Science on Religion

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Religious premarital sexual attitudes in Kenya

Kenyan girlMost people know that Christians (especially conservative Christians) typically oppose a host of sexual behaviors, including premarital sex. However, all too often what most people know tends to come from their immediate context and not from careful empirical study. To see if there really does exist a correlation between Christianity and opposition to premarital sex, sociologist Stephen Gyimah (Queen’s University, Canada) and colleagues investigated the sexual attitudes of Christians in Kenya, finding that Pentecostals were most opposed to premarital sex.

Gyimah and colleagues question the validity the assumption that religious people inherently oppose premarital sex. They believe this is too simplistic an approach—one must account for specific religions and denominations. In order to factor out (at least some) general Western influence concerning this isue, they decided to look at the views of Christians in Kenya (Christians make up over 90% of Kenya’s population).

Their study relies largely upon “reference group theory.” A “reference group” is simply any group where one wants to be accepted and so one conforms to the group’s norms in order to gain acceptance. A reference group need not even be a real group—as long as one alters his or her behavior in order to act “appropriately” in the eyes of an outside group, that group functions as a reference group for him or her. In the present case, reference group theory suggests that if people have a group that opposes premarital sex as their reference group, then they too will likely oppose premarital sex.

To test the correlation between Christianity and opposition to premarital sex, the researchers used data from the Transition-To-Adulthood (TTA) project, which part of a larger survey effort called the Nairobi Urban Health and Demographics Surveillance System (NUHDDS). The NUHDDS includes almost 72,000 people living in the city of Nairobi. The TTA in particular focuses on 12-22 year olds and kept track of them for a period of three years. During this three-year study, participants filled out questionnaires as well as completed interviews, creating quantitative and qualititative data.

The researchers found some interesting results. About a third of this sample, most of whom are obviously not married, are sexually active (and, counterintuitively enough, females more so than males). Yet at the same time, 86% agreed that people should wait until marriage before having sexual relations (with females being more likely to agree with this than males). However, participants with greater age, wealth, education, and sexual experience are more likely to disagree that people should wait until marriage.

In terms of religion, Pentecostals, when compared with other Christians, are 12% more likely to oppose premarital sex. That is, Christian denominations do vary in the extent to which they oppose premarital sex, and Pentecostals emerged as the most opposed (at least in Kenya). Greater levels of religiosity also correlated with greater opposition premarital sex because of reference group theory—more participation in a group means more conforming of the self to the group’s expectations. In especially the case of Pentecostalism, the group expects opposition to premarital sex (although other Christian denominations oppose it as well—just not as strongly).

Sometimes the common wisdom is correct. Christians do indeed oppose premarital sex, and religiosity does correlate with its opposition, but at the same time not all Christians or religious people oppose it equally. Nuance still exists even if most Christian denominations are more or less on the same side.

For more see “Religion, Religiosity and Premarital Sexual Attitudes of Young People in the Informal Settlements of Nairobi, Kenya” in the Journal of Biosocial Science.

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