In the novel “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” the great German intellectual Johann Goethe chronicles the protagonist’s descent into a German culture riddled with hypocrisy. Throughout the novel, Meister grapples with both the ubiquity of societal hypocrisy and the ease with which humans point out hypocrisy in others but rarely in themselves.

Everyone loves to hate a hypocrite, just not the one in the mirror.

Perhaps that’s why searching for hypocrisy in the sex lives of religious people has become something of a sport among a subset of American writers.

Rolling Stone magazine, for example, ran an article last week indulging in the bizarre and wholly unsubstantiated rumor, first circulated on TikTok, that Brigham Young University students — you know, the ones famous for their chocolate milk consumption and their stone-cold sober reputation — had an outbreak of a sexually transmitted disease from engaging in, wait for it, sexual contact involving armpits.

Because, you know, religious hypocrites always resort to the strangest, most contorted ways of committing sin in order to ensure they casuistically avoid breaking “rules.” Even though the Rolling Stone author wasn’t able to corroborate any of the rumors (isn’t that the job of a reporter?), amazingly the piece was still given the green light and published anyway.

Earlier this year, other publications from Yahoo! to the New York Post similarly ran articles claiming Latter-day Saint college students weren’t really following their religion’s admonition to be chaste — abstaining from premarital relations and practicing fidelity within traditional marriage — because they were engaging in other sexual workarounds not fit for description in print.

Again, none of these rumors have been substantiated by credible sources.

These pieces likely say more about those who publish them than about Latter-day Saint college students. Making fun of religious people, Latter-day Saints or otherwise, is a personal choice. And, to quote Goethe, “Nothing shows a man’s character more than what he laughs at.” Latter-day Saints aren’t the only ones to have jeers thrown at them; Anabaptists and Orthodox Jews, among others, have long been subjected to these kinds of tropes.

So why do tropes like these fester?

By accusing religious practitioners of sexual behavior out of step with their stated values, accusers imply that religious people don’t or can’t follow their own principles, subtly suggesting the principles are impractical or otherwise flawed.

It turns out, however, the principles actually work. 

Highly religious individuals are by and large much more likely than the general population to refrain from sexual contact before marriage. A study conducted in 2022 found that religions with teachings regarding sexual morality consistently correlated with lower rates of premarital sex.

Analyzing the 2021 General Social Survey, Lyman Stone showed that adults under age 35 who attended church more than monthly reported significantly lower levels of nonmarital sex than the general population. University of Oklahoma professor Samuel Perry’s research has also found that highly religious men are more likely to have an aversion to pornography.

Now, specifically regarding Latter-day Saints, some have pointed to one 2009 study that said Utah had the highest number of pornography subscriptions per capita, but this study seems to be an outlier. A 2015 review that included the 2009 study and more recent analyses found that Utah, which has one of the youngest populations in the nation, typically ranks considerably lower: even 50th in the U.S. 

Table 1 (ranking pornography use in different states) from a 2015 review published by Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace. | Michael Gmeiner, Joseph Price and Michael Worley
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Of course, not all Latter-day Saints follow their faith’s sexual ethic. But Dean Busby, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University, said Latter-day Saints are likely to remain chaste because of the church’s marital teachings. “The basic difference is Latter-day Saints have a type of marriage that is only accessible by highly religious couples. This type of marriage requires a couple to elevate themselves both spiritually and sexually. That’s part of the high demand. You have to raise your spiritual life to a specific level.”

Busby and his colleague at BYU, David Dollahite, cited research that shows how Latter-day Saint youths have some of the lowest rates of premarital sex compared both to nonreligious youths and youths of different religious affiliations. They described how the Latter-day Saint emphasis on family formation leads to young people waiting for marriage and to higher rates of marriage with relatively lower rates of divorce.

There are no doubt many religious hypocrites, but on average the principles do seem to impact behavioral outcomes.

Church members view intimacy as sacred; most active members view refraining from premarital sex as beneficial. The assumption that religious people secretly dislike their religious teachings and do not want to practice them is a tired one.

The Rolling Stone article quotes a therapist who says everyone experiences sexual desire and that it would make sense for religious people who may feel guilt around sex to find loopholes to fulfill their sexual desires without breaking the “rules.”

It’s a significant misunderstanding of religious people to suppose that one would not experience guilt by engaging in a strange sexual “loophole.” While it’s important not to feel stuck in shame around sex or sexual desire, there are also rational reasons why someone might choose to refrain from premarital sex.

For starters, for many people, there are negative emotional and psychological consequences from engaging in hook-up culture, according to The American Psychological Association. Daniel Frost, BYU assistant professor of family life, said, “It seems like some people want to say that sex isn’t a big deal, but our conversations around sexual identity and other matters suggest that sex is extremely important.”

While it’s easy to “dunk on” how “straight-laced” religious populations are, it might be more worthwhile to try to understand why I and other people may come to the conclusion that there’s value in waiting for marriage. As a young woman in 21st-century America, I have found it not only empowering, but also vital to wait for marriage — no matter how dunkable my decision is to Rolling Stone or others.

For me, our countercultural position on refraining from premarital sex is actually quite humanizing. Frost put it this way: “Some are saying that religious people should just relax about sex, but other thinkers like Louise Perry and Christine Emba show that sex is inherently meaningful.”

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The reality is that religious people who believe sex is inherently important see it as meaningful and valuable, therefore not something to be taken lightly. And data show the sex lives of the highly religious are far more fulfilling. This is particularly true for women. According to one study described in a New York Post article, highly religious couples “are three times more likely than less-religious peers to report a sexually satisfying relationship.”

Even failing sometimes to live up to that standard doesn’t make religious people legalistic hypocrites when it comes to sexual morality; it makes them imperfect people trying to live up to their principles. Which is true of just about every human being. Even those who write for Rolling Stone.