AILSA CHANG, HOST:
This spring we've been bringing you stories about sex - specifically how we talk about it, how we don't and how those conversations shape society. Today our story is about not having sex - or at least waiting to - and how one couple navigated that decision. Waiting until marriage is relatively rare in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, close to 90 percent of people who've ever been married say they have had premarital sex.
NPR's Sarah McCammon talked to one couple who did wait. And just a quick warning, for the next eight minutes, you'll be hearing some frank conversations about sex that might not be suitable for all listeners.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Laura and Adam Hardin spent a long time not having sex. But they've clearly figured it out. Almost five years into their marriage, they've got two toddlers running around.
LAURA HARDIN: You'll probably hear them bumping around...
ADAM HARDIN: Yeah.
L. HARDIN: ...Upstairs after this.
MCCAMMON: We met up with them to talk about their experience at their home in the D.C. suburbs in Maryland. Adam is 37, and Laura's 33. He's a middle school music teacher. She stays home with the kids. Do you get any sleep?
L. HARDIN: Some.
A. HARDIN: Yeah.
L. HARDIN: Yeah.
A. HARDIN: We get some.
MCCAMMON: And they've got another one on the way. Laura's baby belly is tough to miss these days. So yeah, they've got it figured out now. But it took some time.
A. HARDIN: Mostly I think I was concerned with, like, not wanting to hurt her. And so, like, what is this going to be like?
MCCAMMON: That's Adam talking about their honeymoon. Laura says after years of knowing each other and a year and a half as a couple, they were excited to have sex. But even with the marriage license signed, there was some trial and error.
L. HARDIN: I do remember calling a friend and just telling her how it was taking us awhile, and we weren't sure what to do.
MCCAMMON: The problem definitely wasn't a lack of chemistry. When they both started volunteering for a program run by their evangelical Christian church working with kids in Adam's neighborhood, a friendship began to grow that quickly turned into more.
A. HARDIN: You could just feel, like, the chemistry and the tension. And it was like, this thing is going to pop. You know, we - I really need to say something now.
L. HARDIN: Just even standing next to each other, we would make cookies for the kids. And, like, you could just feel it. And, like, he would reach over to get something. I'm like, oh, my gosh - he's so close.
MCCAMMON: Adam says he wanted to take things slowly, thoughtfully. And in large part because of their faith, they both wanted to save sex for marriage. So they made some rules.
L. HARDIN: I think it was more just, the question was how are we going to do that? So I think we just had discussions about boundaries, like, how far we were willing to go. So pretty early on, we decided we weren't going to kiss. And so that made things very easy (laughter).
A. HARDIN: (Laughter).
MCCAMMON: That's right. They didn't just wait on sex. They even waited to kiss until their wedding day. It's not for everyone, they say, but talking this out, having conversations about what they wanted for their relationship, helped them stick to the plan.
A. HARDIN: Because if we didn't kiss, then we weren't going to go any further.
L. HARDIN: And it also made, like, smaller things big. So, like, holding hands and hugging...
A. HARDIN: That's true.
L. HARDIN: ...Was, like...
A. HARDIN: It was huge.
L. HARDIN: ...A huge thing for us - maybe too huge. Like, we'd have these long hugs that we laugh about.
MCCAMMON: Like, how long?
L. HARDIN: I think...
A. HARDIN: Like 10 minutes.
L. HARDIN: Probably 10 minutes (laughter) - like, goodbyes were so long.
A. HARDIN: It was, like, standing at the base of the stairs, like, all right, time to go, give a hug.
MCCAMMON: As the wedding day got closer, Laura and Adam got ready. They'd kissed other people before, but neither of them had ever had sex. And they knew there would be a learning curve.
L. HARDIN: We had really good premarital counseling from our pastor and his wife. And they just were really real. They were like, we're going to get graphic. We're going to, like - because they knew we had, like, no experience - and so that we didn't kind of romanticize the wedding night or feel like if it didn't happen that night, that we failed and there's something wrong with us. I remember the pastor's wife, like, the Sunday before the wedding coming up to me with this bag of stuff to have that I would never think to have.
MCCAMMON: You have to tell me what was in that bag.
L. HARDIN: So I don't remember everything. I think there was, like, baby oil and lubricant. I think there were two kinds of lubricant.
A. HARDIN: Two different kinds.
L. HARDIN: I know some of it we used; some of it we didn't. But it was really thoughtful because I certainly didn't go to the store or anything (laughter).
A. HARDIN: (Laughter).
MCCAMMON: Now, Adam and Laura acknowledge they were lucky here. Laura says both her family and her Christian friends took what felt like a pretty open, nonjudgmental approach to talking about sex, something she says not everyone finds in the church.
L. HARDIN: I am really grateful that I was kind of free to develop my own convictions. So therefore, it didn't feel like a burden. However, I do agree with some things that I've read as far as, like, I do think we need to talk about it more.
MCCAMMON: There's been a lot written in recent years by people who grew up in the evangelical Christian purity movement, which teaches that premarital sex is a sin. Adam and Laura say they know that some of those messages and the way they've been presented have made people feel shame about sex and their bodies.
A. HARDIN: I think the criticism can be helpful. To me that's not a criticism on waiting to have sex. It's a criticism on waiting to talk about sex or how you talk about sex. That's actually one of the reasons that we decided we want to do this interview - because we felt like we have benefited from that conversation.
MCCAMMON: But talking about sex and having sex are not the same thing. Laura and Adam say all the advice they'd gotten from their pastor and their friends was really helpful. But they still had to figure out how to put it into practice on the honeymoon.
A. HARDIN: It took a few days before we were able to fully consummate. It's like, if you've never gone through that before, you don't really know what to expect it's going to feel like or what you're going to think about yourself. And so that was challenging. But, you know, once we got through it, you know, it was really sweet.
L. HARDIN: And I remember him actually saying - which, we needed to get to this point - where he just told me, like, OK, Laura, this is going to hurt. So, like, there was just - 'cause I think that's what was holding us back. And so he just told me that, and so we just knew we were going to go for it. And - but this was all in a space of just, like, trust.
A. HARDIN: I told you that?
L. HARDIN: And I just felt very safe. It was just part of our journey.
MCCAMMON: And then the honeymoon's over, and real life starts. Adam says it was an adjustment to come back and sort of see the world in a whole new light.
A. HARDIN: I just remember - this is kind of weird. But I was standing in line at the post office. And I was like, wow - like, the world is a sexual place (laughter). You know what I mean?
L. HARDIN: (Laughter).
A. HARDIN: To, like, know sex on that intimate level, you start to realize, like, that other people know this too.
MCCAMMON: For Adam and Laura, part of the beauty of their sexual relationship is that there are no other people and never have been.
A. HARDIN: We've kind of developed something that, other than this national interview, is something that only we know. (Laughter).
L. HARDIN: Yeah (laughter).
A. HARDIN: And so it's...
L. HARDIN: Yeah.
A. HARDIN: ...Really sweet, so.
L. HARDIN: And it's been me thinking that, like, Adam is the only person who knows that side of me.
A. HARDIN: Yeah.
L. HARDIN: You know, it's just, like, kind of crazy. And I'm the only person who knows, like, that side of him.
MCCAMMON: Laura and Adam Hardin waited for marriage to have sex. But that meant learning to communicate effectively about sex and everything else long before their wedding day. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Landover, Md.
CHANG: This story was produced by Kat Lonsdorf. And you can find other installments in our series about sex at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.