In some sub-Saharan African civilizations (although by no means universally), marriage has been an unfolding process rather than a salient event (Meekers, 1992). As Bledsoe (1990:118) writes:
The first problem is that of defining when marriage begins and ends. African marriage is often a long, ambiguous process rather than a unitary event. It may extend over a period of months or even years, as partners and their families work cautiously toward more stable conjugal relationships. A girl, sometimes with her family's implicit permission, may test out potential relationships with several young men before establishing a more permanent one.
This ambiguity presents researchers with an additional problem of interpretation, since the answer to the question "Were you a virgin at marriage?" clearly depends on how the respondent dates marriage. If a union turned out to be successful, the respondent may in retrospect date the marriage from the start of that union, even though it was at the time a tenuous and potentially transitory liaison (van de Walle, 1993).
A substantial body of work addresses the question of premarital sex. Inevitably, definitions vary widely. In the WHO/GPA surveys, for instance, the term refers to any sex before first regular partnership. Other surveys define the term as any sexual activity before legally or traditionally sanctioned marriage, thus including early sex between people who subsequently go on to marry. Table 4-2 gives some of the findings reported by the various studies.
As mentioned earlier, several studies show a discrepancy between a persistent ideal of virginity at marriage and actual levels of premarital activity, both now and in the past. In Anarfi (1993), three-quarters of both men and women said they believed women should be virgins at marriage, but barely 1 in 10 of either sex maintained that he or she was. Further, two-thirds of ever-married men and half of ever-married women reported having had two or more premarital partners. Some 40 percent of respondents in Ogbuagu and Charles' (1993) study in Calabar, Nigeria, said they hold virginity at marriage as an ideal, but fewer than half that proportion could report no sex before marriage. While Botswana and Kenya display strong evidence of a rise in premarital sex, Meekers (1994), using data from a variety of DHS studies, shows that there is generally a substantial fall in the proportions of single women currently reporting sexual activity as compared with the proportions of married women saying they experienced sex before marriage. While the figures are distorted by the fact that many single women who are still virgins may go on to have premarital sex, this observation also hints that it may be easier to report socially dubious behavior after the fact than at the time of its occurrence.
Several researchers note that women sometimes feel under pressure to prove they are fertile by getting pregnant in order to increase their chances of marriage (e.g., Standing and Kisekka, 1989). Because of a ubiquitous age difference at marriage between men and women, any decline in polygyny—as long as populations