On Love

The Literature: Delaying sex seems to lead to more satisfying relationship, study finds

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sometimes a one-night stand lasts for more than a night -- a random hookup becomes a boyfriend, or a friend-with-benefits evolves into a girlfriend. But a new study suggests couples who start a relationship based on physical interaction may be less satisfied in the long run than those who delay sex.

"It's kind of a puzzle, because you think, 'Well, why would it matter,' right?" says University of Iowa sociologist Anthony Paik, who specializes in the study of sexual behavior.

To find out, Paik returned to data he helped gather for a major sex survey in the mid-1990s. The researchers had conducted exhaustive interviews with 642 people in relationships and found that 56 percent of them had waited until they were seriously dating, engaged or married before having sex with their partner. The others had their first sexual encounter with their partner while they were either casually dating, just friends or new acquaintances.

Participants were asked to rate their emotional and physical satisfaction with their relationship. On a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being "very satisfied"), those who started out as nonromantic sexual partners gave an average rating of 3.8. Those who waited until the partnership was serious to have sex noted an average score of 4.2.

While those who had sex earlier were, on average, less happy in their relationships, Paik found that the problems weren't necessarily a result of the early sexual interaction. Instead, people who ended up together after what began as a casual fling seemed "predisposed to lower relationship quality," he says -- meaning they hadn't been after a commitment to begin with.

"It kind of makes sense, because a lot of people entering nonromantic relationships are not looking for relationships," he says. "But it's much easier, I think, to have a repeat hookup than to have a one-time thing and keep having different partners. And maybe they kind of get sucked into a relationship that way."

Similarly, a 2007 study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that nonromantic sexual relationships were more likely to lead to cohabitation than marriage.

There are exceptions, of course. "Some people do hook up, and it is kind of a sex-at-first-sight situation, and they have meaningful relationships," Paik says. "It's probably pretty rare, but [our] study suggests there's some of that going on."

Unfortunately, he adds, in those instances there's also a very real risk that "the person one thinks they're in love with or has sex with on the first night is often just interested in sex."

Paik, whose paper on the topic was published in the September issue of Social Science Research, says he was most surprised to find that couples who had sex while they were casually dating also reported lower relationship satisfaction. He attributes this to the mix of motives in the dating pool: "There are people primarily interested in sex and people primarily interested in long-term relationships, and they're kinda coming together in one place."

He thinks that confusion over long-term goals has helped give rise to a hookup culture, where, as he writes in the study, there is "a relatively clear set of expectations about what the objectives of these relationships are about, at least initially."

So for those looking for happily committed relationships, Paik has a strategy to suggest: "Delay sex. That way you kind of select out those individuals who are predisposed to not look for a long-term relationship."

That advice, he acknowledges, "is like what one's grandmother would probably say."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company