Why Delaying Sex Won't Save Our Love Lives

The latest bizarro relationship advice: if you have sex too early, you'll never be "friends" with your partner. When are we going to learn that there's no magic way to have sex that will protect you from heartbreak?

In the Seattle Times, Judi Light Hopson, Emma H. Hopson, and Ted Hagen make an hoary argument: having sex early on "usually injures the relationship." We're all used to hearing this, followed up by stupid buying-the-cow analogies and the general idea that women are only "valuable" insofar as they withhold sex from men. However, that's not the argument Hopson et al are making. Instead, they write, "when we become someone's sexual partner, we are on guard. If you're having sex with a new love interest, you aren't going to mention the fact you're behind on two car payments or you need dental work." And: "Friends open up to each other. But, once they are lovers, there is a lot of conversation that is suddenly off the table."

It's a pretty unusual claim, not least because our relationships with our friends are very different than our interactions with people we're just starting to date. With the latter category, many of us consciously or unconsciously try to present the "best" version of ourselves — moreover, we may simply not be ready to share the kinds of things we feel comfortable talking about with our close friends. But if we do end up getting closer to someone, this cautiousness fades with time — does sex really interrupt this process? Some relationships never get to the talking-about-dental-work stage for a lot of reasons, but I'm skeptical that sex is what stops them.

On the other hand, sex clearly can change an existing friendship. That's what Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory found when she interviewed several people experienced with friends-with-benefits relationships. One said her friendship ended up changing into a relationship — she and her former FWB are now engaged. Another said introducing sex destroyed his friendship: "She really was one of my favorite people and I thought we had an indomitable connection, but I guess not. I've been in several serious relationships in the past 10 years, and they were all difficult in their own ways, but none of them knocked me on my ass like this one did." Clearly some people maintain successful, placid FWB relationships — but it's just as clear that what starts out drama-free doesn't always end up that way.

Clark-Flory writes that, "It isn't that every generation thinks it's invented sex so much as a better way of doing it — like you can remove the messiness from human intimacy." The flip side of this is that every generation's relationship "experts" think they've invented a way for people to live Happily Ever After without any heartbreaks along the road. But just as saying you're "friends with benefits" isn't a guarantee that you'll never want more, delaying sex until you can talk about your root canal is no surefire way to make sure that once you do start boning, you'll be together forever. Today's relationship advice often advocates controlling the circumstances of sex as a way to control love, but it works about as well as anything else — which is to say, not well at all.

Does "Friends With Benefits" Work? [Salon]
Why Early Sex Wrecks Dating Relationships [Seattle Times]