Almost all Americans have sex before getting married, and that’s been true for decades. But the normalization of casual sex is newer. And it’s not clear that newer norms around having sex casually or very soon after meeting are really helping those who ultimately want lasting, committed relationships.
A 2010 study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology looked at the relationship between the amount of time a couple waits to have sex and the quality of their marriage. Researchers found that couples who waited until marriage reported not just less consideration of divorce but also higher relationship satisfaction, better communication and superior sex when compared with couples who began having sex within a month of their first date (or before they started dating). Couples who slept together between a month and two years after their first date — but didn’t wait until marriage — saw about half of the benefits.
Jason Carroll, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and one of the study authors, speculates that one reason couples benefit from waiting before becoming sexually involved is because people tend to make better decisions about dating before they’re physically entangled. “Simply put, we are hardwired to connect,” he writes. “Rapid sexual initiation often creates poor partner selection because intense feelings of pleasure and attachment can be confused for true intimacy and lasting love.”
Maybe this sounds like an excerpt from “The Magic Touch.” Or whatever book or purity metaphor (unsticky tape, chewed gum) dominated your abstinence-centric sexual education curriculum.
Though often bundled in practice, the idea that sex may not be truly casual and the stigmatizing metaphors don’t really need to go together.
An increasingly prominent strain of thinkers, many of them feminists, have been lending their support to the idea that treating sex as something that is not casual might be an idea worth taking seriously. Christine Emba, the author of “Rethinking Sex: A Provocation,” argues that the modern sex-positive climate in which there’s wide agreement that “sex is good and the more of it we have, the better” has contributed to young people, especially women, engaging in sexual encounters they don’t really want.
When I reviewed the transcripts of the dozen or so formal conversations I had for this piece, I noticed a common theme. Whether Jewish, evangelical, Mormon or Muslim, almost everyone I spoke to emphasized that their approach to dating offered some kind of protection for the single person, a way to make the process of finding a partner a little less painful.