Deciding what sex means to you; what feeling does intercourse symbolize for you?
It might be helpful to think of making your sexual life style decisions by considering four alternatives. Each of the following alternatives reflects a way of viewing sexual intercourse, in terms of the meaning it has for you. Others can try to influence you, but in your own heart only you can decide what meaning your sex acts will have to you. Each alternative is an acceptable way to live; each has a number of pros and cons, i.e. psychological reasons for and against each way of thinking about sexual intercourse:
In the first alternative, sex is fun and has no special meaning beyond that. Sexual intercourse is for adventure, physical gratification, and enriching the interaction between two people. When sex is accepted merely as pleasurable passion, sex need not be taken to mean anything more, i.e. not a sign of commitment, not a show of love, and not an indication of any continuing emotional involvement with the partner. This is typical of a "free spirit" who favors short relationships or "one night stands." It would also include people who realize they are primarily meeting each other's physical, erotic needs, such as the "pick up" at a bar, cruising homosexuals, married "swingers," persons seeking prostitutes, and continuing but sexually oriented relationships. This is the mutual enjoyment of physical sex.
Pros: It is potentially an adventurous, exciting, enjoyable life style, if one can be honest with others and still find interested sexual partners. This attitude about sex cleanly separates lust from love, and since both emotions are acceptable (as long as both people are honest), the two people don't have to rush into or fake love in order to have sex. This attitude may reduce the risk of lust leading to bonding with a person who is a poor choice as a long-term partner. With about 70% of females and 80% of males sexually active by age 19 and with marriage commonly being postponed until the late 20's, there may be 10 or 15 years of sexual experience before marriage. Between high school and marriage, many people will have 2-4 serious relationships with several brief, uncommitted experiences between the serious affairs. Over several years, would you prefer to meet and go to dinner or a show with 100 interesting people or would you rather meet the same 100 people and have sex with 50 of them who are interested in having sex with you? It is your choice; both are good choices.
Cons: Even among college students, men having intercourse with a great many women are considered "immoral" by 25-30% of males and 40-45% of women (some states still have laws against "fornication," i.e. premarital intercourse). Likewise, very sexually active women are regarded as immoral by somewhat higher percentages of men and women (the old double standard). It is lust without love that is really condemned in our culture. Only 1% of college women say they approve of sex without affection, about 10% of men say they approve (Duvall & Miller, 1985). Another argument is that the sex-is-fun advocate is likely to consider the opposite sex as mere sex objects ("if they look good, take them to bed"), not genuine feeling, caring people (see the centerfold syndrome discussion above). Thus, social disapproval, possible guilt, "getting a bad reputation," and "being used" are the major drawbacks of this alternative. Of course, disease and pregnancy are grave dangers too, if not protected.
While one person may have healthy, reasonable reasons for freely engaging in sexual intercourse, another person might have unhealthy, unconscious motives for seeking sex (and not love primarily), e.g. emotional coldness or a fear of intimacy (Brooks, 1995; Berman, 1984; Cassell, 1984), using conquests to boost ego, too much self-love, poor self-control or inability to say "no," need to control or put-down others, rebellion against current sexual prudishness, and others. The possibility of these motives underscores the risk that a person with a liberal sexual outlook might be unfaithful if the relationship developed into love. Lots of sexual partners before marriage is correlated with more extra-marital affairs (Sex, before and after, 1975). On the other hand, if you are having sex simply for fun, it may not make much difference if your partner's motives are just as self-centered and demeaning as your's are..
Note: there seems to be a contradiction between college student morals (no sex without love; sex with many people is immoral) and their behavior (petting and sex early in relationships; postponing marriage but having intercourse with several premarital partners). It is not unusual for behaviors to differ from stated attitudes, especially where the issue is emotional and confusing. Usually attitudes are changed over time (years) to catch up with behavior. I suspect the "sex is great wherever you can get it" view is common among uncommitted men. But, considering this attitude is so disdained by women, it is a closely guarded male secret.
General findings: Among college freshmen, 2/3rds of the males and only 1/3rd of the females agree that "sex is OK if people like each other." Therefore, among college women, 1/2 have sex while "just dating," 2/3rds have intercourse while "going steady," and 3/4ths have sex when engaged (Duvall & Miller, 1985). Recent evidence suggests that in 1990 college students are waiting longer to have sex and sex is more often with a "steady" than in 1980 (pre-AIDS). Among all adults, about 25% think premarital sex is always wrong.
In the second alternative, intercourse is fun and means "I like you " as a person and enjoy being with you but having intercourse does not mean I am making any commitment to you in the future. This is casual sex. Casual sex doesn't mean being totally without care and concern for the other person, but the promise of involvement in the future is not there. When you suggest having sex, in this case, it simply means you find the other person attractive and interesting, someone you think you would enjoy being with and having sex. In order to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings, it is necessary to be totally honest about your limited interests, emotions, and future intentions. Of course, this honesty will turn off many people who want love and the intent to remain involved before having sex. Having your offer of a good time sexually turned down is the "cost" of being a decent, honest person (no decent person would lie about his/her commitment). There is, of course, a possibility of a serious friendship developing and even for love to develop, but there are no such promises asked for or made, and such possibilities should be seen as slim.
Pros: Most of the pleasurable aspects of physical sex (#1) are true of casual sex too. Since the sexual partner is someone you know or could call a "friend," you are somewhat less likely to be considered immoral or "loose." Since you know the person and there is a chance of additional contacts later on, you should feel more comfortable and there is less risk of violence and abuse. The intimacy of sex permits you to find out more about the person's personality and attitudes than might otherwise be the case. If there are no future contacts, the implied "rejection" should be less painful, especially if the person remains a friend. Roughly half (more men, less women) approve of casual sex and engage in it while dating in college. The "friendships" made should be more exciting, more meaningful, and more memorable than would otherwise be the case.
Cons: Same as in physical sex (#1). Some people will consider you immoral. The explicit lack of commitment may lead to fears of being rejected (not as a lover necessarily, but as a friend and sex partner). Likewise, few people can be sexually intimate with one person for any length of time without starting to want some commitment. And, without some hint of deeper involvement, one might just leave the relationship as soon as a problem arose, rather than working it out. Having sex with a friend increases the chances of losing the friendship and making the breaking up more stressful. If the friend is not a good choice as a friend, why would you spend much time in such a relationship rather than looking for a person who could meet more of your needs?
After sleeping with a new partner, 14% wonder if it is now a committed relationship and 62% wonder if it gave them a disease.
In this alternative, which has become the American standard, having intercourse means "I love you" and want to have an exclusive relationship with you for a while but I'm not sure for how long--forever is a long time. This is "going steady" or being engaged or living together in a "temporary arrangement." It isn't just love that makes sex socially acceptable; the more emotional involvement and commitment involved, the more socially acceptable sex is (if you are 18 or older). For instance, having sex with someone you love and are strongly attracted to is not fully approved socially if one person is unwilling to commit to the other.
Pros: There is comfort--security--in a somewhat committed relationship, and comfort makes the love and the sex better. Over 90% of engaged couples say sex helped improve their relationship; 75% of women have no regrets about premarital sex. If an accidental pregnancy occurs, you are not as likely to be left all alone. Sex with affection and commitment is accepted (if you aren't too young, e.g. still in high school) by the majority; this tolerance reduces our guilt. Couples who have good premarital sex have better post-marital sex; however, having premarital sex does not reduce the divorce rate (Knox, 1984, p.204). Good safe sex and love are great self-esteem builders.
Cons: Insisting that you must love and commit to me before we "make love" may result in premature (pretended?) commitments--and poor choices of a mate. Certainly many people have been seduced into a long-term relationship by the thrill of sex. Perhaps better choices would have been made if sex were available before a commitment or not available at all until after marriage. Having sex makes breaking up harder to do and more painful. Poor sex and unwanted pregnancies are serious problems and jeopardize love. Besides, as many have speculated, having ready access to sex may reduce the desire to get married.
Most people would consider this alternative psychologically sound and emotionally healthy. But, sex and love can, of course, result from many unhealthy motives: to reassure yourself you are attractive and lovable, to be taken care of and protected, to avoid working or a bad home life, to "hook a man/women," to get pregnant, to do what your friends are doing, etc. These unhealthy possible motives, however, are in no way valid arguments against wholesome, healthy, reasonable love and sex. It's just that none of us can be certain that our motives to love and have sex are entirely healthy.
Fourthly, sexual intercourse is considered almost a sacred act symbolizing total commitment forever, regardless of the difficulties that arise. In this case, sex might reasonably occur at the same time the couple are legally and spiritually united in marriage. This is the traditional Christian and Jewish view. People who endorse this attitude tend to be older and more religious.
Pros: In some respects, this sounds ideal: everyone approves, no risk of children before total commitment, no guilt about sex, comfortable and well planned conditions for sex, and the sex act is made special--saved for years for this one special person and symbolizing the highest degree of respect, almost a reverence, for each other. One can be proud of the self-control and religious commitment involved. And, one can be pretty sure you weren't selected just because of your great body or sexual virility. Your partner's permanent commitment to you and to God gives some reassurance that marital problems will be taken seriously.
It is as absurd to pretend that one cannot love the same person always as to pretend that a great artist needs several violins to play a piece of music.
Cons: One has, in this alternative, to give up sexual intercourse with all other people except with the person you are going to marry. If, in fact, one has avoided sexual intimacy with all others prior to marriage, eventually one might feel cheated (especially if the partner has had or seeks sex or love from others). This view of the meaning of intercourse may be confounded with unhealthy attitudes towards sex: fears or negative feelings about sex or genitals, difficulty communicating, little interest in sex, etc. In short, one can have sex or avoid sex for unhealthy reasons. If one abstains from sex, the relationship may become "traditional" in many other ways besides sex: the man is the boss, the wife stays home, subordinates herself, and loses her identity. Too much may be expected from the marriage or from romantic love, leading to disappointments. If the couple believes divorce is impossible or horrible, they may be miserable either way, i.e. trapped in an unhappy marriage or breaking the vows and getting an immoral divorce.
Sex can be given many meanings
Sex may, for some people, have different meanings at different times; at first, intercourse may just be fun, then later is may mean "I like you," later "I love you," and finally eternal commitment. However, the meaning of sex, for others, may not be defined in the heart, but explained differently as it becomes convenient to do so (i.e. people lie: "I love you, now let's do it"). Likewise, intercourse doesn't, for some people, necessarily have the same meaning with different partners. With one person sex may honestly mean "I love you," with another person it may mean "I find you attractive and fun." Furthermore, while you are usually clear about what meaning having intercourse with a particular person has for you, the sex partner may have a different notion or be uncertain about your meaning. One of the more inconsiderate, immoral, despicable human acts is to whisper "I love you" to someone and really mean "I want sex but I don't care about you as a person." The immoral aspect is not the sex but the lying, i.e. the person is not going to carry through the next day, week, or month with the actions implied by "I love you."
If you can decide what you want sexual intercourse to mean to you and if you can clearly and honestly convey this meaning and its implications to your partner, you are well on your way to establishing a considerate, non-hurtful relationship.