When I asked Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and Match.com’s chief scientific adviser, about these statistics, she said she wasn’t surprised to find that singles were parlaying casual sex into commitment. It’s part of a theory she has about how singles are looking to make a connection quickly and commit more slowly, a concept she calls “slow love.”
“Early sex means: ‘I’m interested in you. I want to know who you are. I don’t want to spend my life trying to figure out who you are,’ ” Fisher said in a phone interview. Online daters “don’t want to spend months figuring it out,” she says. “They expect to explore sex sooner than those who are offline.”
And she disagrees with the assumption that those who have sex early on in a relationship aren’t looking for anything serious.
“The person who really wants to marry is going to have sex early because they want to get to know as much about this person they can as fast as they can,” Fisher said, calling casual sex a cautious move (when conducted as safely as possible).
“I think people are so scared of divorce,” she said, “that they are putting off marriage until they know everything about this person.” And that includes quickly determining whether there’s a solid physical connection, Fisher added.
College students might be paving the way in converting casual relationships into more serious ones. In the new edition of Fisher’s book “Anatomy of Love,” she cites a 2008 study that found that 51 percent of college students, in a survey of more than 500 undergraduates, hooked up with the intention of starting a traditional romantic relationship. (The researchers found no sex differences when controlling for men versus women.)
Fisher would put friends with benefits in her category of slow love, too. In “Anatomy of Love,” she writes about friends with benefits as a way “to learn a great deal about a potential mate before making a formal commitment, marrying and divorcing.”
“You can gather reams of data about a person during sex,” she writes, “including their health, patience, and ability to change their style to accommodate your needs.”
Humans aren’t the only species who have friends-with-benefits arrangements. “All kinds of creatures create ongoing sexual relationships devoid of long-term obligations,” she writes in “Anatomy of Love.” “Among common chimps, males give females meat in exchange for sex — creating uncommitted sexual relationships that can last for years.”
In 2012, Match’s Singles in America study found that when singles were asked whether they’d ever had a friends-with-benefits relationship turn into a long-term partnership, 44 percent said yes. “I suspect that this form of commitment-lite,” Fisher writes, “will become more and more popular in a world where marriages are often fragile and divorce looms large.”
More casual sex doesn’t mean we’re thinking about relationships more casually. “We are working harder on our relationships than at any time in history or prehistory,” Fisher writes. “Although marriage has become optional, love is not.”