A 19-year-old virgin walks into a bar. He's got his lucky cross in his pocket and his best jersey on. Please God, he says to himself, let this be the night. He spies a girl sitting at a table—blonde, wholesome-looking, just his type. He sidles up closer to the girl, who is chatting with some friends. Over the din, he can make out snippets of her conversation: at Bible study the other night … Pastor Ted says … saving it for marriage. Discouraged, he walks away in search of a more promising target.
Did he make the correct decision? Or did he make a hasty judgment and miss a chance for a possible love connection? The answer to such a question can be found in Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers by Mark Regnerus, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. The book is a serious work of sociology based on several comprehensive surveys of young adults, coupled with in-depth interviews. But it could also double as a guide for teenage boys on the prowl (who's easier, a Catholic girl or a Jew?) or for parents of teenage girls worrying about what will happen if their daughters keep skipping church.
Regnerus goes to some length to justify his unusual pairing of subjects. Most researchers of youth behavior tend to ignore the influence of religion, he argues, and instead focus on other factors—parental input, peer pressure, race, or socioeconomic status. But sex is one area where religion has a strong impact, at least on attitudes. When academics do consider religion, they tend to make lazy assumptions that religious communities are inherently conservative, universally condemn sex, and encourage abstinence. Regnerus complicates the picture by examining the varying attitudes of different religious communities. And while sex surveys are notoriously unreliable, his great innovation is to compare conservative attitudes with actual practices.
Which brings us back to Romeo at the bar. It turns out that the answer is: He has indeed made a hasty judgment, and a common one. The girl he had his eye on is speaking the modern idiom of evangelese, and Regnerus' most surprising findings are about her type, who make up about one-third of all teenagers, but who dominate the culture's notions about religion and sex. Teenagers who identify as "evangelical" or "born again" are highly likely to sound like the girl at the bar; 80 percent think sex should be saved for marriage. But thinking is not the same as doing. Evangelical teens are actually more likely to have lost their virginity than either mainline Protestants or Catholics. They tend to lose their virginity at a slightly younger age—16.3, compared with 16.7 for the other two faiths. And they are much more likely to have had three or more sexual partners by age 17: Regnerus reports that 13.7 percent of evangelicals have, compared with 8.9 percent for mainline Protestants.
How is that possible? What happened to all those happy, young Christian couples from the '90s swearing that True Love Waits? Partly, the problem lies in the definition of evangelical. Because of the explosion of megachurches, vast numbers of people who don't identify with mainstream denominations now call themselves evangelical. The demographic includes more teenagers of a lower socioeconomic class, who are more likely to have had sex at a younger age. It also includes African-American Protestant teenagers, who are vastly more likely to be sexually active.
But partly the problem lies in the temptation-rich life of an average American teenager. The fate of the True Love Waits movement, which began with the Southern Baptist Convention in the '90s, is a perfect example. Teenagers who signed the abstinence pledge belong to a subgroup of highly motivated virgins. But even they succumb. Follow-up surveys show that at best, pledges delayed premarital sex by 18 months—a success by statistical standards but a disaster for Southern Baptist pastors.
Evangelical teens today are much less sheltered than their parents were; they watch the same TV and listen to the same music as everyone else, which causes a "cultural collision," according to Regnerus. "Be in the world, but not of it," is the standard Christian formula for how to engage with mainstream culture. But in a world hypersaturated with information, this is difficult for tech-savvy teenagers to pull off. There are no specific instructions in the Bible on how to avoid a Beyoncé video or Scarlett Johansson's lips calling to you from YouTube, not to mention the ubiquitous porn sites. For evangelicals, sex is a "symbolic boundary" marking a good Christian from a bad one, but in reality, the kids are always "sneaking across enemy lines," Regnerus argues.
The results play out in the usual 19th-century way. When evangelical parents say they talk to their kids about sex, they mean the morals, not the mechanics. In a quiz on pregnancy and health risks associated with sex, evangelicals scored very low. Evangelical teens don't accept themselves as people who will have sex until they've already had it. As a result, abstinence pledgers are considerably less likely than nonpledgers to use birth control the first time they have sex. "It just sort of happened," one girl told the researchers, in what could be a motto for this generation of evangelical teens.
Regnerus' ultimate conclusion is not all that surprising. What really matters is not which religion teenagers identify with but how strongly they identify. After controlling for all factors (family satisfaction, popularity, income), religion matters much less than religiosity. Among the mass of typically promiscuous teenagers in the book, one group stands out: the 16 percent of American teens who describe religion as "extremely important" in their lives. When these guys pledge, they mean it. One study found that the pledge works better if not everyone in school takes it. The ideal conditions are a group of pledgers who form a self-conscious minority that perceives itself as special, even embattled.
I recently spent a year among some evangelical teenagers who belong to this elite minority, and I can attest to the inhuman discipline they exert over their hormones. They can spend all evening sitting on the couch holding hands and nothing more. They can date for a year, be alone numerous times in a car or at the movies, and still stick to what's known in the Christian youth literature as "side hugs," to avoid excessive touching. Muslims have it easy compared to them. At least in Saudi Arabia the women are all covered up, so there's nothing to be tempted by. But among this elite corps of evangelicals, the women are breezing around in what one girl I know called "shockingly slutty conservative outfits" while the men hold their tongues. (No, they don't hold anything else. Masturbation is strongly discouraged in the literature because it promotes selfish, lustful behavior.)
So, where does that leave our Romeo, still scanning the bar for a date? If he wanted to stick with the wholesome blonde, he would have to introduce himself and ask the relevant follow-up, namely, how often do you see Pastor Ted, or do you go to Bible study every week? If he ruled her out, here are some general guidelines: Definitely out of the question is an Asian-American who attends church weekly—84 percent of them are virgins. A Mormon is a long shot. They are unlikely to have sex and if they do, they don't tend to repeat the experience. A Catholic or a mainline Protestant teenager is a much better bet than a Jew (around 30 percent of the first two groups have had sex, compared with 17.6 percent for Jews). But a Jew could net a higher reward: Jews are more likely to say sex is pleasurable and more likely to have experienced oral sex.
Romeo's best bet confirms the conventional wisdom. From out of the millions of shy, guilt-ridden teenagers, there emerges this 17-year-old from Florida who calls herself nonreligious: "I don't see why sex is such a sacred thing to so many people," she told the researchers. " 'It's just pleasure, it's physical pleasure, and that's what it is,' said Carol, who estimates she's had 10 or 11 sexual partners."
Romeo, that's a sure thing.