The Art of Manliness posted yesterday to argue that sex is best when it comes later in a relationship, however you choose to define “later.” Blogger Brett Mckay is certainly careful to note right up-front that he’s talking only about long-term relationships, so I’m not going to take him to task for that focus. Nevertheless, I find the conflation of sex and intimacy dangerous and destructive, and I think we can do better.
For too long, we’ve bought into the monogamous myth that, without True Love, sex can only be for quick, selfish pleasure. You all know I disagree with this entirely, but I’m disturbed to see Art of Manliness uncritically cite scientific studies to prop up this unrealistic dichotomy. There are many kinds of sex, and many contexts for sex, and many complicated feelings that we can have about any given sexual relationship. Instead of considering this, Brett focuses on only two variables: how soon did you have sex, and how happy are you with your relationship now?
First, he cites two surveys of folks currently in long-term (presumably monogamous) relationships. Apparently folks who waited for sex report feeling better about their relationships than those who boned before they said “I love you” or decided to be exclusive (or got married!).
I have to wonder- is it that sex itself causes “regret, uncertainty, discomfort, and … apologies” when it shows up early in a relationship, or are folks experiencing the challenge of having defied a culture that tells them to wait? Years of conditioning that sex without love is somehow lesser, dirtier, and, in fact, endangers your prospects for long-term happiness would certainly make it harder to celebrate having an early sexual connection with someone.
Brett, leaning on Benedict Carey, posits that it’s more beneficial to create a strong positive narrative about sex in the relationship:
Psychologists have found that just like all good stories, the coherence of our personal narratives matters and the more coherence our life story has, the greater our sense of well-being. Coherence grows out of a number of things, including the way one event seems to lead naturally to another, and how clearly cause and effect can be seen. When sex happens prior to love and commitment and somewhat randomly – “After a few dates we were watching a movie and then we started making out and ended up having sex.” – it becomes a fragment that’s harder to fit into the narrative of your relationship and doesn’t add much to the story of how you became a couple. On the other hand, if the sex in a relationship follows after expressions of love and commitment – “We first said I love when we watched the sun come up after a hike. We booked a weekend at a bed and breakfast a few weeks later and had sex for the first time.” – the episode easily becomes integrated – in a positive way — into the story of your relationship.
Individual stories depend on deeper sets of cultural narratives. As long as Love-Sex and Lust-Sex are mutually exclusive, how can we possibly set up a story about our relationships that includes having sex early on? As long as movies, television, novels, and more tell us that sex before love is meaningless, how can we feel good about changing the order around in our own relationships?
Thing One and I had sex on our second date. The first time, we’d just gotten dinner, and I probably would have gone home with him that night, but I was going out of town the next morning and needed to pack. That second time, I went over to have dinner with his family, we played Rock Band for a while, and then awkwardly negotiated our way into bed together. It wasn’t particularly special or earth-shattering, and we didn’t fall in love that night, and it’s not even a story I really think about a lot in the history of our relationship. Our love story includes plenty of sex, but sex isn’t a major hinge point- it’s just a thing we like to do together, like playing board games or getting Indian food.
Thing Two took until the fourth “date” to end up in my bed (although only one of those dates was one-on-one, because Thing Two’s a weirdo and hard to pin down), over the course of two whole months, and that felt like a really long time (still does). We went to a concert with a bunch of Thing Two’s out-of-town friends, who were all going to be crashing in my living room. I wasn’t sure Thing Two was even staying with me until we were in bed together, and wasn’t sure we’d be having sex until we were putting our hands down each other’s pants. Because Thing Two’s pretty bad at labels and definitions, that first time we had sex helped cement for me that we were, in fact, doing this dating thing- quite dispelling the uncertainty and discomfort I’d had before we did the deed! Just like with Thing One, I don’t define our relationship in terms of sex, and the major milestones in our story aren’t about sex.
I count myself lucky that I’ve always been somewhat immune to other people’s notions of what sex should or shouldn’t be. I get insecure sometimes, sure, but mostly I know what I like and I feel no qualms about seeking it out. I like sex, and I like having sex with folks I love, and I don’t equate sex and love.
Doug Stanhope has a brilliant joke about our tendency to describe sex as the most intimate thing two people can experience. He compares two strangers reaching orgasm as quickly as they can, and compares it to caring for his friend after she had a mastectomy. Which is more intimate- that release of various pleasure hormones, or meeting another person in true, messy, disgusting vulnerability? For much of human history, we’ve insisted that you should only have sex with someone you would also be willing to care for through all the other ups and downs of life, and so we’ve gotten the intimacy wires crossed.
Brett knows this in his article- he looks at research about the ways oxytocin serves to help us bond with another person. Research shows that the brain releases oxytocin during sex, but that orgasm causes a big drop in the hormone (along with a dopamine crash). Oxytocin (often called the “cuddle hormone”) is associated with lots of other activities, too, though- holding hands, staring into each other’s eyes, kissing, etc. Probably even buying milk and syncing your Google calendars. Brett argues that this is proof we should be careful about sex- we need lots of those oxytocin-positive activities to get over the drop that comes after sex (and apparently makes us find our partner less attractive).
There’s another solution, though: we could admit that these activities that don’t lead to a hormone drop are actually MORE intimate than the ones that directly involve our genitals, and build our relationship narratives appropriately. There are plenty of non-sexual relationship milestones we can focus on- letting our sweetheart see us sick, sharing a deep secret, making a major purchase together. I’ll have sex with just about anyone, but I only spend the night with people I’m certain I’m committed to- cuddling all night is a far more intimate and loving act for me than sex. If I’m not sure about a relationship, I put off co-sleeping to let things develop to that point of trust and care.
Only one of my relationships, in my entire life, has followed the narrative of flirting and kissing and cuddling and slowly building up to sex over the course of a few months. That relationship happened to also be the most conflict-filled and least healthy, by far. I’m guessing that’s coincidence, and that early, frequent sex wouldn’t have solved our fundamental issues. If I wanted to use this story just to prove my point, I’d say the sexual delay caused me to invest more deeply and stay around longer than I should have. In fact, complete other circumstances led to those particular outcomes- sex, even when delayed for months contrary to all my usual behaviors- was still not the emotional core of the relationship and didn’t alter its trajectory.
Sex only has as much power as we give it. As long as we keep acting like it can be earth-shattering, we shouldn’t be surprised if it makes the ground beneath our feet unstable. Decoupling sex and love means we can pursue each in whatever form we’d like, hurting each other less in the process.