Compromises on LoveDR. RICHARD WETZEL, M.D.
Having discussed the primary reasons for the failure of the sexual revolution, let us now begin a tour of the most important topics related to sex.
Having discussed the primary reasons for the failure of the sexual revolution, let us now begin a tour of the most important topics related to sex. For each topic we shall explore how our priorities and goals have changed and investigate the elaborate set of misconceptions which has arisen to support these changes. We shall also see how lesser misconceptions reinforce the fundamental "needs" misconception. Understanding the misconceptions and how they have facilitated the breakdown of healthy attitudes about sex will enable us to understand what our attitudes should be.
Sex Without Love
Misconception # 2: Sex without love is healthy
This misconception is possibly the most extraordinary of all. The belief is that relationships based primarily on physical attraction are acceptable, or even, at times, preferable. It holds that sex should, at times, simply be recreation, diversion, or escape. It accepts that sex with a stranger, without any strings attached, is a reasonable and potentially healthy alternative to committed, heterosexual monogamy. The bumper sticker says "Forget Love, Go for Lust," as if a contrived erotic interlude could somehow compare with the multi-dimensional experience of marital intercourse with one's beloved.
Sex without love is usually qualified by the comment, ". . . as long as it doesn't hurt anyone," which leaves one to wonder, "How could it not hurt one or both partners?" Sex with love is sex with concern for others partners, existing or potential children — because concern for others is inherent in the concept of love. But sex without love is unburdened by such regard. It is sex geared toward self, without serious concern for others. Such attitudes entice people to use others for their own pleasure and thereby abuse sex. It is no surprise that some of the greatest unhappiness related to sex is a consequence of this remarkable misconception.
During the discussion period following a lecture a member of the audience described an unusual arrangement. A husband was obsessed with oral sex, but his wife did not share his interest, so they agreed that whenever he "needed" to have oral sex he would drive to a neighboring state to have oral sex performed on him anonymously. Since "no one got hurt" and he had his "needs" fulfilled, this was posited as an ideal arrangement.
If we take a good look at the situation, however, we may discover a fairly long queue of hurt people taking shape. Obviously there is the wife, knowing that her husband considers her sexually inadequate, and that he gives his fantasies a higher priority than he gives his family. Then there is the anonymous oral sex partner in the next state, paid off and discarded. Neither she nor the man is likely to derive any heightened sense of dignity from the arrangement. But what the man may well bring home and give to his wife is one or more STD's and she is likely to have increasing apprehension about whatever other kinds of activities he may be involved in, genital sex, homosexuality and beyond. If he gives his physical pleasure such a high priority, his wife could never be sure what he would be doing when he was not right there with her. Finally, there is the rest of the family, the children, who may or may not learn the whole or even partial truth about their family circumstances. So many men complain about the little time they have to spend with their families — and then there is this fellow. This situation is likely to lead to more problems than this couple can imagine.
Sex without love cannot logically be considered healthy. Consider how during the early stages of romance we hold hands with, and sit next to each other. As emotional intimacy develops we naturally hug, kiss and otherwise become more physically intimate. Healthy sexual interactions follow a natural progression. But advocates of the "sex without love is healthy" misconception are, in effect, saying that, to lie naked with someone and engage in wildly passionate, genital sexual intercourse, there need not exist any affection whatsoever!
It is truly astounding that anyone would want to separate sex from love. Only those who have declared immediate, physical pleasure as their highest priority could do so. Moreover, "sex without love" is essentially a lie, if not an outright contradiction in terms. A most obvious reality about sex is that, through it, people express affection. People naturally expect sexual interactions of all types to validate relationships — to add a dimension to the intimacy a couple is developing, and sex without love contradicts that expectation. When two people get involved in "casual" sex, they are, essentially, saying to each other "By the way, I don't really care about you, I'm just doing this because it feels good." Yet the nature of the act itself says that they do care. If one can be involved in any sexual experience, from hugging to intercourse, without it being a demonstration of love, then how is one to know when such gestures demonstrate love and when they do not? Sex without love leads to confusing, misleading messages and so, again, is not compatible with healthy sex.
In summary, it is a misconception that genital, sexual interactions without emotional attachments create no harm. Dissociating sex from love leaves wide open the opportunity for selfish rationalizations and taking advantage of others. It promotes abuse, places people at risk for serious, unnecessary consequences, confuses and creates unhappiness. To think that such an approach will not lead to harm ("nobody gets hurt") is to think not carefully enough.
Acceptance of sex without love is one of the peculiar consequences of succumbing to the belief that people have specific, genital sexual needs. When such needs are considered a given, the goal of sexual interactions becomes to fulfill those needs without regard to other basic considerations. Again, the way to avoid such illusions is to maintain the natural supremacy of love, a priority that many choose to abandon.
It is obvious to even the most casual observer that, by the mid-1990s, premarital and extramarital sex have attained a level of acceptability previously unheard of. A wide range of publications provides statistical confirmation of this phenomenon. Studies on adolescents show a uniform upward trend. For example, sexual activity among sixteen year-old males increased by over 60% from 1982 to 1988.1 Studies on college-age adults reveal the same pattern. In one study of unmarried university students, the rate of premarital intercourse increased from 38.3% to 64.6% during a five-year period.2 Studies on life after college also reflect this trend. For example, the highly acclaimed University of Chicago sex survey published in 1994 offers ample evidence of a dramatic increase in promiscuity and premarital sex over the past few decades.
Our paramount concern here is the effect of such activity on sexual relationships, i.e., the effect of premarital activities on attitudes and on future interactions between men and women. More specifically, the question is whether premarital sexual experiences strengthen or weaken a couple's underlying relationship.
In the course of discovering the answer to this question, we shall consider five more misconceptions.
Misconception #3: Premarital sex is acceptable if the couple loves each other
This assertion ignores a whole spectrum of risks associated with premarital sex. When we love someone, we do not expose that person to foreseeable, unnecessary, serious risks. On the contrary, we protect our loved ones from such risks. Therefore, we should question how much true love can exist if two people will needlessly, willingly risk bringing serious harm to each other.
Some of the major potential consequences of premarital sex can be classified as physical, psychological, and social.
In the course of counseling patients, I am amazed that so many people who review this list suggest additions. The list is meant only to be representative, not exhaustive. So numerous and so serious are the risks inherent to premarital sexual activity that the assertion that people engage in it to show their love for each other is incongruous. In other circumstances, we make every effort to protect our loved ones from risks. We vaccinate our children and insist that they wear seat belts and bicycle helmets; we take them to the doctor if they seem to be seriously ill. Why, then, are we so ready to expose "lovers" to avoidable risks, the magnitude of which we would not dream of exposing our immediate family to? The possible gain in pleasure from sex notwithstanding, what could the gain be relative to the risk? In a truly loving relationship, restraint and the prevention of exposure to these risks should be the expected course.
Some people would argue that almost all activities involve risks. A child riding a bicycle risks being struck by a car. True, but activities involving this kind of risk-taking are necessary — if children are to develop autonomy, self-confidence, physical conditioning, and coordination. Such activities are necessary to maintain health in the holistic sense. Premarital sex, on the other hand, fulfills no genuine need, and the risks associated with it are, therefore, unnecessary.
Men, in particular, downplay the reality of the risks associated with premarital sex with such comebacks as, "Life has risks. So what if you expose someone to more?" — a remarkably callous response in this age of sensitivity. This attitude sharply contrasts with the reaction of a sexually active teenager I was counseling who broke down in tears as we were reviewing the risks listed above. While she had never been pregnant or contracted any venereal disease, she was well aware of the psychological price she had paid by compromising herself.
Chastity educator Pat Driscoll invites us to consider treating every date, girlfriend, or significant other as we would want someone else to treat our future spouses. She asks us to consider how the future spouses of our dates would want us to treat them. Sadly, such altruistic views seem the exception in contemporary thought.
Abstinence educators use a simple demonstration to open discussions of sex with adolescents. A boy volunteer is chosen and a strip of duct tape is firmly applied to his forearm. The tape symbolizes the bond between himself and a girl who gives up her virginity to him. The educator emphasizes the tightness of the bond, how with a first boyfriend the inexperienced and naive girl is capable of giving herself entirely. When the relationship breaks up, the tape is torn off the boy's forearm, representing the pain that the two experience from dissolution of the bond. The tape is then transferred to successive boy volunteers. With each transfer it loses some of its ability to adhere. This loss of adhesive power represents the decreasing ability of the girl to bond and form truly intimate relationships with each successive sexual partner. Finally the tape has no stickiness at all, and so its removal from a boy's forearm takes no effort and causes no pain. The now disillusioned and hardened girl is numb in her relationships with males and incapable of giving herself to them, incapable of fully trusting them, and incapable of becoming deeply intimate with them. The same demonstration can be used for a boy and several girl partners.
Many if not most couples involved in premarital sex justify their actions to themselves and others with the idea that it is an expression of love. The truth is not so romantic, for the act by its very nature sends the message: "I don't love you as much as I could."
Misconception # 4: Premarital sex is the private decision of the two people involved
Intimate sexual behaviors do not occur in a vacuum but within a complex interpersonal and social context. What goes on inside the bedroom affects the couple and others outside the bedroom. In the preceding we listed several "Social Risks" which result from premarital sex. The experience of a pregnant fifteen-year-old girl, whom I was treating during my residency at a county clinic, illustrates the point. She was immaculately groomed, calm and well-mannered, and I was surprised to note an entry in her chart which stated that she had attempted suicide earlier in the pregnancy. When questioned, she said that her family had been terribly disgraced by her pregnancy and that her subsequent distress had been unbearable. If she had succeeded in committing suicide, one can only imagine how her death would have affected her family, her friends and all who knew this lovely girl.
All behaviors affect others to some degree, but for adult behaviors which carry such serious risks as sexual intercourse, the risk to others is often significant and sometimes dramatic.
Misconception #5: Premarital sex is acceptable for consenting adults
The problem with this assertion is that a crucial word is invariably left out: "informed." If all of those consenting adults who have ended up in their physicians' offices had been informed ahead of time about the risks involved, premarital sexual activity would decline. It is disheartening to see the surprised looks on people's faces, once they learn how risky their behavior has been. The health care industry, the media, and others fail to inform the public of the risks of premarital sex. Women know little about the risks they take and men, in general, know less.
An amiable young woman came to my office because she was concerned about a yellowish discoloration of her skin. She had hepatitis B, an infection which is often transmitted sexually. She had no risk factors except involvement in a serious, long term, sexual relationship. When she told her boyfriend about her diagnosis, he confessed that he had engaged in some homosexual behavior before meeting her but was unaware that he carried an infection. Homosexual relations carry a relatively high risk for hepatitis B. This woman had little idea that, through her sexual activity, she might be risking a possibly life-threatening liver infection. She was also unaware that a person can be infected with any sexually transmitted disease yet have no symptoms. She was mature, intelligent, experienced, and consenting, but uninformed, or at least not sufficiently informed to avoid serious consequences of her actions.
Witnessing the emotional anguish so often involved in these cases leaves one at odds with the notion that premarital sex is reasonable as long as both parties are "consenting adults." Premarital sex inherently entails serious risks. Couples can easily consent to it, but becoming thoroughly, or even adequately, informed about the risks they are incurring is a more complicated operation.
Misconception #6: Premarital sex helps to establish a good sexual relationship in marriage
This misconception ignores the fact that sexual intercourse is an inordinately simple act to perform. No strenuous preparation is necessary prior to marital relations. A basic understanding of reproductive biology is of benefit for all couples, but to experience arousal to climax with a member of the opposite sex prior to marriage has not been shown to benefit future marital relations. In fact, surveys indicate that premarital abstinence, not sexual experience, is associated with greater marital sexual satisfaction.5
With a holistic approach to sex, the priority lies not with having a good sex partner but with having a good lover in the fullest sense of the term. The advantage is not with those who have developed sexual prowess on their own, but with those couples who together develop their own unique pattern of interaction over the years.
Misconception # 7: Premarital sex allows a couple to evaluate their compatibility before they commit to marriage
Again, studies confirm just the opposite. Couples who engage in premarital sex and couples who live with each other prior to marriage7 have markedly higher divorce rates.
We have reviewed the main arguments used in defense of premarital sex and have found no credence to its supposed advantages. When we consider the advantages of waiting until marriage to have genital, sexual relations, however, the physical, psychological, and social implications are substantial. Consider the following advantages of waiting.
In spite of the many problems associated with premarital sex and of the many advantages of waiting until marriage to have intercourse, those who engage in premarital sex are not "bad" people. Most of us, at one time or another, make serious mistakes with regard to our sexuality and no one of us can know another's vulnerability to doing so. Our concern here is not with judging people, but with identifying attitudes and behaviors likely to lead to positive sexual experiences and those likely to lead to problems. The point is that premarital genital sexual activity is fundamentally unhealthy. It is demonstrably the sexual activity most commonly associated with subsequent unhappiness.
Does this mean that all sex within marriage is "good" or healthy? Unfortunately, no. Sex within marriage can be just as abusive, just as risky, and just as dysfunctional as premarital or extramarital sex. Marital sexual intercourse, however, has a potential not found in premarital or extramarital relations. It has the potential to genuinely affirm the intimacy found within a healthy marital relationship. In contrast, sex outside of marriage creates obstacles to achieving this positive potential. Inherent in the decision to have premarital sex is the valuing of something — usually pleasure —more than love.
Behavior based on the acceptability of sex without love is a subset of premarital sexual behavior. Both rely heavily on the misconception that people have specific, genital, sexual needs. With premarital sex, the couple cannot wait for marital commitment. They love each other "so much" that they need to express that "love" through genital intimacy. The sexual tension becomes unbearable and must be relieved, even if the risks involved attest to the fact that true love is being compromised. Sex without love is justified because it achieves the goal of fulfilling a person's needs, even though it might mean degrading the sex act to the point of a detached exchange with a stranger. Sex without love is the extreme extension of the limitations and compromises placed on love by premarital, sexual relationships.
Saying "No" to premarital sex means valuing oneself and one's date enough to refuse risking the possibility of using another or of being used. It means keeping one's sight on the heart of the relationship, maintaining the priority of love, and rejecting the "needs" misconception.
In a Newsweek magazine editorial, a physician who specializes in the treatment of AIDS patients concluded that "Smart people don't use condoms." His point was that smart people don't have premarital sex. To expand on his thought: the smartest people keep their clothes on until they get married.
Wetzel, M.D., Richard. "Compromises on Love." Chapter 2 in Sexual Wisdom (Proctor Publications, 1998)
Sexual Wisdom is available from Proctor Publications (800) 343-3034, P.O. Box 2498, Ann Arbor, MI 48106. Sexual Wisdom is produced by and copyrighted to Sex Education For Advanced Beginners, a non-profit California corporation (#33-0584794) dedicated to teaching the truth about sexuality. Dr. Wetzel receives no financial compensation from the sale of this book. All proceeds from sales go toward promotion of Sexual Wisdom and related endeavors. Book Price: $12.95 US / $17.95 CAN
Richard Wetzel, M.D. is a family physician in private practice for over ten years and is an internationally recognized expert on sexuality. He is a graduate of Albany Medical College in New York and is a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians; the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists; the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States; and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. He teaches a wide variety of audiences including parents, physicians, young adults, and adolescents. He is a regularly featured guest on television and radio and is an advisory board member of Mary's Shelter, a shelter for pregnant teenagers.
Audio and video tapes of Dr. Wetzel are available though St. Joseph's Radio at (714) 744-0336, Fax: (714) 744-1998, P.O. Box 2983, Orange, CA 92859
© 1998 Richard Wetzel Sexual
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