What Are Your Choices?
We recently spent an entire day, breakfast through dinner, with sex therapists Clifford and Joyce Penner from Pasadena, California. You may know them from their bestselling book, The Gift of Sex or Getting Your Sex Life Off to a Great Start. The Penners have been counseling people on sexual struggles for more than two decades and have heard every conceivable story you can imagine on the topic. They have devoted their professional lives to helping people enjoy sexuality to the fullest. They understand the mechanics of what makes sex good and why it sometimes goes painfully wrong. But they also know that good sex involves far more than biology. The Penners underscore the emotional and spiritual aspects of a vital sexual relationship, not just in the heat of the moment but long after the fire has died down. And when we asked the Penners why so many of the young adults we see are suffering from the sex-too-soon syndrome, they almost answered in unison: “It comes down to choices.” They told us that the number-one reason people end up in their office for counseling is to repair the emotional and spiritual damage of their choices — the ones they made or didn’t make.
In the heat of passion, people aren’t thinking about the long-term consequences of their choices. “By that time,” says Joyce Penner, “the blood has already rushed from their head.” The time to make informed choices about your sexuality is now, and we want to help you make the choice that best fits your values. We want to show you how different choices impact not only your present relationships, but how they will affect you and your partner down the road. So here are the five most common choices people make about having sex. Think about them. Then make up your own mind.
The “It-Just-Happened” Choice
Unplanned sex may feel right at the time, but it almost always ushers in the end of the relationship. Why? Because when you do not consciously make a decision about something as important as sex, you surrender your being to winds of chance. And no relationship can survive on that.
National studies show that only 17 percent of young women say they planned their first sexual intercourse — meaning most apparently have sex because it “just happens” in the heat of passion. The lesson to be learned from this “choice” is that if you don’t actively make a choice that is your choice, your chances of having sex-too-soon skyrocket.
The “If-We’re-in-Love-It-Can’t-Be-Wrong” Choice
It’s tempting to believe that love sanctifies sex. But that’s a fallacy. Sex, even in the context of a caring and loving relationship, will forever change the dynamics of that relationship. Sexual intercourse draws us into the profound mystery of a “one-flesh” reality. It is meant to unite and bond in a deep and wonderful way. But there’s a hitch. Sex outside the lifelong covenant of permanence and fidelity sets up expectations and creates needs that almost always dismantle the relationship.
“It’s weird,” Mike told us. “Once Lauren wanted to change her summer plans just to be with me I began to feel smothered. She was making this big commitment, and I wasn’t ready for that.” No matter how loving he believed himself to be, the truth is — Mike wasn’t ready for sex either.
The “Sex-Brings-Us-Closer-Together” Choice
Sex can bring two people closer together — for a time. The problem with using sex as a means to more intimacy is that it soon becomes a substitute for emotional intimacy itself. Couples who put their sexuality on fast forward short-circuit the normal progression of linking their hearts and souls. Research shows that the emotional bonding required for lasting love is most likely to move systematically and slowly through specific stages. Using sex to speed up that process doesn’t work; not for the long haul. A relationship that is to achieve its full potential requires emotional vulnerability and countless private memories unknown to the rest of the world. Sex-too-soon keeps that from happening. It creates an illusion of intimacy that fades with the fires of passion.
“There is so much use of the body as a substitute for psychological intimacy,” says psychologist Rollo May. “It’s much easier to jump in bed with someone than it is to share your fears and anxieties.” So don’t delude yourself into thinking that sex brings you closer together in any lasting or meaningful way. It doesn’t.
The “I’m-Not-Sexual-Until-I’m-Married” Choice
The automatic choice for some sincere single people is to shut down — completely — all of their sexual feelings to avoid even the slightest temptation of sex before marriage. They don’t hug, they don’t kiss, they may not even hold hands except in public. We know a recently married couple who made this choice together. When they proclaimed their purity at the ceremony, I whispered to Leslie, “I hope their bodies haven’t forgotten what to do on the honeymoon.” I wasn’t saying this to be flippant. I was being serious. When a person completely buries their sexuality, when they block all sensuousness from their relationship, they run the risk of making sex something out of control or even dirty. They say to themselves that good people don’t enjoy sex, and as a result they feel cheap and sinful when they do have sex, even if it’s married sex.
Someone once remarked that many of us were taught: “Sex is dirty. Save it for the person you marry.” What it’s put that way, it’s easy to see the absurdity and contradiction in such teachings.
Yet many swallow such admonitions without allowing themselves to think about their full and lasting impact. Years into marriage, these couples are often not permitting themselves to accept their sexuality. They feel restrained or even guilty over having sex with their husband or wife. Cliff and Joyce Penner have told us that in their work as sex therapists they have seen countless couples who had chosen to be asexual only to discover as they moved into marriage that they had no desire for one another. “Sexuality does not work this way,” according to the Penners. “It is an innate appetite, just like hunger. People can control how much they eat, just as they can control their sexual behavior. But when they shut down their appetites for food they become anorexic; likewise, if they turn off their sexual feelings they become sexually apathetic.” You can control your passion without denying your sexuality. Kissing, hugging, and hand holding are ways of showing mutual endearment and tender caring. They can be part of a wholesome dating relationship. And they can be enjoyed for their own sake without leading to sexual intercourse. Sex is not a wild bronco you can’t control and it’s not dirty — it’s not even a four-letter word.
The “Let’s-Set-Boundaries” Choice
Whenever someone asks us if we believe in premarital sex we respond by saying “yes and no.” It’s a confusing answer at first, but it gives us an opportunity to make an important point. God affirms our sexuality as human beings and we can’t suddenly become asexual; we can’t deny or ignore completely the sexual part of ourselves before we are married without suffering severe consequences. For this reason, we believe in premarital sexuality. We are quick to follow up, however, by saying that having genital sex before marriage is clearly not in line with God’s principles. Sexual intercourse is a “life-uniting act,” as our friend Lewis Smedes calls it. That’s why sex outside of marriage is “sex-to-soon.” It violates the intended purpose of sex. “It is wrong,” according to Smedes, “because unmarried people thereby engage in a life-uniting act without a life-uniting intent. . . . Intercourse signs and seals — and maybe even delivers — a life-union; and life union means marriage.”
So if you want to reserve sexual intercourse for marriage, the $100 question is how? How do you abstain from sex without shutting off your sexuality? Granted, it’s not easy, it can be downright excruciating — but it’s possible. We know plenty of happy couples who have saved sex for marriage. In case you are wondering, we abstained from premarital sex ourselves. In seven years of dating we had our share of passionate moments and plenty of tempting situations, but we stayed true to our decision to wait. Looking back over our entire relationship, it remains as one of the best decisions we ever made. We had plenty of time to evolve through the natural stages of physical intimacy as our permanent commitment to each other progressed.
The secret to saving sex for marriage is found in a single word: boundaries. Couples who abstain from sex without shutting off their sexuality have learned to set specific boundaries and stick to them. They have made intentional, deliberate, and conscious choices about how far they will go.
• Also see Marriage Preparation
Adapted from Real Relationships
Copyright © 2011 by Les and Leslie Parrott, published by Zondervan, used with permission.