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Volume 9, Number 1

Spring/Summer 2011
 
 

The Effects of Religiosity on Perceptions about Premarital Sex*

by

Shyamal Das

Elizabeth City State University

Lisa A. Eargle

Francis Marion University

and

Renita Butts

Fayetteville State University
 

Literature Review

    Several studies (e.g. Wilcox et al., cited in Tostosky, Regnerus and Wright 2003) examine the relationship between religiosity and beliefs about premarital sex. The term "religiosity" has varied meanings. Religiosity can be defined with different parameters ranging from religious affiliation to church attendance rates to self-reported views about the importance of religion (Rostosky, Regnerus, and Wright 2003).These differing definitions of religiosity are present in sex research, as well as studies of other issues. Even when examining one aspect of religiosity feelings about the importance of religion there are the different issues of prayer and how religion shapes values and norms.

    In the present study, three dimensions of religiosity are used. These dimensions are church attendance, frequency of prayer, and opposition to anti-religious literature. Church attendance and feelings about the importance of religion are the most commonly used measures of religiosity in the research literature. Feelings about the importance of religion have both direct and indirect effects on individuals' beliefs. The second dimension of religiosity used is the frequency of prayer. This measure of religiosity is not commonly used in the literature, but can reflect the importance of religion in individuals' lives. The third dimension, opposition to anti-religious literature, can serve as a proxy for how emotionally attached individuals are to religion. A religious person may consider anti-religious publications as being detrimental to society and oppose their widespread accessibility in society.

    The socio-sexual ideology of society, with its corresponding norms and values, is another control mechanism of sexual behaviors. Although religiosity delays and reduces sexual activities (Hagland and Fehring 2009), these effects are mediated by beliefs about sex (Meier 2003). In American society, media images promote a sexual ideology of sex as an act of pleasure (Rostosky et al. 2003). This is a direct contrast of the ideology endorsed by religious institutions. It can be argued that religion is one of the major sources of norms controlling sexual expressions (DeLamater 1981 and 1989) that are otherwise promoted in society (Brewster et al. 1998), including premarital sex and sex socialization (Reiss 1989). Sexual expressions are related to beliefs and values about sexuality learned through sexual socialization. Referring to some significant studies (e.g. Ku, Sonenstein, and Pleck 1993; Werner-Wilson 1998) of the last decade of the twentieth century, Rostosky, Regnerus, and Wright (2003) argue that religiosity (measured as the sense of importance of religion, church attendance, and attendance at youth religious activities) has been associated with conservative beliefs about premarital sex.

    Barkin (2006) supports the view that religiosity reduces the number of sexual partners that individuals have, because of the moral disapproval of premarital sex. Some studies (e.g. Meier 2003; Rostosky, Regnerus, and Wright 2003; Beckwith and Morrow 2005; Lefkowitz, Gillen, Shearer, and Boone 2004; Hardy 2003) show that religiosity leads to the rejection or delay of sexual activities such as intercourse. Leonard and Scott-Jones (2010) find that while religiosity did not decrease sexual activities, it did promote conservative views about sex. Studies on Islamic nations (e.g. Turkey and Iran) show a similar and consistent pattern (Shiraji and Morowatisharifabad 2009; Ergun 2007; Yasan et al. 2009).

    Two theories that further explain the relationship between religiosity and conservative beliefs about premarital sex are Social Control theory of DeLamater (1981 and 1989) and Sexual Socialization theory of Reiss (1989). Religious institutions advocate a particular sexual ideology (such as abstinence, procreation, celibacy, etc.) through recitation and study of religious texts, symbolism in rituals, and in the context of members' activities (parties, dinners, and so forth). Those individuals whose publicly stated beliefs and behaviors that are congruent to the institution's ideology are rewarded (via public recognition at some ceremony or by others interacting with them). Those whose behaviors are in opposition to the institution's ideology are punished, through scorn or social isolation. The threat of punishment and the enticement of rewards exert pressure on individuals to conform to the institution's ideology (McCullough and Willoughby 2009).

    Moreover, ideologies about what is appropriate sexual behavior differ according to one's sex (male or female) and culture (Sprecher and Hatfield, 1996), as well as other characteristics.  As individuals mature, they are taught appropriate beliefs and behaviors by older individuals in the institution and by institutional leaders. Incorporating Sered (1999) with DeLamater (1989) and Reiss (1989), it can be argued that meanings associated with religious scriptures and symbols are enforced through social institutions. Clearly, religiosity promulgates the values and beliefs related to sexual behaviors. Based on the above discussion, we hypothesize that religiosity is positively associated with conservative about premarital sex.

Data and Methods

 To test our hypotheses determining how religiosity affected the belief about premarital sex, we analyzed data from the cumulative cross-sectional surveys conducted by General Social Surveys from 1972 through 2008. To determine the regularity of the relationships between dependent and independent variables, we choose three time points: 1988, 1998, and 2008. These datasets provide information about individual level religiosity and one's belief about premarital sex. Additionally, these datasets have information on our control variables, such as socio-economic factors and demographic determinants. 

    Combined, we have 955, 1804, and 1293 valid responses for religiosity and beliefs about pre-marital sex for 1988, 1998, and 2008 respectively. 

Measures and Hypotheses

Independent Variables:

    Religiosity: As mentioned earlier, the measures of religiosity vary widely as it is used extensively in literature. We apply three dimensions of religiosity as the measures of our independent variables. These three dimensions include church attendance, frequency of prayer, and rejection of anti-religious scriptures. Although attendance of church is widely used in literature, the feelings of importance and the image of religion have both direct and indirect reflections. The frequency of prayer could add a very important connotation in this regard, whereas we do not find many studies that included this item in measuring religiosity. 

    In the original datasets, the respondents were asked to rate their church attendance on a 0-8 point scales to assess in which zero denoted "never" and eight indicated "more than once a week." By this measure, higher values imply higher levels of church attendance. 

    Another question that was asked in the survey was to rate the respondents' frequency of prayer. We reversed the coding into a one through six point scale in which one meant "never pray" and six denoted "several times a day." Here too, higher values imply higher levels of prayer. 

    The last measure for religiosity variable in the present study pertains to the removal of adverse effects of anti-religious activities in the society. This variable assesses ones attitude pertaining to keeping anti-religious books in the libraries of the society, and such attitude is measured as a dichotomous variable, in which one  denotes "don't remove" and two indicates "remove."As the other two indicators, higher value denotes higher levels of religiosity. 

General Hypotheses:

    Our hypotheses pertaining to the relationships between religiosity measures and the beliefs about premarital sex are as follows:

H1: The higher levels of church attendance promote conservative beliefs about premarital sex. 

H2: The higher levels of prayer promote conservative beliefs about premarital sex.

H3: When one wants all anti-religious books removed from society, one is more likely to promote conservative beliefs about premarital sex.
 

Control Variables: Age, Gender, Education, Social Class, Marital Status and Related Hypotheses:

    Because we conduct a trend study to examine the patterns of effects of our main independent variables on the beliefs about premarital sex, we argue that the changes in such beliefs relate to social episodes in three different time points. Therefore, the use of age in affecting a social episode refers to the rationale in studies on other social episodes. Referring to other scholars (e.g. Alwin, Cohen, and Newcomb 1991; Schuman and Rodgers 2004; Moaddel 2007), Das, Eargle, and Esmail (2010) contends that the younger generations are more susceptible to the effects of a significant social fact or episode, such as HIV/AIDS, etc.  In our discussion on existing body of literature, we argued that young people are more receptive of premarital sex. Accepting other scholars' (e.g. Pennebaker and Banasik 1997; Moaddel 2007; Das et al. 2010) measure, we argue that the young age cohort (e.g. below 26) is more likely to hold the liberal views about premarital sex because the young are more prone to experience such activities. 

    Thus, we need to evaluate the effects of different age groups in maintaining liberal or conservative attitudes about sexuality. In so doing, we coded ages below 26 as one, and respondents aged 26 and  above are coded as two.  The hypothesis we will test by this measure is:

 H4: The rejection of premarital sex is prevalent among older cohort than the younger cohort. 

    The literature on political and social awareness suggests that higher levels of education implant an awareness pertaining to the meaning of a social episode (e.g. Zaller 1992 cited in Moaddel 2007). The expectation that education makes people liberal about sexual activities follows this line of argument. We use one's educational attainments by degree measured on a zero  through four point scale where zero= less than high school, one= High school, two= Junior College, three= Bachelors, and four= Graduate Degree. We propose the following hypothesis:

 H5: More acceptance of premarital sex is prevalent among people with more educational attainments than the people with lower levels of education.

    Among socio-economic factors, social class has a very strong bearing in assessing one's social background. Social class is important for the current research because one's social ideology is greatly influenced  by social class. We expect that one belonging to a higher social class is more likely to support premarital sex. We use a one through five point scale to measure this variable in which higher values indicates higher levels in subjective class standing. We propose the following hypothesis:

 H6: More acceptance of premarital sex is prevalent among people with higher subjective class standing.

    The effects of gender on cultural values are obvious too. Women are more likely to be conservative on values about sexual activities than men (Das et al. 2009), possibly because of the patriarchal social ideology prevalent in society. On their study on the inertia of culture, Das, and   others (2009) show that HIV/AIDS affects women the most, and this is a disease that could be the outcome of sexual acts. This type of social episode may make women hold the view that sexual liberalism may cause huge problems for them. Therefore, compared to men, women oppose sexual acts such premarital sex. To assess this, we code male as 1, and female as 2. The hypothesis we would test by this measure is as follows:

 H7: More rejection of premarital sex is prevalent among females than males. 

    Another control variable used in the present research is marital status. It is understandable that married people may disagree on premarital sex when single people are more open to such sexual behavior. We coded one as married, and two as single. We propose the following hypothesis in relation to the association between marital status and beliefs about premarital sex:

H8: More rejection of premarital sex is prevalent among females than males.

    The last control variable is race. Studies (e.g. Rostosky, Regnerus, and Wright 2003) propose that blacks are more likely to accept premarital sex. To test this claim, we use a dichotomous variable that has one coded as "black," and two denotes "others." The objective of this measure is to compare the black community to others. Our hypothesis for this association is as follows:

H9: Compared to other races, blacks are more likely to accept premarital sexual beliefs.

    Beliefs about Premarital Sex: Any belief pertaining to sexuality and sexual behaviors is difficult to measure because of differential cultural subjectivities attached to these attitudes. As our earlier discussion suggests, we need to measure the beliefs about premarital sex by looking at attitudes about such sexual activities before marriage. 

    In the datasets of GSS, the respondents were asked to rate their attitude in 1-5 point scale to assess their views about premarital sex with lower values indicating more conservative views about such behavior. 

Analytical Strategies

    The main goal of any sociological research is to reach good generalizations about causal connections among social facts or phenomena. Such goal can be attained by examining regularity among these relationships. In the current research, we run several regressions (Ordinary Least Square) based on multiple time points to check if the causal connections are tenable over time. To do so with clarity, we have three longitudinal points to consider: 1988, 1998, and 2008. We provide 10-year long intervals in between time points because this is enough for a social group to display significant change in opinions about cultural values, such as beliefs about premarital sex. 

    To test our hypotheses, we run OLS regressions on two models. The first model includes our main variables measuring religiosity, such as church attendance, frequency of prayer, and opinion about removing anti-religious books. The second model adds all control variables to religiosity indicators so that we can assess if control variables can mediate the effects of religiosity. 

Results

    Figures 1 through 3 clearly indicate that there is a positive association between religiosity and the perceptions about premarital sex in general, meaning that people are more conservative when they are more religious. This pattern is obvious in all time- points. Figure 4 indicates that associations between beliefs about premarital sex and a few demographic factors, such as gender, marital status, and age support our expectations as outlined earlier, whereas the association between race and the belief does seem consistent over time. Figure 5 depicts the pattern of associations between two variables, outlining social capital, and the beliefs about premarital sex. These associations are somewhat inconsistent over longitudinal points. 


 


 


 


 
 

Bring up Large Images of Figures 1-5 in New Window

Religiosity and the Beliefs about Premarital Sex

   Tables 1 to 4 present results for regression analysis.

   Over time, the effects of religiosity are supportive of our main hypothesis that religiosity produces conservative views about premarital sex.  We have the results of un-standardized coefficients for both the combined sample and three distinctive time points' samples. The comparison of the un-standardized betas for both models regressed on all time- points and combined sample clearly indicates that the direction of the effects for religiosity in sustaining conservative views about premarital sex remain identical over time in general. This means that religiosity as a social fact greatly contributes to the sustenance of conservative views about the premarital sex. This supports our first three hypotheses adequately.  H4-H7 are thus, in general, not supported.

Table 1
Results of Ordinary Least Square Regessions to Determine the Effects of Religiosity and Control Variables
Combined Samples

Independent 
Variables
Combined Sample
1988, 1998, 2008
Model 1
Combined Sample
1988, 1998, 2008
Model 2
Church Attendance
-.144***
(-.320)
-.145***
(-.320)
Frequency of Prayer
-.146***
(-.187)
-.134***
(-.171)
Removing Anti-
Religious Books
-.401***
(-.147)
-.340***
(-.124)
Young
 
.024
(.006)
Sex
 
-.148*
(-.058)
Black
 
-.058
(-.015)
Social Class
 
.025
(.013)
Education
 
.064*
(.062)
Marital
 `
.158**
(0.63)
N
1478 
1478
R Square
.255**
.265***
Note: p<.001=***; p<.005**; p<.05=*; p<.10=+
 
 

Table 2
Results of Ordinary Least Square Regessions to Determine the Effects of Religiosity and Control Variables
Sample for 1988

Independent 
Variables
Sample for
1988
Model 1
Sample for 
1988
Model 2
Church Attendance
-.152***
(.331)
-.151***
(-.330)
Frequency of Prayer
-.138***
(-.160)
-.124***
(-.143)
Removing Anti-
Religious Books
-.385***
(-.148)
-.294***
(-.113)
Young
 
-.055
(-.016)
Sex
 
-.139
(-.055)
Black
 
-.293*
(-.082)
Social Class
 
.031
(.015)
Education
 
.066
(.063)
Marital
 
.224*
(.090)
N
452
420
R Square
.234***
.254***
Note: p<.001=***; p<.005**; p<.05=*; p<.10=+
 
 

Table 3
Results of Ordinary Least Square Regessions to Determine the Effects of Religiosity and Control Variables
Sample for 1998

Independent 
Variables
Sample for
1998
Model 1
Sample for 
1998
Model 2
Church Attendance
-.156***
(.330)
-.150***
(-.333)
Frequency of Prayer
-.099*
(-.123)
-.101*
(-.125)
Removing Anti-
Religious Books
-.609***
(-.219)
-.588***
(-.219)
Young
 
.224
(.053)
Sex
 
-.115
(-.046)
Black
 
.028
(.007)
Social Class
 
-.048
(.025)
Education
 
.013
(.013)
Marital
 
.204+
(.082)
 N
420
420
R Square
.284***
.293***
Note: p<.001=***; p<.005**; p<.05=*; p<.10=+
 
 

Table 4
Results of Ordinary Least Square Regessions to Determine the Effects of Religiosity and Control Variables
Sample for 2008

Independent 
Variables
Sample for
2008
Model 1
Sample for
2008
Model 2
Church Attendance
-.134***
(-.299)
-.136***
(.304)
Frequency of Prayer
-.171***
(-.236)
-.149***
(-.207)
Removing Anti-
Religious Books
-.274**
(-.097)
-.225*
(-.079)
Young
 
-.049
(-.012)
Sex
 
-.177*
(-.069)
Black
 
.069
(.019)
Social Class
 
.001
(.001)
Education
 
.080*
(0.76)
Marital
 `
.090
(.035)
N
606
606
R Square
.255***
.265***
Note: p<.001=***; p<.005**; p<.05=*; p<.10=+
 
 

Control Variables and the Beliefs about Premarital Sex 

    The effects of sex, education, and marital status on the beliefs about premarital sex are found to be significant in combined sample, whereas the effects of sex and education are significant for the sample of 2008, and marital status is significant for the samples of both 1988 and 1998. The control for race is significant only for the 1988 sample. Therefore, the effects of the control variables are inconsistent. The inclusion of these variables does not change the direction of the effects of religiosity; hence, we argue that the effects of religiosity are tenable even over time. Thus, our hypotheses for the effects of religiosity are supported. 

Discussion and Conclusion

    In general, the results suggest that religiosity as a social phenomenon greatly contributes to  one's belief about premarital sex. As the effects of control variables do not change the direction of the effects of religiosity in general, our hypotheses pertaining to the influence of religiosity on the beliefs about premarital sex are strongly supported. Whereas the effects of control variables are not consistent over time, our analysis partially supports all hypotheses except those rearding age and social class. This is possibly  due to the combined sample has a much larger size for a few individual time points. 

    An implication of the present research lies in the fact that the current social discourses about sexuality bring several issues to the fore, such as the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The USA has the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the last several years, and this poses a threat to the wellbeing of the society. On the other side, the traditional family values as well as beliefs about sex and sexuality seem to be changing significantly in the present time, when the post-modernist wave of feminism has a strong bearing toward sexual liberalism. So on the one hand, the society seeks sexual freedom;yet excessive freedom poses a threat for the society on the other hand. To address such problems, there must be some merging points between traditional practices, such as religiosity, and some social policies pertaining to sexual activities.  If such strategy can be followed, the spread of some life threatening diseases such as HIV/AIDS could be limited.

References

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Beckwith, Henry D. and Jennifer A. Morrow. 2005. "Sexual Attitudes of College Students: The Impact of Religiosity and Spirituality." College Student Journal 39:2: 357-366.

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Footnotes

An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the Seventy-fifth Annual conference of The Association of Social And Behavioral Scientists, March 18-20, 2010 in Charlotte, NC. Partial funding for the project was provided by Title III Grants of North Carolina, through the Research Center for Health Disparities at Fayetteville State University. The authors acknowledge the gracious cooperation of Dr. Akbar Aghajanian, Director, Research Center for Health Disparities, at Fayetteville State University.
 

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