Science Says: True Love Waits?

In his posting entitled Liberal Education as Problem Identification — Part 2: The Case of Sex, posted on September 2, 2012, big thinker and cultural critic Peter Lawler wrote “since 1963 (more or less), the sophisticated wisdom has been on the side of easygoing sexual satisfaction. Sex can and should be for pleasure detached from various repressive relational concerns. The only limit to consensual gratification should be health and safety.” So, safe sex was moral sex.

According to some of the latest scientific studies, however, chastity actually turns out to be a virtue that can make us happier than we would otherwise be. And it’s a common refrain from many of the singles I work with: “I am NOT into the hook-up culture,” “I want marriage maybe and monogamy definitely,” or “I’m not into the one-night-stand mentality” are variations on this theme – which I hear more often than not.

But what about the cold, hard science? Lawler’s article cites a study into the effects of having sex before marriage, and the study suggests it’s much better not to. “Those who abstain during their courtship or build up a gradual sexual relationship, rather than leaping into bed on the first date, are more likely to have happier and longer relationships,” Lawler reports.

He goes on to explain: “The researchers who carried out the study, the first of its kind, say that early sexual satisfaction may stunt the development of other key ingredients of healthy relationships, such as commitment, caring, understanding and shared values.”

The postponement of sexual involvement is associated with higher levels of relationship quality,” say the researchers from Cornell University. “Women who deferred sexual involvement for over six months reported significantly higher levels of relationship satisfaction, commitment, intimacy and emotional support, as well as sexual satisfaction with their partner, than did those who became sexually involved within the first month.”

This could be a bitter pill to swallow if you’re in the test-drive-before-you-buy camp. But at least hear him out: The researchers concluded “Precocious premarital sexual activities may have lasting effects on relationship quality. Courtship is a time for exploration and decision-making about the relationship, when partners assess compatibility, make commitments and build on emotional and physical intimacy.” We must admit, it can be difficult to make smart decisions and accurately assess compatibility when you’re high on oxytocin, seratonin, and other feel-good bonding hormones that are released in torrents at the conclusion of a sexual encounter.

And this new it-pays-to-wait philosophy is somewhat of an about-face almost 50 years after the sexual revolution. It’s a challenge to many of our assumptions and practices to think that our modern-day open-legs policy may not be so rewarding after all.

Why is that? “Love takes on many forms, and it’s stunted when identified simply with casual sexual satisfaction,” writes Lawler. But “it’s capitalism,” explains a leading philosopher, “that makes sexual satisfaction one-dimensional by reducing it to yet another easily acquired commodity.”

Conservative Platonic critic Allan Bloom has observed that the eros of our time is weak. “The Puritans were clearly more erotic that we are,” he asserts. “Show a Puritan guy an ankle, and he’s aroused. But our guys can see perfectly sculpted, semi-unclad young women in all kinds of virtual and real places and yawn.” Is this because sexual experiences, sexual images, and sexual objects are just so, so EVERYWHERE ALL THE TIME?

“Maybe the only way [we] can identify the problem of our erotic lameness is through encounters with the love, death, and personal “relationships” displayed in the great philosophy, poetry, and theology of the past,” Lawler proposes. Uh oh, am I getting too philosophical/romantic on you?

Then let me get to the bottom line: You’ve heard many a dating coach (myself included) say “No sex before monogamy” While six months (the length of time set in the study) sounds like an excruciating infinity for those who are experiencing undeniably hot chemistry, it’s wise to acknowledge how brain chemistry is changed by sexual activity – and how that doped-up post-coital state affects your ability to reason.

Though I’m not normally one to quote the evangelicals, perhaps it’s worth reconsidering their slogan of “True love waits.” To allow Lawler the final word on the subject: “For courtship to make a full comeback in the service of civilized happiness, courting has to mean something.”

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