On pre-marital sex, morals, and abuse

My long-time, very dear friend Alice Fielding kindly agreed to share her experience around sexuality education and her evolving thoughts on pre-marital sex. She’ll be following the comments on this post, so feel free to engage her in conversation though your comments.


The only sex talk I ever got from my parents took place at Pizza Hut one rainy afternoon when I was twelve. My dad set his ham sandwich on his plate, leaned forward, looked me square in the face, and said, “SEX IS ONLY FOR MAKING BABIES.” After pausing for effect, he sat back, picked up his sandwich, and resumed eating.

He definitely made his position clear, although I already knew that my parents believed premarital sex was wrong, having picked up this idea from context. I was routinely shocked by what I read on the bathroom walls at my middle school. In elementary school, I had been shocked when a substitute teacher told us she had gotten married the previous month, but had a daughter who was a year old. In high school, I would be shocked when the girl who wore revealing clothes, the girl everyone whispered about, actually did get pregnant and have a baby. Even in college, when asked by a resident adviser what I believed about premarital sex, I wasn’t able to answer.

My parents weren’t religious fundamentalists. My father was a committed Unitarian Universalist; my mother attended a Presbyterian church wearing a lapel button which read, AGAINST ABORTION? DON’T HAVE ONE! I was even less dogmatic than my parents, and in my late teens felt confused about the fact that I didn’t know anyone else my age who was against pre-marital sex but not for religious reasons.

As soon as I graduated from college at age twenty, I got into a committed relationship with a family friend I’d known for several years. He wanted to have sex with me, and I felt silly saying “I can’t have sex with you because my parents think it’s immoral.” So I said yes. When the relationship turned abusive, I felt lost and alone. I didn’t think anyone else would ever want to be with me; I felt like the dirty toothbrush or licked Junior Mint from an abstinence-only sex ed curriculum. Worse, I was afraid to tell the trusted older adults in my life what was happening to me, for fear that they would stop loving me once they found out I was immoral. The only reason I ever told any of them was that months after I finally ended the relationship, I started experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that were too severe for me to deal with alone.

My mentors and friends were loving and supportive from the moment I told them about the abuse all the way through the nine years it took me to recover from the PTSD. I wouldn’t have gotten through it without them. The tragedy here is that if I had told them much earlier, the abuse would not have escalated, and it might not have occurred in the first place. The trusted older adults in my life would have perceived what was happening and helped me, if only I hadn’t been afraid to tell them.

I’m not opposed to premarital abstinence. In fact, I think abstinence is the healthiest choice for most teenagers and many young adults, and I think anyone of any age who makes that choice should be fully supported in it. I am, however, utterly opposed to abstinence-only sex ed, and not just because it’s unrealistic or has been proven ineffective. I’m opposed to it because it closes the doors of conversation between older and younger adults, and that can be incredibly damaging to young people who want to live their own lives but still need guidance from folks who have more experience than they do.

So, go on. Take your daughter or son, or nephew or niece, or younger sibling or cousin or friend’s child out to a pizza restaurant. And don’t be afraid to bring up the topic of sex. But make it a two-way conversation. If you are the younger person in this situation, remember that prior generations grew up with different sexual norms that may be difficult to see past. Regardless of whether you are the older person or the younger, listen. Don’t shame or judge, but try to understand.

Have you ever had an honest, trusting conversation about sexual ethics or decision-making with someone much older or younger than you? If so, how did it go?

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Why did he have a ham sandwich at a Pizza Hut?

  2. My dad disliked pizza, or more specifically, he disliked mozzarella cheese. At Pizza Hut he would get a ham sandwich, or sometimes spaghetti and meatballs, or sometimes just munch on breadsticks, while my mother and I ate pizza.

  3. Nice post. And interesting question to ponder. My own experience with sex (I became active quite early as a young teen) has led me to open the doors of communication with my own daughter early. She’s 14 now. When I was that age I was already sexually active… with little to no knowledge about how to protect myself. I told her about my ordeal and let her know that although my mom and dad were both loving and supportive parents, they were from a time when parents didn’t give their girl children “this-is-how-you-protect-yourself” sex talks. The talks were more along the lines of “DON’T DO IT!’…(Much like your dad’s Pizza Hut-ham sammy lecture :-D). That type of approach did NOT work for me so I don’t expect it to work on her. Kids need to know the real deal about sex along with the fact that abstinence is the safest route.

    The main thing is that I want her to be armed with information, so when the time comes that she is considering having sex, she’ll be able to make a smart, informed decision. But I know how hard it can be for kids to go to parents with questions, so I’ve also supplied a few other advice outlets…if I come across an informative sex ed video or article online, I’ll pop it into her favorites folder so she can watch or read it on her own time. Also a book like gurl.com’s “Deal with It” provides no-holds barred info that can be quite frank, but is medically accurate and quite educational.

    Our conversations are getting better. Of course she’s still a bit squeebish about talking sex with mom, but I know she hears me… even if she’s not saying much.

  4. I was just relieved that my mother didn’t give me the birds and the bees talk the night before my wedding.

    My parents did make an effort to find other adults I could go to for advice about life in general, but it didn’t help me figure out anything about sex, because I was so squeamish talking about sex with any adult. I learned about sex from books.

    I want my daughter to grow up thinking that sex is an O.K. thing to talk about and it’s not bad or nasty. It sounds like your daughter already understands this, which is wonderful. And it’s wonderful that you know she hears you even when she’s not saying much.

  5. My parents were honest with me…mostly. When I was a girl of 12 and getting fascinated with one thing after another, they said I would meet some boy someday and he would replace all those things. I’m 52 and it hasn’t happened yet. Okay, so that was just a wrong guess. But when I was 14, my mom and I sat down for another installment of The Talk, and she said I shouldn’t use tampons because I had to wait till I was 18 and went thru some rigamarole with a doctor and also I had to get perforated–I may have pictured them using the same tools they use to perforate stamps–but it went right over my head because I was thinking about buildings instead. But a few months later I found some porn and it was one of the most frightening things that ever happened to me. The scene where they finally did the deed turned into a bloodbath, just because she was new at it. It seemed that in order to have sex with a man, I had to be ripped open just to fit him. I didn’t like that idea at all. But when I told my folks about this, they both just brushed it aside. I was not reassured. I decided to get proactive. Some unpleasant experiences later–for the record, cut your nails!–I told them that I was in the tampon league now and I had made sure that no one would be able to hurt my private parts. Well, they weren’t proud of me, they were shocked–afraid I would hurt myself–but here’s the kicker, they didn’t seem concerned about someone else hurting me. I could not express this then and the whole thing was swept under the rug. About then I read Dr. Reuben’s moronic book, questioned his blanket statements about gays, and was told that yes he was overdoing it but homosexuality was still weird or unnatural. I didn’t have a dyke bone in my body, but I was the first to support gay pride. And what I remember is all that crushing heteronormativity, and not even questioned when it seemed everything else was up for grabs, and I didn’t turn on for men or women either. I don’t remember those years with fondness.
    Now, grown, I have straightened out some of that stuff with my parents–some of it; there are some things that can never be repaired. But what really bugs me is how even today, thses books for young girls leave out a crucial detail. When they talk about the anatomy of the female parts, and how to protect against pregnancy and disease, they so often forget to tell them exactly how to make sure, if anything is going into the vagina, that it won’t hurt them. Me, I call them on it every chance I get.
    Sorry to come late to this one. I just found this site and am appreciative. Thank you.

  6. I’m not comfortable writing about this in detail on a public forum, but I will say that I know what you mean about needing to learn how to make sure that one won’t be hurt in that way, at least not unbearably so.

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