Rules girls wait three dates. “Dating expert” David Wygant recommends three weeks. Steve Harvey insists on three months. An entire industry of when-to-do-it experts exists to warn heterosexual women off having sex with men “too soon.” And now a new study threatens to validate their existence with this: Women who wait to have sex report being more satisfied in their relationships than women who don’t.
The study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family (but not available online), found that women who dated their partner for at least 182 days (!) before having sex with him reported higher levels of satisfaction, commitment, intimacy, emotional support, and sexual satisfaction in the resulting relationship. The results have inspired a new wave of sex delaying advice: The Daily Mail warned women against “leaping into bed at the first opportunity” (or, presumably, the 100th). The researchers claim that their results supported couples “taking it slow.” (Really slow. For those not good at math: 182 days = six months.)
What the Daily Mail doesn’t say is that half-year stretches of celibacy may make a woman more satisfied in a long-term relationship, but they don’t necessarily make her a more satisfied person. This study only surveyed couples who live together or are married, so ignored couples who live apart, women who “leap into bed” without an expectation of commitment, and those who break up when their relationships no longer support their personal needs.
“Good sex is sometimes confused with love,” the researchers note, but they fail to investigate the reverse proposition, even though they admit that “various studies have documented that marital quality declines over the life course,” which suggests that life-long relationships aren’t necessarily the be-all-end-all of heterosexual happiness.
But hey—this is the Journal of Marriage and Family, after all. It stands to reason that women who wait so long to have sex are more likely to report satisfaction in traditional relationships than those who don’t. Over half of women who waited six months or more married their partners without cohabitating first. Even those couples not so enamored of marriage had a conspicuous outside incentive to maintain relationships with one another, whether or not they were happy in them—they all had minor children together. The study may actually be measuring the relationship benefits of planned parenthood instead of the benefits of delaying sex (the study didn’t ask the women about their birth control methods—all we know is that those who waited more than half a year to have sex were exercising a very reliable form).
The study’s most relevant finding? Men didn’t register a similar benefit for delaying sex. They felt their relationships were about as strong and sexually satisfying whether they waited one month or six (even the study’s sluttiest group included those people who waited up to a month to have sex). Perhaps that’s because—from True Love Waits to Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man—pressure to delay sex is overwhelmingly targeted at (and marketed to) women, while sex advice for men generally consists of tips for getting women into bed as early as possible.
When women’s short-term sexual pleasure is perpetually framed in the service of long-term romantic commitment, it’s no surprise that women who invest heavily in that framework end up thinking that the wait was worth it. But making all relationships better—and more equitable—will require more than crossing our legs in perpetuity.