When is the right time to start having sex in a relationship? Not until marriage? A couple months in? The “standard” three dates? Sometimes even on the first date?
There are as many opinions on this question as there are men in this world, and each will often vigorously defend his position. The guy who waited until marriage says he couldn’t be happier with his decision, while the guy who sees nothing wrong with sex on the first date contends that such behavior is entirely natural and without negative consequence. And of course abstinence guy will never be able to step into the shoes of early-in-the-relationship guy, and vice versa. Which is why time and experience have shown that arguing about this decision – especially over the internet! – rarely, if ever, convinces someone to entirely change their position.
Thus what I hope to lay out in this article is not an iron-clad rule for when you should become intimate in a relationship. Instead what I aim to present today is a case for delaying intimacy in a relationship and taking it slower – leaving the interpretation of what “slower” means up to each individual man to filter through his own moral, religious, and philosophical beliefs.
Note: Before we begin, I should probably point out the somewhat obvious fact that this post is directed at those who desire a long-term relationship. While I don’t personally endorse the one-night stand, if that’s your modus operandi, then this article would not be relevant for your situation.
Is There Any Evidence That Delaying Intimacy Benefits a Long-Term Relationship?
You may have a heard a parent, teacher, or preacher contend that waiting to have sex will ultimately strengthen a relationship. But is there any actual evidence out there that backs up this well-meaning, if often vague advice? There is at least some that seems to point in that direction.
In one study, Dr. Sandra Metts asked 286 participants to think about the different turning points in their present or past relationships. One question she hoped to answer was whether it made a difference if the couple had made a commitment to be exclusive and had said “I love you” before or after commencing sexual intimacy. Metts found that when a commitment is made and love is expressed before a couple starts to have sex, the “sexual experience is perceived to be a positive turning point in the relationship, increasing understanding, commitment, trust, and sense of security.” However, when love and commitment is expressed after a couple becomes sexually involved, “the experience is perceived as a negative turning point, evoking regret, uncertainty, discomfort, and prompting apologies.” Metts did not find a significant difference in this pattern between men and women.
In another study, Dr. Dean Busby sought to find out the effect that sexual timing had on the health of a couple’s eventual marriage. He surveyed over 2,000 people who ranged in age from 19 to 71, had been married anywhere from 6 months to more than 20 years, and held a variety of religious beliefs (and no religious beliefs at all). The results were controlled for religiosity, income, education, race, and the length of relationship. What Busby found is that couples who delayed intimacy in a relationship enjoyed better long-term prospects and greater satisfaction in a variety of areas in their marriage. Those who waited until marriage to have sex reported the following benefits over those who had sex early on in the relationship:
- Relationship stability was rated 22 percent higher
- Relationship satisfaction was rated 20 percent higher
- Sexual quality of the relationship was rated 15 percent better
- Communication was rated 12 percent better
For those couples that waited longer in a relationship to have sex, but not until marriage, the benefits were still present, but about half as strong.
Why Would Delaying Intimacy Benefit a Long-Term Relationship?
These studies are certainly not conclusive and do not decidedly settle the question of whether or not delaying intimacy is beneficial for a long-term relationship. But the results are intriguing, and as they at least point towards that idea, it’s worth exploring why this might be so.
The main point of contention in the debate over when you should get intimate in a relationship generally boils down to whether it’s better to find out if you are sexually “compatible” as early as possible, or whether holding off on sex might uniquely strengthen the relationship in such a way as to make that question a moot point. For example, while the participants in Busby’s study who waited until marriage to have sex would seemingly have taken the biggest gamble in “buying a car without ever taking it for a test drive” (to use an analogy that frequently comes up in this discussion), they still reported being more satisfied with their sex life than those who had kicked the tires right out the gate. Busby offers this explanation for such a result: “The mechanics of good sex are not particularly difficult or beyond the reach of most couples, but the emotions, the vulnerability, the meaning of sex and whether it brings couples closer together are much more complicated to figure out.”
The following factors help explain how waiting to have sex may trump the question of sexual compatibility.
The Importance of Narrative in Our Relationships
In the past decade, psychologists have increasingly recognized the importance of “personal narratives” in the way we construct our identities, make choices, and find meaning. Researchers have found that the human mind has a natural affinity for stories, and this predilection strongly extends into how we view and make sense of our own lives. We all seek to fit our experiences and memories into a personal narrative that explains who we are, when and how we’ve regressed and grown, and why our lives have turned out the way they have. We construct these narratives just like any other stories; we divide our lives into different “chapters” and emphasize important high points, low points, and, of particular importance here, turning points. Psychologists have shown that these personal narratives are truly powerful things that shape our behavior and influence our big decisions – even when we’re not aware of it. They affect both how we view the past, and how we see our future. As science reporter Benedict Carey puts it, “The way people replay and recast memories, day by day, deepens and reshapes their larger life story. And as it evolves, that larger story in turn colors the interpretation of the scenes.”
The power of personal narrative may explain the results of Dr. Metts’ study. She theorizes that “for both men and women, the explicit expression of love and commitment prior to sexual involvement in a dating relationship appears to provide communicative framing [emphasis mine] for the personal and relational meaning of sexual actions.” For couples that make a commitment to each other prior to becoming intimate, the initiation of sex becomes framed as “a relational event” rather than a “physical release or moment of pleasure.” In other words, whether “I love you” came before the sex or after it changed the way the couple was able to fit this turning point into the narrative of their relationship and thus what kind of meaning the event took on.
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.
It may be easy to dismiss stories as just…stories. But the effect of personal narrative in your life should not be underestimated. The memory of your first time as a couple will be something you look back on and draw from for the rest of your life and will at least partially color – for better or worse – “the story of us.”
The Creation and Lasting Power of Sexual Patterns and Preferences
We’ve talked a lot about habits and how our repeated behaviors not only train our minds to think and act in certain ways but can even change the literal circuitry of our brains. How we choose to do certain things can set a pattern that’s very difficult to alter. This is likely as true for sexual intimacy as it is for anything else.
As Dr. Busby puts it: “Many will say, ‘When I get ready to settle down I’m going to take things more slowly.’ Unfortunately, some of our more recent research seems to suggest that the patterns that develop in young adulthood, and their relational consequences, can’t just be turned off or avoided once a person decides it is time to marry. Every relationship we have, however brief and insignificant, influences every other relationship we have, and the patterns that we repeat across relationships become very difficult to change.”
Busby is likely referring to some of the studies on relationships and marriage he has conducted, but for my money one of the most interesting experiments on sex and habit comes from a different laboratory – this one headed by psychologist and neurobiologist Jim Pfaus. In one study, Pfaus painted female rats with “cadaverine” – a synthetic form of the scent of death. Cadaverine smells so bad that rats will scramble across electrified gates to get away from it. Thus when virginal male rats were put in a cage with these death-scented females, they at first predictably refused to mate with them at all. But after much coaxing from the researchers and flirting from the female rats (who were blissfully unaware of their repulsiveness), the male rats gave in and got down to business. Later on, when these male rats were given a choice between mating with the death-scented rats and ones that smelled naturally good (to a rat), they preferred to mate with those wearing eau de cadaver. Pfaus even tried perfuming some female rats with the delightful smell of lemon, but the male rats couldn’t be swayed from the preference they had formed during their first sexual experiences.
In another experiment, Pfaus put different virginal male rats in little Marlon Brando-esque leather jackets, which they wore during their first times mating. When the leather jackets were later removed and the rats given a chance to mate again, a third of them refused to even make an attempt, many that tried to give it a go couldn’t get an erection, and sex for all the rats took longer and required a lot of help from the females.
In both groups of rats, the male rats had come to associate certain elements (scent, jacket) that were present during their first sexual experiences with arousal, and had formed a preference and even a need for those same elements to be present for successful sex later on. This result has been shown in numerous other studies – when rats are sexually stimulated in certain locations or in various degrees of light, they will come to associate those conditions with arousal. It’s basic Pavlovian conditioning, applied to sex.
While the gap between humans and rats may seem huge, their limbic systems are so similar to our own that they are frequently used in studies on sexuality and have been called the “‘guiding flashlights’ for understanding the primitive mechanisms of our own brain.” While I’m drawing my own conclusion here, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that if we come to associate sex with feelings of love and commitment, of being in a secure, comfortable relationship, that’s what we’ll continue to prefer and seek out and be turned on by, while if we come to associate sex with novelty and newness, we may then have trouble breaking that pattern and being satisfied with the sex of a long-term relationship. This is true with pornography as well. The brain gets tuned to being aroused by different women or by certain sexual acts on screen, and then you are no longer able to perform with your significant other.
In fact, our brains may have evolved to aid in the continuation of a pattern of short-term sexual relationships once a man has started down that path. In primitive times, a man was driven to spread his seed to increase his chances of siring as many progeny as possible (this pattern is repeated by modern men who wish to have as much sex as possible, but typically do not want any children to result from these couplings). But as evolutionary psychologist David Buss points out, a “critical problem that must be solved by men pursuing a short-term mating strategy is the problem of avoiding commitment and investment. The larger the investment in a particular mating, the fewer the number of sexual partners a given man can pursue.” Buss calls this the “commitment-avoidance” problem and a study he conducted found the possible solution to it: after sex, men who have had numerous sexual partners experience a “negative affective shift” — they perceive the woman they’ve just copulated with as less sexually attractive than they did prior to doing the deed. Why would this shift in perception occur? Buss theorizes that “a negative change in perception of the woman’s sexual attractiveness might provide the motivational impetus to promote a relatively hasty postcopulatory departure. This quick departure, in turn, would function primarily to reduce the risks to the man of making unwanted commitments.” Buss thus concludes that “successful short-term strategists are more likely to experience a negative affective shift following sexual intercourse than long-term sexual strategists.”
The Interplay of Hormones, Sex, and Bonding
Most folks have heard about the wonders of oxytocin by now. It’s a hormone that reduces stress, counteracts depression, engenders trust, and is especially famous for being the glue that bonds together both mothers and their babies, and romantic couples as well.
Advocates for abstinence often put forth a very simple storyline regarding oxytocin – arguing that because the hormone increases during sex, intercourse can be deeply bonding, and if partners aren’t committed to each other, the severing of this newly-formed bond post-coitus can be psychologically damaging. This argument is often advanced in regards to women, because testosterone may partially mute oxytocin’s effects in men, but the hormone is still present during sex for both partners.
However, the effect of oxytocin is much more complicated than this simple talking point would suggest. Oxytocin isn’t just created during sex, but from a whole host of other behaviors that fall far short of sex — from cuddling and holding hands to smiling and listening. As someone who knows numerous couples who had very serious relationships despite not having sex, it is clear that two people can form a very deep bond and can suffer a psychologically wrenching break-up without ever having slept together.
Furthermore, while the interplay of oxytocin and sex may still be a reason to delay intimacy in a relationship, it’s for the opposite reason than is typically advanced.
Oxytocin does indeed greatly increase during sex and peaks during climax. At the same time, another important hormone – dopamine – is surging too. But after climax, both oxytocin and dopamine quickly drop off. This drop in dopamine provides a feeling of satiety, and the two hormones affect each other; as the dopamine falls, so does your level of oxytocin. Dopamine is what drives you to do the deed, and oxytocin is what draws you to a particular person, so that when these motivators decrease post-climax, your overall desire for that person dissipates. Thus, instead of making lovers feel closer to each other, sex can actually make partners feel further apart and even discouraged and restless. This is what the ancient poet Ovid was getting at when he argued that the best cure for love…was to satiate oneself with orgasm. As Marnia Roberston writes in “Oxytocin, Fidelity, and Sex”:
“It’s possible that repeated neurochemical fallout after climax does not register as soothing to all lovers, or even inhibits their capacity for bonding. Remember the movie When Harry Met Sally? Billy Crystal said that thirty seconds after making love he always wanted to get out of bed and leave. When asked about this, another man said, “Yeah, I guess that is how most men feel. ‘Boom, I’m done! Elvis has left the building. The fat lady has sung. Thank you—and goodbye.’” Not strong evidence of a desire to bond.”
The rise and fall of dopamine and oxytocin during and after sex can potentially make a relationship feel, if not like a roller coaster, then a little dramatic and bumpy. If, that is, a non-sexually-sourced oxytocin safety net isn’t in place first. Robertson again:
“Frequent, comforting feelings are important in maintaining strong pair bonds. We only deepen our bonds when we feel safe. What keeps us feeling safe is bonding behaviors (attachment cues). The oxytocin they release relaxes our natural defensiveness (by soothing the brain’s sentry, the amygdala, and stimulating good feelings in our reward circuitry). The more dependable the flow of oxytocin via daily bonding behaviors, the easier it is to sustain a relationship. In contrast, a passionate one-night stand allows lovers’ innate defensiveness to snap back into place pretty much as soon as oxytocin drops after climax. The next day, when she doesn’t text and he doesn’t call, defensiveness naturally increases.
Perhaps the drop-off is why pair bonders (including humans) rely on more than just climax to keep bonds strong. Pair-bonding species spend most of their “us time” engaged in non-copulatory, oxytocin-releasing (bonding) behaviors: Grooming, huddling together, tail-twining, or, in humans, comforting, soothing touch, kissing, skin-to-skin contact, eye gazing and so forth. Interestingly, pair-bonding monkey mates who engage in the most bonding behaviors have the highest oxytocin levels.”
All of this is to say that when you have sex early on in a relationship, before you’re seeing each other every day and spending most of your time together and engaging in a whole lot of other bonding behaviors, you won’t have a strong non-sexual stream of oxytocin flowing to compensate for the hormone drop-off post-climax, which may make your relationship feel more bumpy, tense, and volatile. If, on the other hand, you wait to have sex until your non-sexual oxytocin stream is running full blast, this flow will smooth over the neurochemical ups and downs that accompany sex, so that intimacy enriches your relationship and draws you together instead of apart.
Building a stream of oxytocin before initiating sex also provides fertile ground for creating an all-important foundation of friendship for your relationship. As Robertson mentions above, non-sexual bonding behaviors relax the defensiveness of the amygdala, creating a feeling of trust and safety with your significant other. This security provides time and space to work on the communicative and emotional side of your relationship without those aspects becoming underplayed and overwhelmed by a focus on physical intimacy.
But Everyone Else Is Doing It!
Even if you decide you want to delay intimacy in a relationship, you might feel like your decision is less than manly. We definitely live in a culture that often equates manhood with the number of notches on one’s bedpost and you may assume that all of your peers are having lots of sex and that following a different path therefore makes you a square.
In reality, surveys show that 77% of college students believe that their peers are hooking up more often than they really are. What are the actual numbers? According to the most recent study by the CDC, over a quarter of young men ages 15-24 have not had any sex at all – oral, anal, or vaginal. And over 40% of men 20-24 have only had 0-2 sexual partners, and that includes those with whom they only had oral sex.
And while the apparently rampant hook-up culture on college campuses comes in for an awful lot of hand-wringing by those who fear that young people today have all devolved into amoral hedonists, the numbers, here broken down by Slate columnist Amanda Hess, don’t quite support that worry:
“Sociological Images’ Lisa Wade, who has researched hookup culture extensively, has found that ‘between two thirds and three quarters of students hook up at some point during college.’ Since the term “hookup” can include everything from just kissing (where around 32 percent of college hookups end) to intercourse (40 percent of hookups), that means only that college students are engaging in as little as one makeout every four years. One study found that among students who did hook up in college, 40 percent did it three or fewer times total (less than one hookup a year); 40 percent did it between four and nine times (one to two hookups a year); and 20 percent did it ten or more times. Less than 15 percent of college students are engaging in some form of physical contact more than twice a year.”
In a survey Wade conducted with her own students, she found that 38% of students said they had opted out of the hook-up culture altogether, and that few of those who did take part found hooking-up all that satisfying. Only about 11% of students “expressed unequivocal enjoyment of hookup culture,” while 50% were hooking up “ambivalently or reluctantly.”
The bottom line? If you decide that delaying intimacy is the right choice for you, you’re certainly not the odd man out.
I hate when people oversell things, and this is a topic where people are especially sensitive to things being over-simplified. So I have no problem saying that the kind of studies cited above do not “prove” that delaying intimacy is the best way to go, and there are assuredly folks who are happy they waited until marriage to have sex, and folks with happy marriages who had sex on the first date. I provided this information because it offers important food for thought – grist to add to the other things you evaluate and ponder when making a decision about where you stand on this issue. Truthfully, scientific studies are not likely to be the most important factors in that decision-making process – your religious and philosophical beliefs will and should have the greatest sway. The most important thing, regardless of those beliefs, is that you make the decision deliberately and consciously. It shouldn’t be a decision you reach based on what you think your peers are doing or an image a magazine sells, and you shouldn’t wait to make up your mind until the heat of the moment. Before you get involved with someone, make sure you have already worked through and decided what you believe about the timing of sexual intimacy, and then stick with your principles.
On a final note, whatever your personal beliefs are, I think one of the most compelling arguments to be made for delaying intimacy is the power of delayed gratification. Deciding to wait for something not only builds your discipline, self-mastery, and character, it can exponentially increase the pleasure of its eventual consummation and make it a far more deep and memorable experience. Everything is so cheap these days – in-your-face, mass-produced, common, and banal. Yet within his own sphere, each man has the power to sacralize something — to take it back from being trampled under foot and make it something more meaningful – to turn it into something that will add a richness and texture to his life rather than just another run-of-the-mill experience in a tirelessly ordinary and worn out world.