Myth Buster Monday: Throughout history, high rates of pre-marital sex and unwed childbearing have been the norm, not the exception

Myth Buster Monday: Throughout history, high rates of pre-marital sex and unwed childbearing have been the norm, not the exception

Did great-great-grandma have a robust sex life prior to marriage?  According to some academics, she did.  There are many academics and those who wish to influence public policy who insist that high rates of pre-marital sex, cohabitation and children born out-of-wedlock is not something new and thus should not be feared or identified as a societal problem.  They argue that there were high rates of illegitimacy and cohabitation in the first half of the 20th century — and earlier centuries – and insist that the high marriage rates, traditional families, and the “Leave it to Beaver” life-style of the 1950s and early 1960s is the historical aberration.

So what’s the straight story?

Some of the best record keeping comes to us from Britain and is compiled in a study done by The Center for Social Justice and chronicled in their work “History and Family:  Setting the Records Straight.”

Here are a few statistics that shed light on the question:

  • Only 3.8 percent of those who married before 1945 reported having cohabited before marriage, compared to 6 percent of those who married between 1945 and 1954 and 14.6 percent of those who married between 1955 and 1964.  By 2006, 88 percent of all couples who married in Britain had cohabited prior to marriage.
  • Records of unemployment claims from the 1920s point to minimal levels of cohabitation.
  • Levels of births outside marriage were the same in the 1950s as they were in the 1750s – around 5 per cent.
  • By the late 1970s, the percentage of out-of-wedlock births in Britain stood just above 10 per cent, by 1991 it was 30 percent and today it is 45 percent.

What about the claim that pre-marital sex was a normal part of the courtship process for large sections of the population throughout much of the last 250 years?  Simple logic would tell you that, without modern contraception, there would have been a far greater number of children born out of wedlock if pre-marital sex had been as rampant as it is today.   We recognize that there were probably plenty of “shot-gun weddings,” but it is important to point out that, unlike today, marriages were indeed forming and the divorce rate was very low.

The advent of the contraceptive pill was a major factor in the increase of pre-marital relations.  Prior to Britain’s passage of the National Health Service Act (1967), “the vast majority of brides had not had sex prior to their wedding day.”[i]


[i] K. Dunnell, Family Formation 1976 (London: OPCS, 1979) and M. Schofield, The Sexual Behaviour

of Young Adults (London: Allen Lane, 1973), p. 166.

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