The Reality of Sex Outside Marriage

Non-marital sex is not ideal, but that doesn't mean Judaism has nothing to say about it.

Print this page Print this page

Since sexual intercourse can lead to conception, sexual activity outside marriage raises questions not only in the realm of Jewish morals but also in the arena of medical ethics. Specifically, couples who conceive out of wedlock face the question of whether to abort the fetus, to carry it to term and give it up for adoption, or to raise it under the parentage of one or both members of the couple.

Jewish norms would, first of all, mandate sex education for preteens, teenagers, and adults. The topics should include not only the anatomy of sex and the mechanics of intercourse and contraception but also the overarching concepts and values that should inform a Jew's approach to sex. In addition, it should be emphasized to teenagers in particular that their sexual activity should not be determined by peer pressure and that there are forms of sexual activity short of intercourse that can be quite fulfilling but preclude the possibility of pregnancy and its complications.

Moreover, for all ages, an adequate curriculum in sex education from a Jewish perspective must pay considerable attention to the health and safety risks involved in sex with multiple partners. This is especially important these days, since a number of sexually transmitted diseases that could be cured by antibiotics until the early 1990s have now developed strains that are resistant to the drugs currently available. Moreover, AIDS, at least as of now, is both incurable and lethal. Because these medical developments pose increased danger to those involved in sex outside marriage, and because condoms offer some measure of protection against those diseases, an adequate sex education program must provide condoms and other contraceptive devices with clear instructions on how to use them.

Some fear that if rabbis and Jewish educators frankly discuss sex outside marriage and even make contraceptives available, people will conclude that Judaism is not serious in prohibiting premarital sex. There is undeniably some danger of such misunderstanding. If Judaism is to affect the world as it actually is, though, contemporary applications of its norms dare not ignore the widespread behavior of Jews and others within our society. According to the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other studies, fully 72 percent of high school seniors, and 90 percent of twenty‑two year olds, have had sexual intercourse. Therefore, failure to distribute condoms and other contraceptives invites abortion, AIDS, and the other medical risks of unprotected sex with multiple partners for many, many people.

The Jewish tradition mandates that sex be restricted to marriage for very good reasons. Jewish law also requires, however, that we save lives and limit abortion. We must therefore earnestly engage in sex education, urging young adults to refrain from sexual intercourse before marriage for the many good reasons Judaism provides, but we must also deal realistically, supportively, and therapeutically with the many who fall short of that ideal to preserve their health and their very lives.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.