[An excerpt from Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying]
Why do so many emerging-adult sexual relationships fail? Reasons of course are manifold, and for many it’s simply part of the script of sex, college (for some), and the natural course of modern relationships. Relationships fail, then, because at some point they’re supposed to. Sex columnist Dan Savage reminds his readers that “every relationship fails until one doesn’t.” While certainly true at face value, this is an observation that can become an imperative: people commence relationships, anxiously awaiting the sure signs of their fatal condition.
The reasons that Americans of all ages could give for their failed relationships are numerous, but one problem may uniquely plague emerging-adult relationships. It’s the role of sex (rather than solely its presence): many couples lack a clear, shared, and suitable role for the sex they experience within a romantic relationship, especially when sex is introduced early. Many testify that sex is often difficult to talk about, in part because the partners are still getting to know each other and deep conversation is considered too intimate. Yet sex becomes a clear goal and new priority–the elephant in the corner that demands attention when they’re together. It acquires an increasingly central role in the relationship while at the same time other aspects of the relationship remain immature. Compare this to the greater sense of security that a shared residence and bed entail. Having sex with one’s college boyfriend in his dorm room, only to wander home later, can be an emotionally unsatisfying sensation for many women, for good reason. Some eventually solve this dilemma by moving in together. And for many that seems a welcome–if only slightly more secure–step.
But when the habit of going out for dinner, a film, and dessert trails rather than precedes sex, even simple conversations take on a strange aura. After all, such a couple knows more about what each other looks like naked than what each other thinks about school, work, politics, religion, family, or future plans–life in general. Writing in New York magazine, Third-wave feminist writer Naomi Wolf wonders if we haven’t gotten the order of sex and familiarity mixed up:
“Why have sex right away?” a boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes was explaining. “Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.” “Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?” “Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”
Apart from relationship security, familiarity, and a shared domicile, sex has a difficult time playing a supportive role in fostering intimacy and building love. Instead, it wants to be the lead character. But when left to sustain a relationship, sex typically falters. Katie, a college student from Tennessee, sensed this in her relationship with Daniel, a man with whom she was in a four-year, long-distance relationship (he lived in Arkansas). Only in the past year did the two begin having sex, and–lacking
as they were in physical proximity–Katie quickly sensed something suboptimal about it for two reasons, her own moral qualms about premarital sex notwithstanding.
First, sex within their sporadic interactions began to claim a place and priority that outstripped its natural boundaries. In most marriages and cohabitations, even in the honeymoon phase, sex plays a supporting role to the mundane activities of normal life. In a relationship where two people are not sharing lots of normal life activities–a scenario common among young adults–sex can quickly take center stage.
Katie summarized this bluntly: “I felt like I was dating his dick.” Their bonding typically ended with Daniel’s inevitable departure. Katie detected that something was clearly amiss and after several months told Daniel she couldn’t do it anymore. Most such romantic relationships do not give up sex without breaking apart, and theirs was no different; the relationship ended. Daniel rapidly became sexually active with another woman, while Katie struggled to make sense of it all, wondered about her future, and wrestled with guilt, resolving not to misplace the role of sex again. Keeping that resolution, however, is difficult, since the atmosphere in which contemporary relationships form among emerging adults is heavy with early sexual expectation. Eight months later, Katie and Daniel were back together.