These days, it seems that singles at colleges are entertaining an interesting question: Postpone sex for commitment or date and mate? Perhaps the commitment bias is creeping in. After all, our idea of monogamy more closely resembles a One Tree Hill episode than our next-door neighbor’s friends-with-benefits arrangement.
However, that selfless, always-faithful, emotionally-attentive companion may be more common in Hollywood blockbusters and Disney fables than at the Michigan Union. The evidence is in anecdotes and surveys. One anecdote can be noted in last year’s New York Times contest among college students that asked them to write in about their love lives. The editor noted that only three red roses were exchanged amongst lovers in the 1200 respondent letters and a recurring theme was the “no-strings-attached sexual opportunism of the hookup culture.”
Another example can be found in the “casual sexual encounter rates” amongst students in the Northeast United States. A report entitled “Hookups” in the 2000 edition of The Journal of Sex Research revealed that 78 percent of the students had experienced sexual activity with a stranger or a brief acquaintance at least once.
But many of us don’t need empirical data to know that the tide is turning. However, it’s worth exploring whether the grass is greener on the non-committal side. Some clues are offered in a 2007 Michigan State University study “Negotiating a Friends with Benefits Relationship” that measured students who identify as “friends with benefits”. The study confirmed that most college students have self-identified as this at least once. Accounting more accurately for sexual encounters, this survey included friendly friends as well as exes who still have sex and “people who hang out at the same places” who may not identify as friends.
While the reviews around this study depicted these relationships as stressful, the numbers report that these diverse encounters have varied outcomes. Twenty-five percent ended up nixing both the sex and the friendship. About one-third stopped the sex and remained friends. A slim 10 percent ended up graduating to commitment. The rest (also one-third) maintained their friends-with-benefits arrangement. Follow-up studies revealed that students opted into these relationships because they did not want a commitment.
What gives with the anti-commitment sentiment? I have a few theories. Perhaps our generation has been scared straight by the beat-downs on Jerry Springer and has seen enough politicians fall from grace to know that being unfaithful just isn’t worth the drama. And the best way to prevent infidelity is to not commit.
Further, I would argue that it’s not so much that we don’t value commitment. On the contrary, I think that we hold it to an even higher standard. For twenty-somethings today, the statistics about the failed marital state in America aren’t just numerical, they are personal. We’ve stood courtside at enough nasty divorce hearings. Some of us are the sons and daughters of mothers who raised us on their own. And perhaps the best-kept secret is that some are even the products of lasting marriages that reeked of unhappiness.
We know we can do better.
Perhaps we resist commitment in the short-term because we know we can do better in the long run. Non-committal sex may have its upsides and downsides, but many of us have learned to separate sexual feelings from the complex tapestry of emotions that exist in a committed relationship. And these encounters can be a means to a larger end. “Sexually, I learned plenty about what turns me on,” explains writer Tracy Clark-Flory in an article that appeared at Salon.com, “In Defense of Casual Sex.” She also states, “By spending time in uncommitted relationships, what I wanted in a committed relationship became clearer.”
Abstinence-only advocates who oppose non-committal relationships have often argued, “There is no condom for the heart.” But non-committal sex does not have a monopoly on heartbreak, and other factors such as disrespect and a lack of emotional support can also give your partner the blues. Clark-Flory aptly retorts, “That heartbreak isn’t always sexually transmitted.”
In the end, everyone must pave their own path to the partnership — sexual or committed — they seek. As long as respect and consent is a standard, there are no wrong answers. Developing the values in yourself that you seek in others is also important. That will increase the likelihood that your sexual relationships will be a plus factor and not a detractor.