In our study we were interested in examining differences between religious groups and the dominant religious faith within nations in the likelihood that residents would engage in premarital or extramarital sex. The study was inspired by Adamczyk’s earlier cross-national work, where she noticed that the infections for HIV/AIDS were much higher in Christian majority than Muslim majority nations. At that time there was some preliminary research that also found that Muslim adherents had lower infection rates than Christian adherents. It was unclear why there was this relationship, which could result from differences in the likelihood of circumcision, riskier sexual behaviors, or other factors such as alcohol and drug use.
These earlier ideas led to hypotheses and analysis that focused on differences in the sexual behaviors of different religious adherents. As the current paper evolved, we became less interested in the reasons for differences in HIV/AIDS rates, and increasingly interested in understanding possible reasons why Muslims and Hindus appeared less likely than Christian and Jews to report premarital and extramarital sex. We also wanted to know whether people who lived in Muslim majority nations would be influenced by the surrounding religious culture even if they were not Muslim.
We found that ever married Muslims and Hindus were less likely than Christians and Jews to report premarital sex. Married Muslims were also less likely than all other adherents of major religions, except Buddhists, to report extramarital sex. We did not find that this earlier age of first sex explained why Muslims and Hindus are less likely to report premarital sex than Christians and Jews. We also looked to see whether restrictions on women’s mobility explained why residents in Muslim-majority nations were less likely to have premarital sex. But, we did not find that legal restrictions mediated the relationship, suggesting that informal Islamic-inspired norms are more likely to have an influence on sexual behaviors than legal constraints.
One of the novelties of our study is our analysis of behaviors, rather than attitudes. While a lot of research attention has been given to understanding differences between the major world religions in adherents’ attitudes, much less attention has been given to understanding differences based on behaviors. Indeed, we do not know of any research that has investigated differences in behavior between adherents of the major religious groups or across national religious cultures. Part of the problem is that collecting cross-national public opinion data is expensive and difficult. While there have been some cross-national survey collaborations these surveys largely focus on people’s attitudes, and ask few questions about people’s behaviors, especially riskier and possibly taboo activities such as premarital and extramarital sex. Our study relied on data from the Demographic and Health Surveys, which are collected in mostly developing countries and focus on health-related behaviors. The Demographic and Health Surveys include a measure of religious affiliation, which allowed us to look at differences in behavior based on religious differences.
Another novelty of this study is that we were able to unravel not only how adherence to one of the major world religions shapes sexual behaviors, but whether the dominant religious faith in a nation influences all residents or only people who adhere to the dominant faith. To assess how a dominant faith within a country shapes behaviors we need cross-national data that has a number of countries with some variation in religious culture. In other words, we need data where there are a number of both Muslim and Christian nations. The Demographic and Health Surveys has this. Using Hierarchical Modeling techniques we were able to look at whether a Muslim religious culture influenced the sexual behaviors of all residents, or only Muslim residents. We found that a national Islamic religious context was associated with lower odds of premarital sex for all residents, regardless of their religious affiliation.
A major challenge for this study was assessing the extent to which our key findings would be reliable and minimally effected by social desirability bias. Reliability includes the extent to which a measure is dependable across different groups of people. Sex is a sensitive issue and we were concerned that Muslim and Hindu women may be under greater pressure than Christians and Jews to respond in socially desirable ways to questions about premarital sex. To do this, we checked for inconsistent responses, such as when a respondent says she is a virgin at marriage but provided an age at intercourse younger than age when married. An inconsistent response might suggest that respondents are trying to respond in a socially desirable way. For premarital sex we found that Muslims and Hindus were significantly less likely than others to have a flagged response, suggesting that these groups are less likely than other affiliates to respond in socially desirable ways to questions related to premarital sex.
There are some clear takeaways from this study. Within religious groups people seem to differ so much. Take a group of Christians. Some of them will start having sex at relatively young ages, but some will wait until marriage. It is hard to see how affiliating as Christian or Jewish would make that much of a difference for whether someone has sex for the first time before or after marriage. This is one of the first studies to show that there are clear differences between religious groups in terms of their sexual behaviors. If we found these differences in their sexual behaviors, there are likely to be other behavioral differences, adding insight into the chasm between Muslims and adherents of Judeo-Christian faiths that we seem to be observing. Religion clearly has a powerful influence on behavior, and its effect is not the same across religious groups. Islam has been the most successful religion in putting forth religious precepts about premarital sex and getting its adherents to abide by these precepts. Moreover, even if you are not religious, if you are living in a Muslim majority country, you are likely to adjust your behavior and act in ways that are more consistent with Islamic religious precepts. Across the world, the Islamic faith is clearly very powerful in shaping behavior.
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The explanation for this effect that immediately comes to mind is the greater social controls on women in Muslim-majority nations. But the authors found that the difference between Muslim and Christian didn’t go away when controlling for a measure of women’s freedom. Anyway, this is something that might be interesting to explore in a future paper.