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.