Good Sex/Bad Sex
By Jennifer Roback Morse
American Enterprise, April 2006
Lots of Americans today—young and old—are coping with deep problems related directly or indirectly to sex. Many have been burned by current sexual practices—such as hook-ups that create emptiness, or cohabiting relationships that go nowhere—and are looking for new ways to build a loving physical relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Many would welcome, more generally, a fresh way to strengthen their relationships with loved ones. They need some help balancing not just “love and career,” or “work and family,” but some even bigger things. Their desire for independence and autonomy must be balanced with their equally important longings for interdependence, closeness, and even neediness at times. Men and women alike would love to find an alternative to the sterile “struggle for equality” in relationships. They have an intuition that freedom is something more profound than just the right to do as you please, but they aren’t quite sure what that deeper secret might be.
Finding true love, good sex, and spousal happiness is not easy in modern America because we are working with a batch of concepts that are actively in our way. Today’s favorite ideals of equality and freedom, however attractive and appropriate in the political or economic realm, are not adequate bases on which to build happy home lives. Love relations and family life are distinct social spheres that need concepts and ideas of their own, not just hand-me-downs from politics and economics.
And there is much more at stake in the successes and failures of our love lives than just personal happiness and private feelings. It matters to the rest of the world whether we succeed at sex, love, and family life because bad sex, bad love, and bad family life often produce bad children.
A free society needs people with consciences who can control themselves and use freedom without bothering other people too much. Research shows that the groundwork for the conscience is laid during the first 18 months of our lives, in our relationship with our parents. Without that foundation, a child is much more likely to grow up without an ability to govern himself. Thus, your ability to succeed at sex, love, and marriage has the potential to strengthen a free society, or significantly weaken it.
You might object that not every couple has children. Maybe you yourself don’t. But there is a second reason your marriage matters to the rest of the world, a reason that is independent of children. Human sexuality is the great engine of sociability. Sexuality builds up the relationship between the couple, and this relationship then becomes the basis of higher society.
The widespread disappointments in family life since the 1960s are predictable consequences of some very dumb ideas. In the last half of the twentieth century, we distilled from the Western tradition of freedom a peculiar elixir of pure sexual and personal freedom. We came up with the idea that freedom means being completely unencumbered by human relationships. A person is free only if he or she avoids relationships that generate financial, sexual, or parental dependency. A person, it is claimed, is not free if he or she must be responsible for an unexpected child. A person is not free if he or she feels pressed to remain married.
A society that defines freedom in this way—as the absence of totally committed human relationships—will not remain free. Only by meeting obligations to each other do we produce a new generation deserving of liberty, and able to exercise it responsibly. Moreover, individuals who define freedom in this commitment-free way are abandoning the very thing that has the best chance of making them happy.
Yet people continue to acquiesce in many of the assumptions of the sexual revolution, mostly because no appealing substitute seems to be on the horizon. Many Americans think the only alternative to anything-goes sex is something between The Stepford Wives and the Taliban. They imagine that if it weren’t for free love, women would all be at home in dresses and high heels, in their spotless kitchens with cookies in the oven, robotically waiting for the Beaver to come home from school. If it weren’t for the sexual revolution, citizens would be facing prosecution left and right for deviant sexual acts. Without modern sexual mores, America would be one step away from the burkha and public stoning for adultery.
How different the truth is.
The interplay between our self-centeredness and our need for other people is at the heart of sexual activity. Our desire for sexual satisfaction draws us out of ourselves, and into relationships with other people. The sexual urge provides a motive force for sociability. In this way, good sex is the foundation of community.
Our self-centeredness easily comes to the surface in daily life. That’s a part of our human nature. So what human impulses are universal enough and powerful enough to lure people out of themselves, and into productive interdependence? The most reliable instinct is the sexual urge. Sexual desire has a powerful ability to make selfish adults aware of other people, and has the potential to make them truly concerned about the welfare of another person.
Potential lovers must win each other’s love. That means they have to pay attention to one another. They must develop a genuine concern for the other, what he or she likes, wants, feels. Part of the courtship process is to discover who the other person really is, what makes them tick, what pleases them. The lovers must come to know the unique quirks of the other person. It is the sexual impulse that makes that other person interesting, and initiates the relationship.
We don’t automatically become genuinely interested in the person to whom we are sexually attracted. It is certainly possible to view another person as simply a means to satisfy our sexual desire. We can think of sexual activity as just another recreational pastime, something fun to do on a Saturday night. We can reduce the other person to an object, interchangeable with other potential sex partners. But in a relationship between two adults of approximately equal strength, neither side will long stand for being used in this way.
The sexual urge thus has the potential to make us more sociable than our natural self-centeredness might first suggest. We have to become aware of the other person as a person—in order to win their affection and their willingness to be sexual with us.
Sex Builds Connection
Sexual activity has two natural purposes: procreation and spousal unity. The procreation part is pretty obvious; the idea of “spousal unity,” though, may require some explanation. Spousal unity means that sex builds attachments between the husband and wife. It is the feature of human sexuality that makes it distinct from purely animal sexuality.
The two organic purposes for sex have something in common: they both build community. Procreation literally builds the community by adding new members. Spousal unity builds community by stabilizing marriage and family relationships. Through the sexual act, men and women connect to each other in a powerful way that carries over into the rest of life.
Most of us have mixed feelings about this connectedness created by sex. We are sometimes vexed by our dependency upon someone else. At the same time, this interdependence can charm and thrill. We love the connection: our bodies cry out for it. Together with a spouse, we can do what neither of us could do alone: bring a new person into existence. Not to mention that we really enjoy one another in the sexual act.
Because reproductive technology has made it possible to separate sexual activity from procreation, we have lost sight of the community-building features of sex. Since we can now do a technological end-run around the procreative function of sex, we seem to think we can also bypass the spousal unity function. But building bonds between sexual partners is every bit as “natural” a consequence of sex as procreation is. The connection between spousal unity and sexual activity is imprinted on the body just as the procreative function is. Neither our bodies nor our souls will allow us to completely undo the connections between sexual activity, devoted love for another adult, and babies. So our ability to build worthy societies depends upon these connections more than we are sometimes willing to admit.
Modern physiology is discovering that the attachments we feel toward our sexual partners are more than mere feelings, and more than cultural conditionings. A relationship is a physiological event. And there are slightly different aspects to the physiology for men and for women, which I’ll discuss next.
The Importance of Human Touch
Women need help in raising their offspring through a long period of dependency. We need help in protecting our young, and in obtaining resources for their survival. This is easy to see among primates. Males help provide food, territory, and safety for the mother and her young. The elements of primate physiology that support the social structure contribute to the survival of the group.
We sometimes imagine that we are exempt from the biological rules of survival. After all, in a modern economy a woman and her offspring can physically survive without the help of a man. A woman can even get herself artificially inseminated and have a child without performing a sexual act. The biochemistry of the body, however, works against our attempts to be completely independent of a mate.
Women connect to their sex partners, and to their children, partly via a hormone called oxytocin. This hormone spikes during orgasm, and is heavily involved in the birth process and breast feeding. Oxytocin rises in response to touch, and it in turn promotes touching. It also promotes other forms of affectionate behavior and parenting instincts.
A woman’s oxytocin level surges at sexual climax, during labor, and while suckling a child. Her body is literally changed by these community-building acts. The flood of oxytocin increases her desire for further touch with both her mate and her child. The hormone itself connects her to her child and her child’s father. This chemical connection builds cooperation between parents for the benefit of their child.
This physiological reality helps explain a couple of otherwise puzzling bits of social science data. First, couples who think they can avoid the commitment of marriage while still having many of its benefits by cohabiting find that the reality is much trickier. They don’t realize that their hormones may create an “involuntary chemical commitment” even if their minds have set boundaries. The very process of spending time together, touching each other, having sex, and sleeping next to each other night after night creates a powerful bond, partly biochemical, between the partners.
Bonding hormones also help explain the remarkable propensity of battered women to return to the very men who abused them. Our hormonal response to touch, to sex, and to proximity is so powerful it can trump our better judgment about what is truly in our interests. This may explain why domestic violence is so much more prevalent among cohabiting couples than among couples who decided to marry without cohabiting.
The oxytocin factor may also explain why arranged marriages, so strange to educated Westerners, actually work out well in many cases. We assume that married couples in arranged marriages stay together either because they had no culturally acceptable alternatives or because they started with low expectations for emotional fulfillment within marriage. But arranged marriage is the norm in many successful cultures, and immigrants to the U.S. who come here with parentally arranged marriages will commonly tell you that they grew to share as much love with their partners as any married couple. This may be partly due to the biochemical impact of being in a close, physical, and intimate relationship. The relationship itself creates its own hormonal glue.
Sex Sews Men to Women
While oxytocin helps to bind women to their sexual partners and their babies, something slightly different is at work in male physiology. Vasopressin, primarily a male hormone, has sometimes been called the “monogamy molecule.” Less is known about vasopressin than about oxytocin, but the preliminary facts suggest that vasopressin helps to counteract the male tendency to “play the field.”
Men also have their own well-documented reactions to sex that tend to tie them to a single mate. On the dark side, there is jealousy. Jealousy appears to be such a common reaction among men that we may safely call it “natural,” and some psychologists believe jealousy helps men to connect with their sexual partners.
After all, a man doesn’t feel jealous or possessive toward every woman he sees. He feels jealous about a woman he is in a serious relationship with, particularly one he has had sex with. And his jealousy makes it hard for him to just walk away from her and her offspring.
A woman doesn’t want to be abandoned by the father of her child; she wants a man who will stick around and contribute. She is thus less likely to choose a man who philanders. So any man who wants to be attractive enough to a woman that she will attach herself to him must fight his tendency to play the field. Jealousy helps him do this.
The man’s body tells him that having sex with a woman puts that particular woman into a new and different category. This is not merely an attractive woman: this is his woman who may give birth to his child. She is, therefore, different from other females. The sex act has put her in a more important category.
This hints at the brighter side of male attachment: loyalty. Men are capable of heroic loyalty to women and children. Men will work for a lifetime at jobs they don’t like in order to support their families. Despite the common image of divorced men as “deadbeat dads,” most meet their child-support obligations, sometimes at tremendous cost to themselves. Part of the fathering instinct is a drive to protect, provide, and take responsibility for others. This male impulse seems to be triggered when a man is needed or trusted by someone beloved. Usually it’s a mate or child who triggers this loyalty response. Sometimes it’s a beloved country. The spark in both cases is the man’s love, and the love he gets in return.
The view that most men, most of the time, have no attachment to their sex partners is a caricature of reality. While it may be true that men attach to their sex partners less than women do, men are not simply looking for sexual release. Men merely attach in a somewhat different way.
To illustrate this, I’ll ask my male readers to perform a thought experiment. Imagine you’ve gone to bed with an attractive woman. She invites you to do whatever you wish sexually. However, she just lays there. She does not respond at all. She doesn’t resist, but she doesn’t encourage you either. In fact, she gives no sign of feeling anything one way or another. You successfully ejaculate. She quietly asks if you are finished.
Why isn’t this satisfying? What is missing? You got your orgasm. You got sexual release. You had the experience of bedding an attractive woman. But there is something wrong. It is obvious what is missing: her caring. The woman’s response matters to the man.
Take a different example: The woman is very responsive, very passionate. But when it is all over she tells you, matter-of-factly, that she was fantasizing about her high school sweetheart the whole time. Why does this also feel all wrong?
In the first case, you are using her. In the second case, she is using you. And both make you feel lousy.
So even for men—who are allegedly indifferent to emotions—the relationship matters. A man might not have any particular need to talk about his feelings of connection, neediness, and attachment. But most men would be disturbed by a completely unresponsive or totally manipulative woman.
In short, men have feelings about sex beyond mere lust. They have feelings about the quality of the relationship. Those feelings are just somewhat different from women’s.
Sex and Sociability
All of this means that sexual activity is necessarily related to our sociability. Sex is especially important in creating and maintaining the most basic of social groups: the family. Our bodies ensure that we enjoy sex so that we will do it and keep the species going. Our bodies help us to connect to our mates so we will stick together to raise our young to maturity and independence. We respond to our emotions as well as to our reason.
The ability to create community is biologically based. Reptiles don’t bother: They lay their eggs, maybe help incubate them, and then walk (or slither) away. It is the part of the brain that is uniquely mammalian that actually cares about offspring, and about specific mates.
The human tendency to attach to our sexual partners is thus more than simply cultural conditioning; it is built into us. Societies differ in how they structure spousal attachments, but the basic desire to connect to one’s sexual partner has deep physiological roots. We can construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct our cultures all we want, but we are more likely to be satisfied with the outcome if we work with our biology rather than against it.
Our bodies cry out for connection with our sex partners. By having sex, we attach ourselves to each other, and the natural result is a little community, often with a baby at its center. The gift of sex to the world, therefore, is something quite wonderful: human commitment.
But perhaps I should say commitment to each other is the gift of rightly ordered sex, because for many people in modern America, sex now has relatively little to do with building community of any kind. Sex is treated as a purely private matter, in the narrowest sense of private.
The sexual revolution has been profoundly anti-social. By uncoupling sexual activity from both procreation and spousal unity, we have capsized the whole natural order of sexuality. Instead of being an engine of sociability and bond-building, sex has become a recreational activity, a consumer good. Instead of being something that draws us out of ourselves and into responsibilities toward others, our sexual activity focuses us inward, on ourselves and our own desires. A sexual partner is not a person to whom I am irrevocably connected, but rather an object that satisfies me more or less. And we all know what we do with objects that no longer satisfy us: we discard them.
I believe this shift in worldview is at the heart of today’s culture wars. One side believes that the meaning of human sexuality is primarily individual and private—to obtain personal pleasure and satisfaction. The alternative view is that sex is essentially a social activity—whose purpose is to build communal loyalty, starting with the spousal relationship and adding on from there.
Why Recreational Sex Is Anti-Social
The terms “private” and “public” are often treated today as if they are mutually exclusive. But these terms come from economics and politics, and are not entirely applicable to sexuality and the family. When we describe something as “private” we usually mean that it concerns only one or two individuals, and has no effects on other people. When we describe something as “public” we often mean that it is under the jurisdiction of governmental authorities, something we are understandably reluctant to cede for sexual activity. So if the only analytical categories are “public” and “private,” that pretty much means sex is “private.”
But sex doesn’t meet the technical definition of private. One’s sexual activity potentially has very significant consequences for other people, some of them quite negative. There are “victims” involved in some forms of sex, even when adults have consented.
No one, anywhere on the political spectrum, really wants to give other people jurisdiction over sex. Just the same, it doesn’t make sense to ignore the legitimate interests that other people have in your sexual activity. This suggests that simply contrasting the “private” from the “public” does not do justice to the inner workings of the family and sex life.
There is another possible category: the “social.” This can help us understand a sphere of activity that is properly outside the scope of government, yet still concerns others beyond merely the individuals involved. Sexual activity is social in exactly this sense.
Let me illustrate the social aspect of sex by making a confession. During my student days, I more or less did the whole sexual revolution. I tried most of the hare-brained things I’m now writing about: adultery, fornication, cohabitation, group sex, same-sex sex. I had an abortion. I was married and divorced.
I got to be an expert on what doesn’t work. And it was not a jolly time. I hurt myself and other people.
I can’t credibly blame anybody else. It was my fault. I was wrong. I am now sorry for the harm I caused myself and others, harm that I can never fully repair.
But I will not give a full confession, precisely because of the social aspect of sex. The reason I won’t tell of every sexual encounter I’ve ever had is because the other people involved have feelings and interests. They may not appreciate me telling “my” story as though it was a private possession.
When I was young, I had the idea that my sex life was my private property. I needed that idea. It gave me permission to do what I did. But I was wrong. My sex life is not really my private property.
Every sexual act I have ever participated in has been fully consensual. I never raped anybody; nobody ever raped me. The persons I had sex with never consented to me telling my version of our story any time I choose, however.
Yet this is exactly where the logic of a solely personal approach to sexuality leads us. This sexual encounter is mine, for me to do with as I please. The only thing that prevents people from running off at the mouth is a sense of common decency. But why do we consider sexual reticence to be “decent”? I think it is because we instinctively know that the sexual act creates a “we” out of two “I”s. The sexual story becomes a shared story. The private space between sexual partners belongs to them both; one person cannot take full possession of it, or divide it in half.
Sexual intimacy is necessarily a social good. It instantly creates a small society. We have the potential to create either functioning little platoons that contribute to the wider community, or dysfunctional non-societies that tear it down.
The Costs of Anti-Social Sex
Suppose a young couple decides to get married. Their families have reason to celebrate. The marriage draws one new member into each of the existing families. Everybody is excited about the children the marriage might produce, sometimes years in advance. They will be somebody’s nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and cousins; they will be born into a pre-existing social network, with ready-made relationships.
The sex life of the married couple is not public. They don’t report on it to other family members. They don’t need a government permit for it. But at the same time, it is not exactly private either. Their sex life has social ramifications across generations.
Now imagine another couple about the same age, who choose to have sex without getting married. No one in either of their families necessarily knows or approves of the relationship; it is understood that their sexual relationship is a private matter between two individuals only. No one, no matter how close to them, has the right to express an opinion about it.
Perhaps a baby results from this sexual activity. Maybe the relatives are excited. More likely, they are secretly worried about the demands the new baby will place upon the unmarried parents—and upon members of the extended family. Will the father stick around and support the baby and mother? Will the mother accept his involvement? Will she make demands on the rest of the family for financial and emotional support, and perpetual babysitting? With no long-term commitment between the parents, the baby is a potential drain on everyone.
For the father, the appeal of not getting married is that he can have sex, father a child, and then do what he wants about it after. He does not have to be accountable to the mother or her child, unless she jumps through all the legal hoops necessary to make him accountable.
Likewise, the unmarried mother may believe that she can have her baby without being tied down to the father. She may seriously underestimate the amount of interaction she’ll end up having with him. She may misjudge the complications of having to deal with a man she didn’t like well enough to marry. She probably didn’t really think about having children and grandchildren in common with this man for the rest of their lives.
Both the woman and the man may enter the situation thinking they are freer than if they were married. They are mistaken, because the marriage commitment creates a series of obligations, benefits, and understandings for both of them. Marriage provides a context of stability in which those needs can be met, help provided, and conflicts worked out. Sex outside of marriage deprives them of the opportunity to integrate these parts of their lives.
Adultery is another example of anti-social sex. When two people who are married have sex with others, this activity tears down an existing community of love, instead of building up a new one. Nobody is excited for this couple and the offspring they might produce. Their relationship is a source of pain and deprivation for their spouses and children. Their relationship may disrupt two households, permanently, with effects that reverberate for generations.
It is a simple truth: adultery and divorce can impose massive and pervasive costs on other people, even those unrelated. The family court system is burdened with trying to resolve the problems generated by the disrupted marriage. The school system is taxed by having to deal with stressed-out children of parents preoccupied with new lovers or contentious splits. The police and criminal justice system are taxed by continual “Amber Alerts” for missing children, who all too often turn out to be kidnapped by their own parents.
There are other costs of irresponsible sex. Some women repeatedly get pregnant and have abortions. Sometimes people produce children they have no means of supporting.
Nobody thinks freedom means being allowed to impose costs on other people. But in our “no-fault” sexual environment, we are barely able to acknowledge that anti-social sex does this regularly.
Recreational Sex That Isn’t Fun
I dispute the widespread idea that mutual consent is the only criterion for judging the morality or appropriateness of sexual activity. We can give our consent to acts that are harmful to ourselves and others. To make consent the only standard of morality comes close to saying we can never make moral mistakes. But some decisions, on reflection, clearly work out better than others. And the variety of negative sexual experiences a person might have is much broader than simply coerced sex.
For instance, “date rape” is said to be reaching epidemic proportions on college campuses. What exactly is date rape, and why is it a problem?
Date rape is unwanted sexual activity that can be distinguished from ordinary rape by the absence of violence. If a woman’s date attacks her and forces her to have sex, that is rape without adjectives. But date rape often involves alcohol consumption, or cloudiness on who did what, said what, and meant what. She didn’t say “no” firmly enough. She wasn’t clear in her own mind what she wanted. She allowed herself to be talked into something and then regretted it later.
Perhaps the date rape crisis is mostly a political creation. Some argue that feminists invented the concept of date rape to keep men on edge and on the sexual defensive. But even if there is such a political agitation, why is the claim of unwanted sexual activity a plausible vehicle for a power grab? There must be something about the idea of date rape that resonates with people’s experiences.
I once had a college student describe to me something he and his fraternity brothers called “The Walk of Shame.” This is when a guy slinks back into his frat house or dorm room early in the morning after a sexual encounter, not wanting anybody to see him. He can’t quite put his finger on the source of his embarrassment; more often than not, it has nothing to do with this particular woman. The problem is that he had sex with someone he isn’t connected with, respectful of, or even well acquainted with. And he doesn’t want to have to explain himself.
What is this all about? Certainly not the moral disapproval of roommates—college campuses are now about the least judgmental places on earth. Presumably the sexual encounter was consensual, so he didn’t violate anybody’s rights. Presumably he and the female in question used contraception, so there isn’t concern about pregnancy. Presumably he was able to achieve orgasm. He satisfied today’s Big Three criteria for moral acceptability in a sexual encounter. Yet this young man doesn’t want to be accountable for that sexual act. The reality is, it was disappointing. It is a source of embarrassment.
The whole premise of the sexual revolution is that sex is just another recreational activity. But no one really believes this. If sex was really no big deal, just another activity, then being talked into unwanted sexual activity should be no more consequential than being talked into going to a ball game when you would have preferred a movie, and the whole idea of date rape would be absurd.
An advocate of consumer sex might reply that the distress college co-eds feel about this casual sexual interaction simply reflects vestigial moral codes that unreasonably condemn sexual activity. But is this believable? Contemporary campuses transmit almost no disapproval of sexual activity of any sort. Students have nearly unregulated opportunities for sexual encounters in their co-ed dorms. Some college courses are thinly veiled pornography classes. It seems unlikely that students are showing up in date-rape crisis centers out of some sort of lingering prudery.
And if the encounters that end up being described as date rapes are only about misused power, not about sex, as many feminists insist, this wouldn’t be a subject anyone would agonize over. If an acquaintance stole my purse or walked off with my stereo, I’d have no problem calling the cops and smearing the guy to everyone on campus. I wouldn’t be plagued by any self-doubt, sense of betrayal, or shame. I’d just be angry.
It is the sex that makes everything feel different. The offense is more intense, because it is an assault on the interior of the person. The fact that a sexual assault by a presumed friend can be worse in some respects than a similar assault by a stranger demonstrates that sexual activity cannot be evaluated without considering the relationship in which it is embedded.
Either sex is a big deal, or it isn’t. If it is really no big deal, then unwanted sexual activity shouldn’t be particularly traumatic. Colleges could save money and trouble by shutting down their date-rape crisis centers and telling co-eds to grow up and get over it. But what if sex really is a big deal? Then we can’t very well categorize it as just another recreational activity.
And every serious person knows which of these things is true.
The Guilty Hook-Up
Still, recreational sex has become the norm on many college campuses, where the “hook-up” is now a recognized pattern. A hook-up is when a girl and a guy get together for a physical encounter without expecting anything further. While only a minority of female students admit that they themselves hook up “frequently,” students report that hook-ups are not uncommon.
Some say it is easier to have sex than to talk intimately. “People just get really weirded out...neither...are willing at all to talk about their feelings.” It is easier to hook up with someone as opposed to talking.” Others report they hook up as a way of avoiding a commitment and a painful breakup. Many women feel awkward and empty after these encounters, researchers report. Some feign indifference, but still hope the guy will call.
The hook-up is often associated with drinking. Students will go to a party, get very drunk, and find themselves in a sexual situation. Sometimes they place themselves in these situations specifically because they want sex but want to avoid romantic entanglements. The binge drinking problem on campuses is thus more closely related to the sexual environment than people are prepared to admit.
But if it is really perfectly normal to have morally indifferent sex—sex without any commitment or connection to the other person—why bother to get drunk? Why not stay sober to enjoy the full pleasure of sex? If the heart, soul, and body really believe the intellectual argument that sex is no big deal, the need to get intoxicated doesn’t make sense. It seems students are anesthetizing themselves with alcohol to diminish bad feelings flowing from this noncommittal, indiscriminate sexual activity.
Co-ed dorms facilitate these destructive patterns. Students could certainly find ways to have casual sex without the co-ed dorm, but is there any doubt that this living arrangement makes it easier? Supporters claim co-ed living arrangements prepare students for real life. There actually aren’t many real-life situations, though, in which a large number of unrelated men and women live in such close and intimate proximity with each other. As two professors who have studied this syndrome observe, “if co-ed dorms offer ‘real life’ training, it appears to be an early training in hooking up and cohabitation, but little else.”
So is there something wrong with encouraging cohabitation? Unfortunately, voluminous research shows that the practice increases the likelihood of unhappiness, instability, and domestic violence. Even if a cohabiting couple ultimately marries, they tend to report lower levels of marital satisfaction and a higher propensity to divorce.
Many people imagine that living together before marriage is like taking a car for a test drive. The “trial period” gives couples a chance to discover whether they are compatible. “You wouldn’t buy a car without taking it for a test drive, would you?”
Here’s the problem with the car analogy: The car doesn’t have hurt feelings if the driver dumps it back at the used car lot and decides not to buy. The comparison works fine if you picture yourself as the driver. It stinks if you picture yourself as the car.
The “test drive” metaphor implies I am going to drive you around the block a few times, withholding judgment and commitment until I have satisfied myself about you. You are not permitted to have any feelings about this trial run. Just behave normally. Pay no attention to my indecision, or my periodic withdrawals to evaluate your performance. Try to act as you would if we were married, so I can get a clear picture of what sort of spouse you might be. You just pretend to be wed; I’ll just pretend to be shopping.
Cohabiting couples, social scientists find, are likely to have one foot out the door throughout their relationship. They rehearse not trusting. They tend to hold back. I am sorry to say that I learned this from experience. My husband and I lived together before we were married, and it took us a long time to unlearn the habits of the heart that we built up during those cohabiting years.
Living together is not just a glorified roommate situation. The body knows the difference between sexual activity and other forms of camaraderie. We have a deep longing to be cherished by the person we have sex with, a longing that is not fooled by our pretense of indifference.
“We’re living together” is a way of avoiding a decision. Once a couple begins asking “should we get married?” they bring the intellect more fully into the decision-making process. People can’t slide into marriage in quite the same way they slide into cohabitation. People decide to get married. They offer an account of themselves. They tell others what they are doing and why. They invite witnesses to come and celebrate. A person doesn’t quite do any of that when moving in with a partner, a few possessions at a time.
Good, Bad, Wrong, and Right
Since “wrong” and “right,” “good” and “bad” are no longer useable terms in our judgment-free world, we don’t have many adjectives available for describing a negative sexual encounter. Yet, as any experienced person knows, some rendezvous feel all wrong. Even if the sex was voluntary, and appropriately contracepted, it just felt all icky. (There’s no other word.)
Having sex makes a person uniquely vulnerable, both physically and emotionally. We don’t just give our bodies to the other person during sex. Our whole spiritual, emotional, and psychological being is bound up in the act.
Look at the variety of non-physical harms we might experience during a voluntary sexual encounter. We might feel used or manipulated. We might feel ignored while the other person attends to their own orgasm. We might feel like a chump because the whole experience mattered more to us than to the other person. If we allow sex to mean a lot, we leave ourselves more open to being hurt. A person might resist letting sex mean very much—by holding back, protecting herself from the potential bad feelings that flow from vulnerability. But in the process, we’ve “protected” ourselves from many potential good feelings as well. And we have ourselves become people who use others.
Our ability to describe unsatisfactory sex is now extremely cramped by the premise that all voluntary sex is acceptable. We’ve collapsed all the possible delineations or categories into rape (bad) and consensual sex (good). If these are the only permissible categories, then every voluntary sexual act is essentially indistinguishable from any others.
It is now difficult to say “I feel cheap.” Or “I feel used.” Or “This was all wrong.” The words are inexplicable to someone with the stunted moral vocabulary of the modern, anything-goes mind. So in order to make sense of the powerful feeling that something dreadfully wrong happened, some contemporary women reinterpret the deeply icky act as an assault.
That’s the sort of place you end up once you define sex as nothing more than a recreational activity, or an interaction of plumbing parts. Properly speaking, sexuality should be primarily about building up the relationship between a man and a woman. Take the relatedness out, and suddenly sex is a lot less enjoyable, wholesome, and productive.
To Persuade Is Not to Impose
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of any governmental body. I have never lobbied for legislative change, or brought a lawsuit as a means of altering society. I have neither wish nor authority to “impose my morality” on anybody. The only kind of power I seek is the power to persuade.
And why should I go to the trouble of trying to persuade complete strangers? I have found through my own experience that it’s extremely difficult to figure out the meaning of human sexuality on your own. By the time you have conducted enough trials and errors to learn that your initial premises were false, you’ve lost a lot of time. You may have wasted your prime years of sexual enthusiasm trying to decide what sex means, what type of partner to look for, how to treat him or her, and what you can reasonably expect in return. You may be menopausal by the time you figure it all out!
This is part of what older people ought to offer younger people: the benefit of experience and hindsight. That way you don’t have to make it all up as you go along. More generally, moral codes exist to give us helpful signals of what prior men and women over many generations have found to be most true and valuable.
I am willing to share my experience that the moral premises of the sexual revolution will not usually sustain lifelong love; that, instead, they will usually bring unnecessary trouble. An ethical code that puts the sex act on approximately the same moral plane as eating a meal will do that.
To those who hold that sex is best when it has no limits, I also want to suggest that you don’t know what you are missing. Keeping sex within reasonable, time-tested boundaries is not only more wholesome, it is also more enjoyable.
Jennifer Roback Morse is a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-Long Love in a Hook-Up World (Spence), from which this essay is adapted.