For many engaged couples, pre-marriage education is a must. Some couples seek it out, hoping to build a stronger foundation for their marriage and to lessen their chance of divorce. Others may find it a prerequisite for marrying in their church. Regardless of one’s reasons for participating in a pre-marriage course, it appears that such preparation is generally a good idea for the future quality of one’s marriage, according to a new study sponsored by the National Marriage Project.

Interested in the association between premarital experiences and marital quality in young adults, University of Denver researchers Galena Rhoades and Scott Stanley studied a group of 418 individuals who had married some time in the five years following their recruitment into the Relationship Development Study in 2007 and 2008. Their analysis of the data, as reported in their paper “Before ‘I Do’: What Do Premarital Experiences Have To Do With Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults,” yielded multiple findings, among them the conclusion that those who participate in pre-marriage education are more likely to experience superior marital quality down the road. According to the report, 57 percent of those who received pre-marriage education reported higher marital quality, versus only 32 percent of those who did not take advantage of such services.

What the breadth and depth of the subjects’ respective courses were, we cannot know. When my husband and I were engaged, our pre-marriage education consisted of personal discussions over lunch with our local priest on such topics as finances, openness to life, fidelity, and faith. As helpful and thorough as our own preparation was, I can remember reflecting on how fortunate I felt that our meetings were neither the beginning nor the full extent of my husband’s and my pre-marriage education. In fact, our education in how to prepare well for marriage extended years back.

And so it goes for a majority of men and women, for better or for worse. When a couple arrives at engagement, they necessarily bring with them a set of ideas and experiences about intimacy in relationships that shapes their understanding of and expectations for married life. My own understanding of marriage was deeply rooted in the conclusions I drew from observing the intimate relationships modeled in my community, as well as from a more formal engagement with the ideas communicated to me from family, friends, mentors, and teachers.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

While the confluence of such influences may be unique to each individual and couple, the past decade has brought with it a message about intimacy and relationships that is now shared among today’s young men and women. Incorporated into the health curricula from kindergarten through college, contemporary sex education plays no insignificant role in how emerging adults understand intimacy and make decisions about their intimate behaviors and relationships.

If brief participation in a pre-marriage course has an effect on the early years of one’s marriage, what can we expect from the years of one’s sex education and the role it plays in one’s preparation for marriage? A closer look at contemporary sex education in light of the “Before ‘I Do’” study allows us to draw some conclusions in answer to this question.

Abstinence Education and Comprehensive Sex Education

The education that children and adolescents receive in primary and secondary school falls primarily into two camps: abstinence education and comprehensive sex education.

Federally funded abstinence education programs hold as a standard “abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage … for all school age children.” Teaching the health benefits of abstinence, as well as its social and psychological advantages, these programs emphasize not just how to reduce sexual risk, but how to avoid risk altogether. The use of contraceptives is honestly discussed, and students are taught about the relative effectiveness and risks associated with contraceptive use. However, abstinence remains the focus of these programs. The aim is to equip students with the skills they need to achieve abstinence outside of marriage, to exercise personal responsibility, and to pursue healthy relationships and marriages later in life.

In contrast, comprehensive sex education, also referred to as “Abstinence-Plus” education, was introduced as a compromise between “safe sex” education—which focused exclusively on contraceptive practices—and abstinence education. As its name suggests, it professes to take a more comprehensive approach to sex education than either of the two types did previously, teaching about both abstinence and contraceptive practices. These programs assume young men and women cannot and will not abstain from sex before marriage, and therefore emphasize ways to reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Although these programs teach that abstinence is the only guaranteed way to avoid sexual risk, the message is this: abstinence is merely one (unrealistic) option among many in how to reduce risk.

And according to comprehensive sex education programs, there are certainly other options.

Take, for example, the comprehensive sex education offered here in central New Jersey. HiTOPS, a non-profit adolescent health organization based in Princeton, is contracted by the local school district to provide sex education for grades six to nine. HiTOPS has a monopoly in the area and a presence in over fifty schools. It provides the teacher training for the peer educators of Teen PEP, a program in which high school students teach their peers about sex and sexual health. The approach of these programs is one of sexual risk reduction, emphasizing condom and contraception use and aggressively promoting sexual practices that offer an alternative to intercourse. These alternative practices, sometimes referred to as “outercourse,” include sexting, showering together, cuddling naked, phone and internet sex, watching pornography, touching below the waist, and masturbation. Students are taught that these behaviors could be part of a healthy sexually abstinent lifestyle. Absent from the curriculum are discussions about the physical and psychological risks of these practices and how they create an environment in which sexual intercourse, not abstinence, becomes more likely.

In this program and others like it, skits and interactive activities are used to teach about sex, condoms, and how to use condoms correctly. These lessons use sexually-charged language and encourage graphic sexual discussions. A 2007 review of nine comprehensive sex education curricula conducted by the Administration for Children and Families within the Department of Health and Human Services provides a list of the language used by educators and the discussions they promoted. In the program Be Proud! Be Responsible!, for example, educators are prompted to give advice about how to celebrate when a partner agrees to use a condom, how to have fun and be creative with condoms, and how to incorporate condom use into foreplay and intercourse itself.

“Comprehensive” Sex Education Continues at College

Such instruction and discussion are par for the course on college campuses. College freshmen are on campus for no more than a few days before their freshman orientation program requires them to attend skits, discussions, and activities about “safe” sex on campus. While these events include serious and necessary conversations about the risks of sexual assault, they too take the sexual risk reduction approach and try to make contraception use appear fun, creative, and attractive. Residential advisers (RAs) are often encouraged to make condoms available and to inform students about where on campus they can find more contraceptives.

In case freshman orientation is not enough of a resource, many campuses now sponsor events surrounding Valentine’s Day that encourage students to have “safe” sex, often supplying them with toys, tools, and tips for how to get the most out of sex.

Although classified as education in sexual “health,” the comprehensive sex education offered at the primary, secondary, and collegiate levels reflects a very limited understanding of human health. There is no discussion of the emotional and psychological effects of sex before marriage and of sexual promiscuity and experimentation. These programs also aim at teaching something else besides avoiding health risks. The author of You’re Teaching My Child What?: A Physician Exposes the Lies of Sex Ed and How They Harm Your Child, Miriam Grossman, M.D., argues that comprehensive sex education courses do not actually aim at preventing disease and risk so much as they are a social movement for moving society in a certain direction.

That direction is not the proliferation of healthy, high-quality marriages.

Sex Education Does Not Prepare Students for Love and Marriage

The comprehensive sex education of today’s primary, secondary, and collegiate institutions may purport to aim at sexual risk reduction, but it effectively instructs young men and women in sexual risk-taking. It sets up abstinence as an unrealistic ideal and neglects adequate discussion of the importance of sexual restraint and the attitudes, behaviors, and environments that best enable young people to practice that restraint. It encourages condom use as a means of reducing risk while simultaneously normalizing behaviors that make the incidence of sex more frequent and that create environments of increased vulnerability. In reducing sexual safety and responsibility to the use of a condom and the acquisition of consent, comprehensive sex education sends the inaccurate and dangerous message that these two precautions allow one to have lots of sex without consequences.

As if this weren’t bad enough, comprehensive sex education programs like HiTOPS and Teen PEP regularly disconnect sex from the context of a committed, loving, exclusive relationship (i.e. marriage). This saturates the young imagination and whets the appetite not for a relationship but for sex itself, disconnected from any person or commitment of love. It is no wonder that the hookup/friends-with-benefits/anything-goes sexual culture has become normalized among today’s emerging adults. Contemporary sex education prepares young men and women not for the fullness of friendship, intimacy and love, but for casual relationships and recreational sex.

This is not simply inadequate education in sex and relationships. This form of sex education is definitively anti-marriage (and this, without even considering how such programs define marriage itself). As Rhoades and Stanley found, the quality of marriage is adversely associated with having sex with someone other than one’s spouse, with having multiple sex partners, and with having a marriage begin as a hookup. Other studies have shown these or similar premarital behaviors to be associated with other adverse marital outcomes such as higher incidence of divorce and infidelity and lower quality of health and happiness. Although marriage may be far in the future for a twelve-year-old or even a twenty-year-old, comprehensive sex education programs at the primary, secondary, and collegiate levels do young men and women a disservice by training them year after year in attitudes and behaviors that undercut their chances of future marital success.

It is encouraging that the pre-marriage courses typically offered engaged couples seem to have a positive effect on early marriage. However, if these courses follow the trend of comprehensive and abstinence programs alike, their effects will fade over time. What then? Probably, these young couples will fall back on the understanding of intimacy and relationships that was taught to them for over a decade.

For my own part, learning to live out a commitment to abstinence brought with it an education in something much greater: chastity. It was this education that best prepared me for married life; for it established an understanding of and appreciation for the unique relationship that is marriage—and it cultivated habits that directly support marital fidelity and selfless love.

Comprehensive sex education provides none of this, instead offering a most disappointing and weak foundation for any committed relationship, least of all marriage. Our educational institutions would do well to consider how comprehensive sex education jeopardizes young men’s and women’s futures and launches them into greater, not less, risk.