he had taken a concubine in defiance of his (Chrsitian) mother's anxious warning to him "not to commit fornication". "Though sinful in acting out his erotic desires, Augustine gives himself some credit, writing that "the single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and be loved."" Reflecting much later, he believed that the problem was that his love had "no restraint imposed [on it] by the exchange of mind with mind." Hence, pure love was perverted by its misdirection toward lust whereas a Godly relationship should focus on a loving, rational partnership instead.
In his later writings, Augustine was "deeply suspicious of sexual passion" and this has influenced the outlook of all the major Christian denominations down to the present day. Augustine considered fornication to have two definitions: the first was "cleaving to a prostitute" and the second, broader and more precise one was "what men who do not have wives do with women who do not have husbands". Augustine believed fornicators were sinful because they corrupted their own selves, their image of God and the temple of God.
According to Susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks in their book, Luther on Women, Martin Luther felt that "The sex act was of course sinful outside of marriage..." In his sermon on the Epistle to the Ephesians Chapter 5, Luther stated:
On another occasion, Luther wrote, "I... pass over the good or evil which experience offers, and confine myself to such good as Scripture and truth ascribe to marriage. It is no slight boon that in wedlock fornication and unchastity are checked and eliminated. This in itself is so great a good that it alone should be enough to induce men to marry forthwith, and for many reasons... The first reason is that fornication destroys not only the soul but also body, property, honor, and family as well. For we see how a licentious and wicked life not only brings great disgrace but is also a spendthrift life, more costly than wedlock, and that illicit partners necessarily occasion greater suffering for one another than do married folk. Beyond that it consumes the body, corrupts flesh and blood, nature, and physical constitution. Through such a variety of evil consequences God takes a rigid position, as though he would actually drive people away from fornication and into marriage. However, few are thereby convinced or converted."
Exploring this matter in more depth when writing on 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, Luther advises, "All young people should avoid casual sex and preserve their purity. They should resolve to strengthen themselves against lust and sexual passions by reading and meditating on a psalm or some other portion of God's Word... If your sexual appetites continually tempt you, be patient. Resist them as long as necessary, even if it takes more than a year. But above all, keep praying! If you feel that you can't stand it any longer, pray that God will give you a devout spouse with whom you can live in harmony and true love... I have known many people who, because of their crude and shameful fantasies, indulged their passion with unrestrained lust. Because of their insatiable desires, they abandoned self control, and lapsed into terrible immorality. In the end, they had to endure dreadful punishment. Blinded to the realities of married life, some of them took unsuitable mates and ended up in incompatible relationships. They got what they deserved. You must pray diligently and strive to resist the desires of your corrupt nature. Ask God to give you a Rebekah or Isaac instead of a Delilah or Samson-or someone even worse. Finding a devoted, loyal wife or husband isn’t a matter of good luck. It’s not the result of good judgment, as unbelievers think. Rather, a devout spouse is a gift from God."
Luther however, in contrast to his Roman Catholic opponents, believed that it was not the Church's business to define marriage law. He understood marriage to be a legal agreement rather than a sacrament. He stated that marriage was instituted by God but its regulation was the business of the State, not the Church. Luther defined marriage as "the God-appointed and legitimate union of man and woman in the hope of having children or at least for the purpose of avoiding fornication and sin and living to the glory of God. The ultimate purpose is to obey God, to find aid and counsel against sin; to call upon God; to seek, love, and educate children for the glory of God; to live with one's wife in the fear of God and to bear the cross..."
Martin Bucer argued that sexual intimacy belonged in marriage and that, in marriage, the man becomes "the head and saviour of the wife and forms one flesh with her in order to avoid fornication and that the wife is the body and help of her husband, again to avoid fornication". Marriage for him, though, not only meant the avoidance of sin and procreation of children but social and emotional bonding resulting in a fellowship. As Selderhuis notes, for Bucer, "When people conduct themselves lasciviously, either as married or unmarried folk, they fall under divine judgement... Marriage... [is] the context in which sexual intimacy should have its place... Marriage is, after all, the only framework within which sexual desires can be legitimately satisfied."
Immanuel Kant, who was raised as a Pietist, considered sex before marriage to be immoral. He argued that sexual desire objectifies the person you crave and, since no logically consistent ethical rule allows you to use a person as an object, it is immoral to have sex (outside of marriage). Marriage makes the difference because, in marriage, the two people give all of themselves to create a union and, thus, now have rights over each other as each now belongs to the other. As Kant himself puts it, "The sole condition on which we are free to make use of our sexual desires depends upon the right to dispose over the person as a whole – over the welfare and happiness and generally over all the circumstances of that person… each of them... [are obliged] to surrender the whole of their person to the other with a complete right to disposal over it."
Today, the Lutheran Church of Australia asserts that premarital sex is sinful. It believes that sexual activity belongs within the marriage relationship only and that the practice of pre-marital sex is in "violation of the will of God".
In the United States, pastors of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod undertook a survey on premarital sex among their congregations in 2010. "These Lutheran pastors reported that over 57 percent of the couples they now marry are living together prior to the wedding, and that the rate of cohabitation in their congregations is increasing." Despite this trend, the Synod believes that "Regardless of the reasons given for living together, cohabitation is simply wrong for Christians."
The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) takes the view that "Any use of the gift of sex aside from the marriage bond is adultery, whether this is premarital or extramarital... To engage in premarital or extramarital sex, before or outside of marriage, is to sin in God’s sight. That is precisely the point of Hebrews 13:4, a verse often referred to in this kind of discussion. “Marriage” and the marriage bed... go together and are to be kept pure. Using the “bed” aside from “marriage” is sin that God will judge... The counsel given in 1 Corinthians 7:9 makes the same point. If a person has sexual urges and the sex drive (a good gift from God in itself) expresses itself within a person, that person has a God-pleasing remedy identified: to be married and thus obtain the right to be sexually active. Before or outside of marriage, sinful lust is sinful lust."
Elsewhere on its official site, WELS states that "Even though our unbelieving society embraces living together outside of marriage as an acceptable lifestyle, it is still a sinful arrangement. A pastor or congregation will deal patiently with cohabitating people who are seeking spiritual guidance... [and a]... Christian life of sanctification. This is done by firmly yet gently confronting them with their sin... and then guiding them to change their behavior to show their love for Christ."
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) delivered a detailed document, entitled A Social Statement on Human Sexuality, in 2009. With regard to sex before marriage, the document, declares that "Because this church urges couples to seek the highest social and legal support for their relationships, it does not favor cohabitation arrangements outside of marriage. It has a special concern when such arrangements are entered into as an end in themselves. It does, however, acknowledge the social forces at work that encourage such practices. This church also recognizes the pastoral and familial issues that accompany these contemporary social patterns. In cases where a decision is made for cohabitation, regardless of the reasons, this church expects its pastors and members to be clear with the couple regarding the reasons for the position of this church and to support the couple in recognizing their obligation to be open and candid with each other about their plans, expectations, and levels of mutual commitment. Some cohabitation arrangements can be constructed in ways that are neither casual nor intrinsically unstable... This church believes, however, that the deepest human longings for a sense of personal worth, long-term companionship, and profound security, especially given the human propensity to sin, are best served through binding commitment, legal protections, and the public accountability of marriage, especially where the couple is surrounded by the prayers of the congregational community and the promises of God."
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland's stance on the issue is ambiguous. It strictly condemns extramarital sex but in relation to pre-marital sex it states only that "Sexuality disconnected from love and from responsibility enslaves people, bringing harm to themselves and others."
According to the Kinsey Institute, "Today, the Swedish Lutheran Church is very liberal in action, but careful not to take formal stands in most sexual issues, such as premarital sex, cohabitation, and sex education."
The Lutheran Church in Germany (EKD) has noted that all forms of long-term cohabitation are vulnerable and that legislators must give due recognition to the fundamental significance of marriage. The Church has further stated that "Marriage and family alone can be considered as role models for living together."
The Australian non-denominational Christian teen sex education website, "Boys Under Attack", cites Lutheran sources to assert that people should maintain virginity until marriage. The site asserts that all sexual activity - including oral sex and mutual masturbation - between unmarried persons is a sin.
Calvinism has traditionally always asserted that engaging in premarital sex is a sin. Calvin himself said little on why he thought engaged couples should not have sex and Witte believes his rationale for the prohibition was vague but he did seek to reduce the length of engagements among couples in Geneva to less than six weeks, to reduce the temptation of premarital sex. He agreed, though, with Luther that marriage was a legal matter for the state, not a sacramental matter for the church.
John Witte, Jr. has written a study on John Calvin and marriage and family life. In it, he notes that, "For Calvin, the Commandment against adultery was equally binding on the unmarried, and equally applicable to both illicit sexual activities per se, and various acts leading to the same. Calvin condemned fornication sternly—sexual intercourse or other illicit acts of sexual touching, seduction, or enticement by non-married parties, including those who were engaged to each other or to others. He decried at length the widespread practice of casual sex, prostitution, concubinage, pre-marital sex, nonmarital cohabitation and other forms of bed hopping that he encountered in modern day Geneva as well as in ancient Bible stories. All these actions openly defied God's commandment against adultery and should be punished by spiritual and criminal sanctions. Calvin preached against fornication constantly... He often led the Consistory in rooting out fornicators and subjecting them to admonition and the ban, and to fines and short imprisonment." Theodore Beza likewise strictly condemned it.
Raymond A. Mentzer notes that, "Wherever Calvinism took root - Geneva and France, the Low Countries and Rhine Valley, Scotland, England and New England - an element of moral rigor... accompanied it. Churches fashioned in the Calvinist tradition have typically set extremely high standard of behavior and, more particularly, sought to compel a strict morality within the community..." Sin, including sexual sin, was not simply considered a private failing; it affected the whole congregation. E. William Monter asserts that, "The supposedly repressive dimension of Calvinist morality affected women's lives in ways which were often beneficial... Each year the [Genevan] Consistory judged a half-dozen cases of fornication by engaged couples and as many accusations of illicit sex between masters and servants." In the 1560s, a consistory met for the first time in Nîmes. The town soon had a Protestant majority but it still faced an enormous task in cleaning up morals as one of the first Protestant-controlled societies in France. According to Mentzer, one third of excommunications in Nîmes between the 1560s and the 1580s were due to improper sexual behaviour. At this time, proper conduct was considered as much a public matter as a private matter. The struggle against worldly dissoluteness, and the enforcement of respect for the family and the pacification of society were setting Nîmes "on the path towards social reform and, by extension, modernity itself."
As a result of this new moral rigour, there were remarkably low rates of premarital conceptions and illegitimate births among Huguenots by the seventeenth century in France compared to the rates among their Roman Catholic opponents, from whom the Reformed sought to distinguish themselves by their moral holiness. The low illegitimate birth rate indicates that the Calvinists had internalised the values that condemned premarital sex as immoral.
An interesting case is that of Pierre Palma Cayet, who scandalously wrote a book in which he provided a scriptural defence of brothels, prostitution and fornication, which led to him being deposed as a Huguenot pastor. Shortly afterwards, in 1595, he re-converted to Roman Catholicism. He was readily accepted back into that church as a priest.
According to scholar Nicholas Must, "Marriage was, in the equations of Huguenot ministers... a means to avoid promiscuity and lechery. As a result of this, many sermons that dealt with marriage were also an opportunity to announce the dangers of illicit sex while, at the same time, offering a relatively positive appraisal of conjugal sex. For instance, Jean Mestrezat declares simply that marriage is the recommended solution for illicit sexuality, since God hates all impurities, especially paillardise [sexual immorality]... In another sermon, [Pastor Jean] Daillé provides a close hermeneutical reading of paillardise in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 10:8 when he states that it includes “all the species of this sin, that is to say all the faults of this nature, which are committed by any person, whether married or not, simple fornication as well as adultery”." To the Huguenot, “simple fornication” is a "grave sin".
Throughout the centuries, French Huguenots have remained strictly opposed to fornication in all circumstances. An example is the famous French Protestant pastor, André Trocmé, (active in the 1940s), who is on record as having been against all premarital and extramarital sex.
Today, French Calvinists maintain very high ethical standards and feel themselves to be different from their French Roman Catholic neighbours, in terms of their attitudes and higher standards of behaviour, including sexual behaviour. Indeed, French Reformed Christians "are widely regarded as having particularly high standards of honesty and integrity". Even one of France's most liberal Reformed Calvinist churches, L'Oratoire du Louvre in Paris, today still condemns premarital sex, including casual sex and sex with prostitutes in all circumstances.
The famous Swiss Huguenot theologian, Karl Barth, discussed sexual morality in his magnum opus, Church Dogmatics. He stated that "Coitus without coexistence is demonic" ("demonic", in Christianity, simply meaning any sphere that does not submit to God.) Barth goes on to state that "the physical sexuality of man should form an integral part of his total humanity as male or female, and that the completion of the sexual relation should be integrated into the total encounter of man and woman. All right or wrong and therefore salvation or perdition in this matter depends on whether it is viewed in isolation and abstraction or within this whole... If it is not, if physical sexuality and sex relations have their own right and authority in which man and woman and their encounter may be controlled and fulfilled, then it is a demonic business. Naturally, the command of God will always resist any such idea of sovereign physical sexuality." For Barth, to engage in sex outside of marriage is not only rebellious but dehumanising as it puts humans on the level of animals, driven by passion and a search for self-gratification.
Furthermore, for Barth, "A wedding is only the regulative confirmation and legitimation of a marriage before and by society. It does not constitute a marriage." Sex within marriage can be sinful as well unless it affirms the coexistence of the couple. This opens the door to a more holistic understanding of sex.
However, a few modern Swiss Reformed theologians, such as Michel Cornuz, take the teleological view that premarital sex is permissible if the sexual activities take a form which respects the partner and helps the relationship grow in intimacy. These theologians hold that it is when a relationship is exploitive that it is sinful. (Hence, engaging in sex with prostitutes is always sinful as it is an exploitive relationship and does not allow the participants to grow in dignity.) This change has come about within the last two generations in Switzerland. Prior to that, the cultural norm was that the couple would not engage in sex before marriage. Hence, the modern Reformed theologians have endeavoured to meet the challenge of applying Christian teaching to this massive cultural change in Switzerland.
Essentially, Cornuz and his colleagues feel that one should always be true to one's individual conscience, so if the person feels sex before marriage is sinful, that person should listen to his or her conscience and abstain. The key thing is that it is up to the couple themselves to decide if engaging in premarital sex or remaining virgins is the best way for them to reflect the love of God in their relationship.
According to Mentzer, during the first fifty years of the Scottish Reformation, "more than two thirds of the cases brought before the Consistory involved illicit sex... everything else paled before the apparent obsession of Scots Calvinists with sex". This contrasted strikingly with the data from Germany, the Netherlands and France. For the parish of Saint Andrews, fornication accounted for 47.4% of all cases heard between 1573 and 1600. 986 were charged with fornication (sexual intercourse between two single persons) and 813 with "fornication antenuptial" (sexual intercourse between two people who were engaged to each other but not yet married). Between 1595 and 1597, the fornication levels in Saint Andrews plummeted. "The only... explanation for the relative absence of sexual offences, improbably though it may seem, is that a... genuine "reformation of manners" took place in the burgh." Mentzer and Graham argue that this focus on sex may actually be due to the Kirk's early weakness. "Since there is strong sentiment in Western societies today that governments should stay out of the private lives of citizens, the church courts today seem nosy or even voyeuristic to our modern eyes. But this was no all-powerful Big Brother peering into bedroom windows. Rather the Kirk's obsession with sex was more a sign of its weakness than its strength... The need to discourage illicit sexuality was accepted by nearly all powers... even when they could agree on little else." Only when ministers and presbyters gradually gained a stronger position were they able to gradually turn their focus to other disciplinary breaches surrounding the Sabbath, superstitious practices, neighborly disputes and so forth.
Scottish Calvinists today remain deeply opposed to any kind of sex outside of marriage. In 2008, the Scottish health minister, Shona Robison noted, "There are deeply-held views on moral issues and cultural and lifestyle issues... The Highlands in general... have a strong Calvinistic streak, a prudish thing that sees sex as something that happens behind closed doors and drawn curtains. As a consequence of this and because of lack of a scene for gay people, both straight and gay people are being driven out into these isolated areas to have [casual] sex."
The American Presbyterian Church, "like other Christian bodies, has viewed marriage as a prerequisite to sexual intercourse and considered sex outside marriage a sin".
The prominent conservative American Calvinist theologian, R. C. Sproul, opposes premarital sex on the grounds that the marriage covenant is an essential legal safeguard, protecting both members of the couple from each other's sinfulness.
The American Methodist theologian and pastor, Ben Witherington III, believes that "virginity in a woman was highly valued before marriage [in Biblical cultures]... In early Jewish law if you had sex with a woman you were considered married to her or you had shamed her. See the story of Mary and Joseph. Porneia can refer to all sorts of sexual sin including deflowering a virgin... there was no dating or physical intimacy prior to an arranged marriage in the vast majority of cases. The notion of dating doesn't exist in Jesus and Paul's world. Second, honor and shame cultures placed a high value on sexual purity. Notice how prostitutes were stigmatized. Women were mainly blamed for sexual immorality. Finally Jesus gave his disciples two choices in Mt. 19—fidelity in heterosexual marriage or being a eunuch! This means no sex outside marriage."
The position of the United Methodist Church in the United States on the issue is as follows: "Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are only clearly affirmed in the marriage bond."
The Uniting Church in Australia is still formulating its views on the subject. It recognises the changes in marriage practice and lifestyle that have resonated throughout society and that the UCA is perceived by the public of being more accepting of the realities of humanity than many other denominations. A report noted that scripture is not really about marriage as understood in contemporary western societies and, in fact, has very little to say about it. In the report, the church also acknowledged that many unmarried people had sex but neither condemned nor endorsed it, instead noting that there were many different views within the church.
Stanley Hauerwas argues that questions about sex before marriage need to be reframed in terms of the narrative of the church. He asks individuals to consider if it is a pure or licentious lifestyle that will best prepare the Christian to live out and serve in the narrative of the church. Doctor Hauerwas goes on to conclude, "For the issue is not whether X or Y form of sexual activity is right or wrong, as if such activity could be separated from a whole way of life... The issue is not whether someone is chaste in the sense of not engaging in genital activity, but whether we have lived in a manner that allows us to bring a history with us that contributes to the common history we may be called upon to develop with one another. Chastity, we forget, is not a state but a form of the virtue of faithfulness that is necessary for a role in the community... what the young properly demand is an account of life and the initiation into a community that makes intelligible why their interest in sex should be subordinated to other interests. What they, and we, demand is the lure of an adventure that captures the imagination sufficiently that conquest means more than the sexual possession of another. I have tried to suggest that marriage and singleness for Christians should represent just such an adventure, and if it does not, no amount of ethics or rules will be sufficient to correct the situation."
Mennonites believe that sex outside of marriage is sinful. The Mennonite Confession of Faith states "According to Scripture, right sexual union takes place only within the marriage relationship. Scripture places sexual intimacy within God's good created order. Sexual union is reserved for the marriage bond."
As part of their "simplicity" testimony, early Quakers held to traditional sexual values, including the belief that there should be no sex outside of marriage. Quakers on the whole remained conservative on matters of sexual ethics until the early part of the twentieth century. However, there is less consensus on this today at least at meetings of liberal Quakers. These liberals form a minority view among Quakers, though.
In general, Quakers have always focused on practical love and social aspects of faith, shunning doctrine, dogma and systematic theology. Most Friends hold views similar to Evangelicals on most theological and moral issues, including those relating to premarital sex.
The official resolutions of the Anglican Church are produced by the bishops in attendance at the Lambeth Conferences, which are held every ten years. The 1988 Lambeth Conference made this declaration in its Resolution on Marriage and Family: "Noting the gap between traditional Christian teaching on pre-marital sex, and the life-styles being adopted by many people today, both within and outside the Church: (a) calls on provinces and dioceses to adopt a caring and pastoral attitude to such people; (b) reaffirms the traditional biblical teaching that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship; (c) in response to the International Conference of Young Anglicans in Belfast, urges provinces and dioceses to plan with young people programmes to explore issues such as pre-marital sex in the light of traditional Christian values" (Resolution 34).
A subsequent resolution was made at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. This sitting of the Conference resolved, "In view of the teaching of Scripture, [the Anglican Church] upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage" (Resolution I.10). This Resolution also commended a report on human sexuality entitled Called to Full Humanity which stated that, "The Holy Scriptures and Christian tradition teach that human sexuality is intended by God to find its rightful and full expression between a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage, established by God in creation, and affirmed by our Lord Jesus Christ. Holy Matrimony is, by intention and divine purpose, to be a lifelong, monogamous and unconditional commitment between a woman and a man. The Lambeth Conference 1978 and 1998 both affirmed 'marriage to be sacred, instituted by God and blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ'. The New Testament and Christian history identify singleness and dedicated celibacy as Christ-like ways of living."
In the United States, the Episcopal Church only approves "of sex between men and women who are married. In 1979, the U.S. church's governing body voted down a resolution to approve other sexual activity."
Historically, the English reformers had taken a stern view of adultery and fornication, which Homily 11 of the First Book of Homilies (1547) defined to include "all unlawfull use of those parts, which bee ordeyned for generation".
Prior to the Marriage Act 1753 (commonly known as the Hardwicke Act), British couples could live together and have sex after their betrothal or "the spousals". Theologian Adrian Thatcher claims that, before the Act was introduced, in the United Kingdom the betrothal was a formal, preliminary stage of marriage involving vows. During this stage, the marriage would become permanent and indissoluble if sexual intercourse occurred or when final vows were taken, whichever came first. Either of these would render "the conditional promise unconditional". Hence, having sex would automatically turn the betrothal into a finalized, indissoluble marriage. Betrothal vows were given in the future tense, hence sexual intercourse "activated" them, signalling the beginning of the binding marriage.
The Council of Trent in the Roman Catholic Church and the above-mentioned Marriage Act in the United Kingdom eliminated the tradition of the betrothal stage of marriage. In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, betrothal still exists but it has been combined into the wedding ceremony, rather than remaining as its own separate stage of the marriage process.
Thatcher notes that, today, "Non-nuptial cohabitation is unlikely ever to be thought consistent with Christian faith if only because God wills only what is best for us, and there [are] good reasons for thinking that these arrangements are not the best for us." He outlines some of the damage he believes is caused by cohabitation outside of marriage in his paper, supported by empirical data.
In the United Kingdom, whilst the State defined who was married, it was the Anglican Church that was given the responsibility to police this law for the State. Today, Britain remains abnormal among European nations in having Church weddings whereas most other nations on that continent insist on civil registrations leaving it up to the couple if they choose to have a religious ceremony as well.
The 1984 English Anglican booklet Forward to Marriage showed a tolerance of premarital sex but strongly endorsed marriage as "a necessary commitment for a long-term relationship".
In 1987, the American Bishop John Shelby Spong's Newark Diocese had commissioned a report that concluded that the "Episcopal Church should recognize and bless committed non-marital sexual relationships between homosexuals, young adults, the divorced and widowed..." The report aimed "to ignite a new debate on sexual ethics among leaders of the nation's 3 million Episcopalians in the hope that they will amend church doctrine to embrace all believers... Spong, an advocate of the recommendations... said his views are a minority position in the church."
Also in 1987, the General Synod of the Church of England asserted "(1) that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship, (2) that fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal, and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion".
The 1996 National Church Life Survey in Australia found that Australian Anglicans were more liberal about premarital sex than churchgoers from other denominations but more conservative than the general [non-church going] population. The survey noted a divide between Anglicans who wanted to support sexually active unmarried couples in their churches and others who did not. A 2009 survey found that Anglicans (along with Baptists, Roman Catholics and Uniting Church members) had become a little more accepting of premarital sex compared to a 1993 survey, whereas Pentecostal Christians had become markedly more conservative. 54% of Australian church attenders felt pre-marital sex was always or almost always wrong, whereas only 3% of non-church attenders thought it was always or usually wrong. Among those who attended church on a weekly basis, the percentage of those who thought pre-marital sex was always or almost always wrong rose to 67%.
A 2002 survey by the Church Times in England found that less than half of the 5,000 readers questioned said it was wrong for men and women to have sex before they married. Over 25% also said it was acceptable for a couple to live together without ever intending to marry.
The 2003 report, Cohabitation: A Christian Reflection, produced by the Diocese of Southwark, found that the Church's traditional teaching that sex before marriage is wrong has been inherited from a different form of society than that which exists today. However, the report then cited research that illustrates the problems that accompany cohabitation, particularly with regard to raising children. It concluded that marriage is "a much more satisfactory social convention than cohabitation", but says that the Church has failed to present marriage in a way that captures the imagination of young people and that the Church needed to rise to the challenge and rediscover its confidence in marriage. The report noted that Paul gave a "cautious welcome" to marriage, but that there was also a "militant apostolic view" that favoured celibacy, which "was seen as more noble than marriage" by many early Christians. The report also noted that "the strict sexual codes of the earliest Christian communities helped to give them a separate identity distinct from the sexual hedonism of the pagan world."
The report ultimately rejected the possibility that cohabitation with no intention to marry is acceptable for members of the Christian Church.
In a 2004 interview, the Anglican Primate of Australia, Archbishop Peter Carnley, noted that heterosexual de facto relationships and a disinclination to commit were more serious worries for him than the same-sex marriage movement. When asked if he thought sexual morality was subjective, he disagreed, stating "I think it's possible to say, for example, that it is objectively quite clear that promiscuity is a bad thing."
In 2009, N. T. Wright noted that, in popular discourse, there has been a "supposed modern and scientific discovery of a personal 'identity' characterised by sexual preference, which then generates a set of 'rights'... Without entering into discussion of the scientific evidence, it must be said that the Christian notion of personal identity has never before been supposed to be rooted in desires of whatever sort. Indeed, desires are routinely brought under the constraints of 'being in Christ'. This quite new notion of an 'identity' found not only within oneself but within one's emotional and physical desires needs to be articulated on the basis of scripture and tradition, and this to my mind has not been done... The church has never acknowledged that powerful sexual instincts, which almost all human beings have, generate a prima facie 'right' that these instincts receive physical expression. All are called to chastity and, within that, some are called to celibacy; but a call to celibacy is not the same thing as discovering that one has a weak or negligible sexual drive. The call to the self-control of chastity is for all: for the heterosexually inclined who, whether married or not, are regularly and powerfully attracted to many different potential partners, just as much as for those with different instincts."
On another occasion, Wright stated, "We need to remind ourselves that the entire biblical sexual ethic is deeply counter-intuitive. All human beings some of the time, and some human beings most of the time, have deep heartfelt longings for kinds of sexual intimacy or gratification (multiple partners, pornography, whatever) which do not reflect the creator's best intentions for his human creatures, intentions through which new wisdom and flourishing will come to birth. Sexual restraint is mandatory for all, difficult for most, extremely challenging for some. God is gracious and merciful but this never means that his creational standards don't really matter after all."
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, have expressed tolerance of cohabitation. In 2011, John Sentamu, commenting on Prince William and Catherine's decision to live together before their wedding, said that the royal couple's public commitment to live their lives together today would be more important than their past. Sentamu said that he had conducted wedding services for "many cohabiting couples" during his time as a vicar in south London. Rowan Williams stated he did not personally believe sex outside of marriage to be a sin and noted in 2002 that he found it hard to reconcile his liberal personal beliefs with the public stance of the Church. However, in 2008, Doctor Williams said, "Sex outside marriage is not as God purposes it... I always find it difficult to condense sexual ethics into a soundbite... All I can say is where the Church stands – it's not a question of what Rowan Williams's view is... the biblical view of sexual relations is consistently within the pattern of absolute mutual commitment, reflecting God's commitment to his people. And the assumption of the Bible is that that commitment is heterosexual. That is the framework we work in."
In his earlier 1997 essay, "Forbidden Fruit: New Testament Sexual Ethics", Dr Williams had noted, "I can't see that the New Testament easily allows any straightforwardly positive evaluation of sexual intimacy outside a relationship that is publicly committed [in marriage]."
In 2013, Doctor Williams' successor, Justin Welby, stated that "My understanding of sexual ethics has been that, regardless of whether it's gay or straight, sex outside marriage is wrong." He reiterated this belief again later in 2013, further noting that, "To abandon the ideal simply because it's difficult to achieve is ridiculous." After Welby made his first statement, a Sunday Times poll found that "A majority of adults (69%, including 76% of those professing no faith) believe Justin Welby to be wrong in condemning sex outside marriage, while 17% think he is right (including 30% of Anglicans), and 13% are unsure."
The Kinsey Institute comments that "Prior to the 1950s, the religious influences forming sexual constructs [in Britain] came almost exclusively from "the official church" of England, and "unofficially" from the other Christian denominations. In recent decades, the picture has become more complex. Since midcentury, the Church of England's approach to social morality and sexuality has fluctuated between two poles, the traditionalists and the modernists, or the "permission givers" and the "orthodox moral directors". With the national religious scene resembling the circular approach of the politicians to sexual knowledge and attitudes, the sociosexual control and influence appears to bounce back and forth between church and state according to a mutually cooperative formula... This doctrinal "pendulum" is confusing for the majority of the population who are not experts at moral and theological niceties and subtleties. The people themselves are part of the system of confusion: While expecting clear and definite moral messages from both establishment and Church, they reserve the right to judge the validity of those messages, even when they are biblically based."
The 2013 British Social Attitudes survey found that members of the Church of England have become more accepting of pre-marital sex over the past 30 years. In 1983, 31% of British Anglicans surveyed thought that pre-marital sex was "always" or "mostly" wrong whereas, in 2012, only 10% thought this was the case. Likewise, in 1989, 78% of Anglicans surveyed thought that people should marry before having children. In 2012, this had declined to 54%.
Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.
In his book, James F. Keenan reports studies by some academics. A study by Bernard Hoose states that claims to a continuous teaching by the Church on matters of sexuality, life and death and crime and punishment are "simply not true". After examining seven medieval text about homosexuality, Mark Jordan argues that, "far from being consistent, any attempt to make a connection among the texts proved impossible". He calls the tradition's teaching of the Church "incoherent". Karl-Wilhelm Merks considers that tradition itself is "not the truth guarantor of any particular teaching." Keenan, however, says that studies of "manualists" such as John T. Noonan Jr. has demonstrated that, "despite claims to the contrary, manualists were co-operators in the necessary historical development of the moral tradition." Noonan, according to Keenan, has provided a new way of viewing at "areas where the Church not only changed, but shamefully did not".
The Catholic Church did not pro-actively condemn men for pre-marital sex until the twelfth century. The Third Council of Aachen had previously noted that it was almost unheard of for a man to remain a virgin until his wedding but males remained largely immune to punishment whereas females were heavily penalized for sexual misdemeanours. Despite the Church's disapproval of nonmarital sex, fornication continued to be commonplace in the early medieval period.
In the twelfth century, the Paris-based "Reform Church" movement was a Catholic faction that attempted to refocus society's moral compass with a particular emphasis on sex and marriage. The movement sent priests to Wales where it was, up until that time, the norm for Christians to live together prior to marriage.
Up until this period, marriage was considered a private contract between two people. They would make a pledge to each other and, from that moment on, they were considered married. This pledge could take place anywhere; it did not have to occur in a church and neither the church nor the state were involved. It was during the twelfth century that the Catholic Church took control of the process of marriage. From that point on, to be legally recognised, a marriage had to take place in a church with a formal service conducted by a priest. Hence all marriage and sexual activity now came under the control of the Church.
At the time of the Reformation, the Catholic Church "officially advocated celibacy for the religious, and prohibited marriage, but allowed fornication and concubinage". For instance, in 1527 all but 10 out of 200 Catholic clergymen in Thuringia were living with women outside of marriage.
The Council of Trent (which began in 1545 in reaction to the Protestant Reformation) formally ratified the Catholic view that marriage was a sacrament and set strict guidelines around what constituted a legitimate marriage in Catholic eyes.
The Catholic belief that premarital sex is sinful was reasserted in Pope John Paul II's 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI claimed that premarital sex and cohabitation were "gravely sinful" and "damaging to the stability of society". The Catholic Church continues to portray premarital sex as a shameful act and believes that sexual relations are only acceptable between a married couple.
The 2012 British Social Attitudes survey showed that only one in ten British Catholics and Anglicans thought that pre-marital sex was wrong (however, of those who attended Church on a weekly basis, only 23% thought it was permissible).
A 1994 study of French Catholics showed that 83% preferred to listen to their consciences rather than to the official position of the Catholic Church when making major decisions in their lives, leading to 75% of Catholics, by 2003, to say that cohabitation outside of marriage is a personal matter and 13% to say whether it is right or not depends on circumstances.
A 2004 survey showed vastly different attitudes among Catholics in different nations. For instance, in Germany, 76% of Catholics agreed or strongly agreed that cohabitation before marriage was acceptable. In Spain, that number was 72%, in the Czech Republic it was 66% and in France it was 62%. At the other end of the spectrum, only 32% of Australian Catholics thought it was acceptable, followed by 39% in the Philippines and 43% in the United States.
The same survey sought to show the number of Catholics who believed that premarital sex is "not wrong at all" or "wrong only sometimes". In the Czech Republic, 84% of Catholics believed this, in France it was 83% and in Germany it was 80%. At the other end of the scale, in the Philippines it was 21%, in Ireland it was 51% and in Australia and the United States it was 64%. The survey also claimed that 40% of Catholic women in the United States have cohabited outside of marriage.
The 2013 British Social Attitudes survey showed that Catholics have become even more accepting than Anglicans of having children outside of wedlock: in 1989, 73% of British Catholics thought people should marry before having children; whereas, by 2012, just 43% thought so.
A 2014 survey showed that most German Catholics also disputed the Church's ruling against premarital sex.
In his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, LGBT activist Mark Regnerus notes that "Evangelical Christian teens are more likely to have lost their virginity earlier than mainline Protestants. They start having sex on average at age 16.3 and are more likely than other religious groups to have had three or more sexual partners by age 17."
A 2012 study, the National Survey of Reproductive and Contraceptive Knowledge, found that 80% of young American evangelical Christians aged between 18 and 29 are having pre-marital sex.
A 2014 press release from online dating websites announced the results of a poll of 2,600 Americans in their attitudes towards dating and sex. The poll found that 61 percent of Christians believed they would have sex before marriage. Fifty-six percent found it appropriate to cohabit with a romantic partner after dating for a time between six months and two years.
The American Baptist pastor and assistant professor, Jennifer Knust, believes that the Bible is contradictory on the subject of premarital sex and that some Bible texts, notably the Book of Ruth, present it as a source of God's blessing.
Southern Baptist convention
A 2013 study of married couples in Southern Baptist churches in Texas found that over 70% of respondents reported having had premarital vaginal or oral sex. The Southern Baptist scholar Frank Stagg interpreted the New Testament as saying that sex is reserved for marriage. He maintained that the New Testament teaches that sex outside of marriage is a sin of adultery if either sexual participant is married, otherwise the sin of fornication if both sexual participants are unmarried.
The Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission also condemns premarital sex on the grounds of their interpretation of the Bible. Feeling that marriage is a "divine institution" the Southern Baptist position is closer to that of Roman Catholic sacramentalism than that of Luther and Calvin who maintained marriage was a legal agreement and the business of the State.
In Australia, Pentecostals are increasingly opposed to the concept of premarital sex. In 1993, 62% of Australian Pentecostals felt that sex before marriage was wrong. By 2009, that figure had jumped to 78%.
In traditional Islamic law unlawful sexual intercourse is called zināʾ (زِنَاء) or zina (زِنًى or زِنًا). Classification of homosexual intercourse as zina differs according to legal school. The Quran disapproved of the promiscuity prevailing in Arabia at the time, and several verses refer to unlawful sexual intercourse, including one that prescribes the punishment of 100 lashes for fornicators. Four witnesses are required to prove the offense. Zina thus belong to the class of hadd (pl. hudud) crimes which have Quranically specified punishments.
Although stoning for zina is not mentioned in the Quran, all schools of traditional jurisprudence agreed on the basis of hadith that it is to be punished by stoning if the offender is muhsan (adult, free, Muslim, and having been married), with some extending this punishment to certain other cases and milder punishment prescribed in other scenarios. The offenders must have acted of their own free will. According to traditional jurisprudence, zina must be proved by testimony of four eyewitnesses to the actual act of penetration, or a confession repeated four times and not retracted later. The Maliki legal school also allows an unmarried woman's pregnancy to be used as evidence, but the punishment can be averted by a number of legal "semblances" (shubuhat), such as existence of an invalid marriage contract. These requirements made zina virtually impossible to prove in practice. Rape was traditionally prosecuted under different legal categories which used normal evidentiary rules. Making an accusation of zina without presenting the required eyewitnesses is called qadhf (القذف), which is itself a hadd crime.
The Torah explicitly forbids fornication (extramarital sex). All women were expected to be virgins upon marriage. In the case they were found not to be by a betrothed husband, the punishment was death if the man to whom she married was not the man to whom she lost her virginity. Also if a man and a virgin had sex prior to marriage, then they were forced to marry.
To quote two sources, "The Torah does not outlaw it—as it does many other types of sexual relationships—and the child of such a union is not considered a mamzer (illegitimate). Nonetheless, marital sex is considered ideal, and premarital sex is traditionally not approved of. The negative attitude toward premarital sex, to a large degree, reflects the overwhelmingly positive attitude toward sex within marriage." Likewise, "The only limits placed on sexual activities in the Torah are prohibitions against adultery and incest. In Biblical times, a man was not prohibited from having sexual relations with a woman, as long as it led to marriage. The Bible never explicitly states a woman and man may not have sexual intercourse prior to marriage; therefore, no sanction was imposed for premarital sex, but it was considered a violation of custom."
Despite the fact it is not condemned in the Torah, Orthodox Jews are opposed to premarital sex.
Hinduism condemns pre-marital sex and adultery. Among Hindu communities, sexual matters are left to the judgment of those involved and not a matter to be imposed through law. Sexual behavior of Hindus are also governed by the prevalent practices of the society. For example, Nāradasmṛti, one of many legal texts of Hindu communities in ancient India, states in verse 13.60–61,
If a man has intercourse with an attached woman somewhere other than his own house, it is known as adultery by the experts, but not if she came to his house on her own. It is not a punishable crime when someone has intercourse with the wife of a man who has abandoned her because she is wicked, or with the wife of a eunuch or of a man who does not care, provided the wife has initiated it, of her own volition.
The term "attached woman" in the above verse includes a woman who is either married and protected by her husband, or a woman is not married and protected by her father. In verses 13.71–72, Nāradasmṛti states that a man should marry the woman, with whom he had consensual intercourse.
If a man has intercourse with an unmarried woman, who consents to it, it is no offense, but he shall deck her with ornaments, worship her, and thus bring her to his house as his bride.
Manusmriti considers adultery as a source of personal trauma and social disorder, and prescribes rules for the property, maintenance and divorce rights of spouse not involved in the adultery, and the rights of offsprings if produced from sex outside marriage.
In the diversity of Hinduism, a spectrum of views on sexual freedoms thrived in ancient India. Marco Polo, while visiting Hindu kingdoms in 13th century India, made the observation that social mores in India consider sex within marriage as proper and virtuous, although they don't consider any other sexual gratification to be a sin.
In Yoga school of Hinduism, five types of temperance (yama) are recommended for ethical life, the fourth yama being celibacy and self-restraint from sexually cheating on one's partner. Marital fidelity, where all sexual thoughts and expressions are limited to one's spouse, is taught as a virtuous value.
Buddhism disapproves of fornication and adultery, which is classified as sexual misconduct. The precepts of Buddhism denounces fornication, thieving, lying, murdering and other acts.
Sikhism condemns any type of adultery and pre-marital sex. This falls under the Sikh tenant of kaam, which translates to lust or greed.
History, Culture and Laws
A survey undertaken by the American Sociological Review between 2000 and 2008 covering 31 developing countries found that "94 percent of Jews... reported having premarital sex, compared to 79 percent of Christians, 65 percent of Buddhists, 43 percent of Muslims and 19 percent of Hindus."
During the sixth century, Emperor Justinian formulated legislation that was to become the basis of Western marriage law for the next millennia. Under his laws, cohabiting couples were no longer recognised as married and their children were regarded as illegitimate, with the same status as the children of prostitutes. However, the status of illegitimate children could be updated if the parents later married.
In the 1170s, "it was common practice for ordinary couples to cohabit before marriage and for cousins to marry one another" and there was very little stigma around bastards at any social level in medieval England. For instance, William the Conqueror's right to succeed to the throne of Normandy was never questioned on the grounds he was a bastard nor, in his conflict with Harold Godwinson over who should rule England, was this issue raised as an argument against him. However, attitudes shifted a few generations later when bastards were no longer able to claim the English throne.
During the ascendancy of the Puritans, an Act for suppressing the detestable sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication was passed by the English Council of State in 1650. At the Restoration in 1660, this statute was not renewed, and prosecution of the mere act of fornication itself was abandoned. However, notorious and open lewdness, when carried to the extent of exciting public scandal, continued to be an indictable offence at common law.
Prior to the passing of the Marriage Act 1753, laws against bastard children became more strict during the 1730s and 1740s.
In the Victorian era, however, the English working class continued to have a different set of sexual mores from the upper-middle and upper classes. Premarital intercourse was considered acceptable for the working class but only after an extended period of courtship and occurred infrequently even then. The couple were expected to marry, though. Disgrace only arose if the female became pregnant and the couple did not marry.
United States of America
Ethical issues arising from sexual relations between consenting heterosexuals who have reached the age of consent have generally been viewed as matters of private morality, and so, have not generally been prosecuted as criminal offenses in the common law. This legal position was inherited by the United States from the United Kingdom. Later, some jurisdictions, a total of 16 in the southern and eastern United States, as well as the states of Wisconsin and Utah, passed statutes creating the offense of fornication that prohibited (vaginal) sexual intercourse between two unmarried people of the opposite sex. Most of these laws either were repealed, were not enforced, or were struck down by the courts in several states as being odious to their state constitutions. See also State v. Saunders, 381 A.2d 333 (N.J. 1977), Martin v. Ziherl, 607 S.E.2d 367 (Va. 2005).
Some acts may be prohibited under criminal laws defining the offense of sodomy, rather than the laws defining the offense of fornication. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) rendered the states' remaining laws related to sodomy unenforceable. Lawrence v. Texas is also presumed by many to invalidate laws prohibiting fornication: the decision declared sodomy laws unconstitutional, saying that they interfered with private, consensual, non-commercial intimate relations between unrelated adults, and therefore were odious to the rights of liberty and privacy, such rights being retained by the people of the United States.
A 2003 survey reported that most non-religious Australians thought that premarital sex was acceptable. It showed that there was a correlation between liberalism, education levels, lack of religious beliefs and a permissive attitude to premarital sex.
In some Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Kuwait, Maldives, Morocco, Oman, Mauritania, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Sudan, Yemen, any form of sexual activity outside marriage is illegal.
Aside from "a few rare and isolated" instances from the pre-modern era and several recent cases, there is no historical record of stoning for zina being legally carried out. Zina became a more pressing issue in modern times, as Islamist movements and governments employed polemics against public immorality. During the Algerian Civil War, Islamist insurgents assassinated women suspected of loose morals, the Taliban have executed suspected adultresses using machine guns, and zina has been used as justification for honor killings. After sharia-based criminal laws were widely replaced by European-inspired statutes in the modern era, in recent decades several countries passed legal reforms that incorporated elements of hudud laws into their legal codes. Iran witnessed several highly publicized stonings for zina in the aftermath the Islamic revolution. In Nigeria local courts have passed several stoning sentences, all of which were overturned on appeal or left unenforced. In Pakistan, the Hudood Ordinances of 1979 subsumed prosecution of rape under the category of zina, departing from traditional judicial practice, and making rape extremely difficult to prove while exposing the victims to jail sentences for admitting illicit intercourse. Although these laws were amended in 2006, they still blur the legal distinction between rape and consensual sex. According to human rights organizations, stoning for zina has also been carried out in Saudi Arabia.