According to a new study by Brigham Young University, reported on here by The Daily Telegraph, couples who delay sex until they are married report higher levels of relationship stability, relationship satisfaction, quality of sexual interaction and communication.
Before I break down these claims it’s distinctly worth pointing out that BYU is a university situated in Utah (otherwise known as Mormon country) and is “a private, coeducational research university owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” which means it is a Mormon-run university. Now, while, in the study and the media reporting on it, they claim that they controlled for religiosity in their 2,035 participants they should have controlled for their own religiosity and never carried out the study in the first place. The Mormon church preaches abstinence before marriage as one of their central dogmatic tenets so the potential bias involved pretty much renders this study invalid, but this is not the only reason that we should dismiss this study as invalid and ignore its results as I’ll demonstrate in the next few paragraphs. A rather witty commenter on the Telegraph website pointed out rather poignantly that it’s a case of “[an] Extreme religious sect does a flawed-study on a non-representative target-group which c0nfirms[sic] its fundamental beliefs. Big surprise!”
Okay, so, since I cannot find the actual study in question (lacking a subscription to the APA’s Journal of Family Psychology as I do) I have to make some assumptions about it. First off, I’m assuming that the participants were not drawn from outside the state of Utah making exposure to the doctrines of the Mormon church an unavoidable probability regardless of the participant’s adherence or lack thereof to that or any other religious faith. The researchers claimed that they controlled for religiosity but exposure to this doctrine of the Mormon church remains a potential factor that was not controlled for. Secondly, I’m assuming that no objective analysis of statistics outside of this study was done leaving the results from this study as the only source from which to draw a conclusion on the topic being studied. Thirdly, I’m assuming that, despite their claims that it was a large factor, the researchers did not control for levels of communication within the relationships in question. Given that they claim that this was one of the largest contributing factors to stability, satisfaction and the quality of sexual relationships it would have been important to isolate this as a contributing factor or not.
So, with those assumptions at hand, let’s go to work. Firstly, the primary issue with this study is that fact that all results seem to have been gathered simply by participants reporting their subjective views of the stability, satisfaction, sexual quality and communication within the relationships. This was then compared with when they reported they first began sexual relations e.g. before or after marriage. If you’re doing a study on something, even if it is a topic on human interactions it’s vital to remove the subjective factors and the human factor. For example, if you wanted to figure out people vote Republican in a given county (or Labour for those on this side of the pond) yes you gather anonymous responses from the people involved but then, most importantly, you wait until they vote and you compare the actual votes to the responses you received. You compare the subjective responses of your participants with the actual objective evidence and they are in conflict you go with the objective evidence.
The second issue with this study is, as pointed out the commenter on the Telegraph article, the fact that the participants (based on my first assumption above) were a non-representative target-group i.e. even if the claims of this study were true (despite the major flaws with the study) they would only be applicable to this small group and would not necessarily translate to other groups in other areas, making the study rather useless both from a psychology point of view and from the point of view of societal norms.
The final issue (that I will deal with, at least) is that of the communication factor. It’s a well-established fact that relationships with high levels of communication, whether on the topic of sex or not, are more successful, even if they end prematurely. We all know anecdotally that those relationships we’ve been in where there was a high level of communication were the more fulfilling, but this is backed up by psychological evidence, as evidenced here with many reference to different studies on the topic. More importantly however, given the fact that even the researchers themselves acknowledge this as a potentially large contributing factor it makes it even more important that this would have been isolated in the study and controlled for since communication, understood as a vital component of relationship success and satisfaction, would spill over and affect the reported (and actual observed) levels of stability, satisfaction and sexual quality.
In conclusion, due to a lack of proper control for potential contributing factors and an unacceptable lack of objectivity not only in the method of gathering data and the target-group chosen for the study but also in the researchers themselves, we can invalidate the results of this study as incoherent and potentially misleading.