At a recent conference organised by the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy on unintended pregnancy, I questioned the women panelists – both of whom are medical doctors, including an obstetrician and gynaecologist – if they believed that men and women should never have sex until marriage.
I pointed out to the doctors, after they espoused pro-abstinence views at the conference, that some women may not want marriage.
I said that I myself am sexually active in my 30s, even though I’m not married.
The panelists mainly discussed about whether the government should expand access to contraceptives to prevent unintended pregnancy and baby dumping, particularly among teenagers.
So I sought to raise the point about adult women who do not believe in waiting for marriage to have sex, or who may not want to get married at all, using my personal beliefs as an example.
The Guardian reported behavioural scientist Paul Dolan from the London School of Economics as saying that unmarried and childless women are the healthiest and happiest subgroup in the population.
Marriage benefits men’s health because males take fewer risks than when they are single.
As taxpayers, women have the right to sexual and reproductive health care, including government-subsidised oral contraceptives at public health care facilities.
Single women, particularly, are more likely to be contributing to government coffers than their married counterparts who leave the workforce to raise their family. Malaysia’s female labour force participation rate remains stagnant at about 55 per cent.
I used to get two strips of oral contraceptives at a National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) clinic for RM1; certain brands of the birth control pill are sold in private pharmacies for RM49 a strip.
I managed to persuade the public clinic to get me on the pill, even though I was not married. Other single women, however, are not so lucky.
Malay Mail reported in 2015 discrimination in sexual and reproductive health care by several government clinics that refused to provide oral contraceptives to unmarried women across religion.
I have been sexually active since my 20s. Responses from conservatives to my sexually active lifestyle generally propagate sex as some sort of “sacred” or higher spiritual act exclusive to marriage, mainly for childbearing purposes.
They liken sex outside marriage to primitive thinking or animal behaviour. One man had the gall to call me a “Touch N Go machine”.
I’m a little puzzled by the vitriol to my personal beliefs as a non-Muslim woman.
Anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, is free to abstain from sex until marriage. But I do not hold such beliefs because sex, to me, is just a physical act between two consenting adults.
Sex and sexuality are a spectrum – men and women may want to engage in:
- One-night stands (one-time sexual encounter with someone you barely know or someone you know well).
- Casual sex with non-romantic partners for a certain period (love or sexual exclusivity not expected).
- Monogamy (love and either sexual abstinence or sexual exclusivity to one person).
- Open relationships (free to have sex with other people, but not to fall in love with them).
- Polyamory (free to have sex and love more than one person)
- Hierarchical polyamory: One main partner, plus other less important relationships (primary and secondary relationships).
- Egalitarian polyamory: All partners in a triad or quad considered equal.
- Marriage (legal sexual relationship)
- Monogamous marriage (love and sexual exclusivity between two people; gay marriage is not permitted in Malaysia).
- Polygamy (love and sexual relations between a man and up to four women for Muslim men in Malaysia).
- Open marriage (spouses come to a mutual understanding that they’re free to have sex with other people – this is not the same as cheating).
- Threesomes or foursomes (sexual intercourse between three and four individuals, either outside marriage or between a married couple and other people).
I won’t go into the spectrum of sexuality. Beyond the oft-cited LGBTQI umbrella, some people also identify as asexual, meaning that they simply do not feel sexual attraction to anyone.
Before I entered a long-term monogamous (non-marital) relationship with a man, I previously had sex with people that I was physically attracted to, and that I could connect with on a personal and intellectual level. One-night stands didn’t really do it for me because there was no personal connection.
The best sex, in my limited experience so far, is with someone who knows me well. Throughout all my sexual encounters, including in my current relationship, I always ensure that they wear a condom.
If my partner refuses to wear a condom, then I decline to have sexual intercourse – which they have respected.
A woman’s worth does not lie between her legs, but in her achievements, the content of her character, and how she treats other people, especially those less fortunate than herself – the same way that men are rarely judged based on their sexual attitudes and behaviours.
I separate love from sex. Treating sex as a “gift” to your spouse is essentially saying that your biggest worth is merely your body, rather than presenting yourself as a complex individual with unique beliefs, values, and character.
If I were to give up certain legal rights as a woman by getting married, I would wed a man who supports my ambitions and career and treats me as an equal partner in marriage. Sex is secondary.
Contrary to perceptions of premarital sex as primitive, it’s sex within marriage that more closely mirrors animal behaviour of having sex for reproduction instead of pleasure.
Sex carries different meaning for different people. Besides the physical facet of sexual pleasure, to me, the act of sex does come with a degree of trust and intimacy because I am entrusting another person with power over my body and making myself vulnerable for a moment.
This psychological dimension can be even more intoxicating than the physical, especially since I’m used to being in control in every other aspect of my life. So, I find it reductive to place sex — and for that matter, love — in the conventional constraints of marital monogamy.
If men marry women just to obtain sex, women will get the shorter end of the stick as our looks will fade with time.
Women would end up in even worse situations if they gave up their jobs to raise their children, only to have their husband divorce them for a younger woman and give them inadequate maintenance and child support.
Children from such families will grow up in broken homes, as their mother struggles to find suitable-paying jobs after years of absence from the workforce during marriage.
Children will be further affected if the divorce was acrimonious, and if the mother suffers from financial stress on top of her sole caregiving burden.
How does this support society and the institution of marriage and family? The economic cost of divorce in Malaysia, along with the psychological toll on children who may grow up into less productive adults with adjustment issues, is not yet known.
Last year, 45,420 divorces among Muslim couples were registered nationwide, with the highest reported in Selangor (8,811) and Johor (5,058), similar to 2019 rates at 45,502 divorces.
This was higher than 2018 figures at 40,269 divorces and 2017 with 39,709 divorces among Muslim couples.
The year 2020 saw 37,853 divorces among Muslim couples, a 16.8 per cent decline from 2019, likely due to the Covid-19 pandemic that shuttered most government services.
The worst that has happened to me during my sexually active lifestyle is temporary heartbreak that I got over relatively quickly without any health issues, as I always practice safe sex.
Men and women who get married just for sex risk early divorce, unexpected high financial costs from having children, and mental stress from poor preparation in creating a household – with subsequent knock-on effects on the wider community, economy, and society.
Parents are free to educate their children not to engage in sex until marriage. But if teenagers disobey their parents and do end up having sex anyway, then both young men and women should at least be equipped with knowledge on safe sex and sexual consent, and access to contraceptives to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Unintended pregnancy and baby dumping are a public health issue that affects girls and women particularly, as they – not the boys and men who knocked them up – bear the brunt of societal judgment, ostracisation from their own families, and possible prosecution from the State.
Providing comprehensive sexual education, as well as access to contraception and safe abortion services, does not necessarily have to be perceived as a culture war.
Parents, community leaders, and religious teachers can continue to teach abstinence to young people.
Condoms, birth control pills, and safe abortion services are simply a back-up solution in the event of “what-ifs”, which, judging by Malaysia’s baby dumping trends, occur all too frequently.
Boo Su-Lyn is editor-in-chief of CodeBlue.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Ova.