One of the things that most fascinates and frustrates me when people talk about morality (or, I suppose I should say "morality" with quotes) is how much of what they are focused on is what could, for lack of a better term, be called "victimless crimes."
Not coincidentally, most of these "moral" rules reveal a bizarre obsession with sex. Now, a few points up front. What I am talking about here is responsible sex between those who are capable of making responsible decisions. So, it is sex that avoids unnecessary risks amongst those who have the maturity and frame of mind necessary to make an intelligent choices regarding responsible behavior (so those who are too young/inexperienced in life to make such decisions, those who suffer from conditions that impair their judgment, and so on are not being considered here - they are, by definition, a special case that the general rules don't apply to). I am talking strictly about sex between reasonable and responsible adults - don't try to put words in my mouth and claim I am saying otherwise. Also, don't try the bullshit "slippery slope" argument that what I am saying automatically leads to sex with children, animals, etc. etc. The fact that I specifically state that I am talking about individuals capable of making responsible decisions automatically shows such responses for the bullshit that they usually are anyway.
I have lost count of the number of times that I have had someone lecture me about the "immorality" of pre-marital sex. Now, don't get me wrong, considering the possibility of both pregnancy and infection with disease, not to mention the emotional issues that it causes for many people, sex is something that demands responsibility. However, responsibility can be taken by the unmarried as easily as the married (in fact, because they are more likely to be forced to see sex as something other than a matter of course, it's possible that the unmarried might be more likely to think about sex and therefore be responsible). Contraception can be used, couples can discuss the possibilities of emotional entanglements both before they begin a sexual relationship and throughout the duration of that relationship, individuals and couples can avoid risky behavior, and individuals can be routinely tested for STD's. Just as importantly, each individual should know what they think and feel about sex and its consequences (both certain and potential), and make sure that they find a partner who is compatible - what sex is and means is different for everyone.
These things being done, the responsibilities associated with sex can be dealt with just as effectively as they would be for a married couple - indeed, comparing the married vs. unmarried couples I know side-by-side, the unmarried couples routinely show a greater responsibility regarding their sex lives (you don't want to know the number of married couple I have crossed paths with where one member routinely lies to the other regarding sex, sometimes having severe consequences for both of them, while the unmarried couples I know tend to be rather open and honest with each other). Hardly a scientific survey, I know, and perhaps not completely representative, but it does give the lie to the notion that unmarried people are not likely to be responsible.
Yet, this being the case, many (usually, though not always, religious) folks rant about the evils of pre-marital sex. Why? While many claim that there are many bad consequences inherent in pre-marital sex, the scenarios provided consistently either caricature pre-marital sex into something that it is not (for example, it is very likely that someone reading this will claim that I am advocating wild promiscuity, which is the very opposite of the responsible behavior that I am advocating) or else ignore that the same problems associated with pre-marital sex are frequently also associated with sex between married couples (for example, I bet that someone right now is thinking that I haven't taken infidelity into account, but I have, and it is unfortuantely common amongst married couples). It is an unfortunate fact that married couples often experience abuse, infidelity, STD's, and other such problems. Don't believe me? Talk to a marriage counselor some time, they can tell you tales to curl your skin back from your bones. The fact that such problems are common for unmarried couples does not in any way change the fact that they are also common for married couples.
Now, some folks will claim that the non-married couples have shown less commitment. Not necessarilly true. I have met many non-married couples who have been together for decades, and many people who have been married multiple times within the space of a few years. Legal recognition of the relationship does not confer commitment on the part of the members of the couple - unfortunate, but true. All of that aside, though, so long as the couple is responsible, if no physical or emotional results from the sex (again, also quite possible for married couples), what is the harm done? If you guessed "well, none, really," give yourself a cookie.
Others will claim that pre-marital sex does psychological harm to those engaged in it. However, all of the studies that I am familiar with indicate that people with an active sex life, whether they are married or not, tend to be happier and healthier than those who lack one (who may be married or non-married). Moreover, many of the married couples that I know have found their sex lives unsatisfying when they married someone with whom they were incompatible, often doing psychological harm to both members of the couple. So, the psychological harm argument doesn't hold water.
Some folks will, at this point, claim that pre-marital sex results in "spiritual harm," by its very nature not a qualifiable or quantifiable thing. The "spiritual harm" argument is one of the most arrogant bullshit arguments that humanity has ever conceived - designed to be untestable, it exists merely so that someone who has reached an ill-informed a-priori conclusion can continue to hold that view despite overwhelming evidence. It essentially says "I, personally, dislike this thing, and so I will claim that it is wrong and evil despite all evidence or arguments against my conclusion!" Anyone who uses the "spiritual harm" argument should be ashamed of themselves for their basic dishonesty, but they probably won't be.
So, if there is not necessarilly a qualitative difference in pre-marital and marital sex, and there is no real evidence that responsible people will somehow be less responsible if they are not married, where does the claim of immorality come from?
Well, mostly it comes from tradition. Traditionally, most people claimed to wait until marriage for sex. Whether or not this is true is unclear at best - the first systematic sex surveys were not conducted until the 1950's, so hard data is lacking. However, it is known that prostitution was rampant through to the early 20th century (up through the early 20th century, every sizable town, and many small settlements, in California, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada had brothels - and that's just the region that I personally know about, I suspect that it is equally true for regions that I haven't studied), "deflowered girls" were often hidden by family, "illegitimate" pregnancies were a well-known phenomenon, churches routinely preached about the "evils of premarital sex" (why they would be preaching about it if it wasn't a relatively common "sin" is a question worth asking), and STDs were endemic in most populated areas (consider the estimated syphilis rates prior to the discovery of antibiotics) - so while people may have been claiming to "wait for marriage", a large number of them clearly weren't.
As a result of the expectation, however, most people simply didn't talk about sex. As a result, people assumed that almost everyone was following the "traditional" practices, despite the fact that this clearly was not happening. So, a tradition of a "tradition" grew up, and people began to think of this as the norm, and it is an unfortunate tendency for human cultures to mistake a perceived (though often not real) norm for "morality". In addition to all of this, the lack of discussion regarding sex has led to a substantial misunderstanding of it.
For example, in my hometown, I often heard people scream that sex is "for procreation, not recreation!" This attitude reveals a truly diseased misunderstanding of the physiological, social, and psychological dimensions of sex. Across human cultures, sex serves for procreation, yes, but also as a bonding tool between individuals, as a form of recreation, and as a release for tensions and anxieties. Physiologically, the benefits of sex are becoming clearer through medical research, but so far they are known to include: relieving physiological stress, boosting the immune system, maintaining healthy hormone balances, and helping to maintain overall health. So, sex does much, much more than simple procreation, and to claim otherwise is to show a vast ignorance of what it is (incidentally, most of these benefits come from any form of sex, not strictly heterosexual missionary position vaginal intercourse).
So, then, what is the harm of responsible premarital sex between adults? Well, nothing, really. We claim that it is immoral because it goes against a dubious tradition that tends to be uncritically accepted.
Now, that's not to say that pre-marital sex is a good idea for everyone. There is a wide range of human variation, and for some individuals, premarital sex may be a bad idea - and that is up to the individual to decide. But it is not for that individual to push their own feelings on the rest of society and arrogantly call it "morality."
But the point is that pre-marital sex is not inherently a bad thing by any verifiable measure, and may even be a good thing in providing health benefits for the unmarried and allowing the unmarried to find a partner with whom they are compatible before they enter into a legal contract (which is what marriage is in our society). Pre-marital sex is not inherently bad, so how can it (as opposed to risky sex, abusive sex, etc., which can be engaged in by married people as well as unmarried people) be considered immoral when nobody is harmed? This is the problem of most conventional measures of "morality" - they are arbitrary and focused on preventing things for no real reason, while often distracting society from very real problems and threats.
More broadly speaking, why is sex the focus of so much of our society's arguments about "morality?" Matters such as violence, poverty, and disease are usually just paid lip service, and are only rarely directly addressed as moral concerns (as opposed to legal or financial concerns). Debate about sex has been a constant feature of our social arguments about morality - be it the right of pharmacists to not sell contraceptives (while still selling Viagra - go figure), arguments against such complete non-issues as gay marriage, or constant tries to push "abstinence-only" education on the public despite the fact that it has been consistently shown to not actually work. Why is it that issues that impact all of us are pushed into the background while the personal lives of independent adults are opened up for public scrutiny? Also worth asking - why is it that most of the people doing this pushing are the self-proclaimed "conservatives" who want "less government" except for when and where the government interferes with people's personal lives?
Worse, our obsession with sex as a focus of "morality" has led to a clouding of issues and an ignorance of very real problems. For example, the HPV vaccine has the potential to eliminate most cases of genital warts and many cases of cervical cancer, yet many religious groups oppose it because they insanely believe that anyone who engages in sex outside of marriage deserves to get a deadly disease (and they are open about this, go to Google and look up "HPV Vaccine religious and moral opposition" to see these folks say it themselves)*. Likewise, most anti-prostitution crusaders focus on the sex, not on the medical and violence risks faced by the prostitutes (or even by our culture's attitudes towards sex that creates an underground prostitution market). Also, many religious lobbyists actively put pressure on the government to cut funding for HIV/AIDS research despite the fact that this research can save lives the world over not only by stopping HIV, but also because the odd biological problems that must be tackled for this research will contribute greatly to the treatment of a wide variety of other diseases.
To add to the problem, many folks realize the inherent silliness of classifying pre-marital sex as evil or "sinful", but because of the immature attitudes that this "morality" fosters, they often swing to the opposite end and assume that extremely risky behavior is somehow more "natural", "moral", "sophisticated", etc. Of course, this is just as ridiculous, but it is the sort of soft-headed response that one should expect from a pervasive soft-headed immoral "morality" that demonizes sex.
In short, the "moral" focus on sex has led to an ignorance of real problems (such as violence), the demonization of segments of the public who are doing no harm (such as unmarried couples and homosexuals), and the creation of a society in which promising medical research is attacked or ignored because by dealing with sex it makes many people uncomfortable. This is sick. Moreover, it has led to a society in which "moral" crusaders consistently waste the time and money of the government pushing for the government interference in our personal lives (making various forms of sex illegal, interfering in medical treatments, interfering in the right of responsible adults to marry whom they choose) and attempting to silence criticism of this absurd behavior. This is really, really sick.
* This should not be confused with actual debate in the medical community regarding the use of the vaccine, which is usually based around, ya' know, evidence and not presumptuous notions about morality.
Note: I previously posted this elsewhere. It has been mildly edited to make it more readable.