In the absence of collective sexual mores, modern single adults are making it up as they go along

So, a few weeks ago I answered this nice woman's question about her value of abstinence outside of marriage, and how that value created a dilemma for her. She worried she couldn't "compete" with other women for the attention of men. I have been, since then, drowning in the coolest mail ever.
The dialogue has been compelling. It yielded two more columns, two more blogs, and I've lost count of the email exchanges.

Out of this swirl, I think I notice something. It seems to me that modern folks are living in a time of peculiar ambiguity as regards the rules and the realities of human sexuality and the definition of a healthy sex life. This ambiguity falls as a particular puzzle to middle-age and senior single people for several reasons, not the least of which is that older people (at some point) no longer attach sex symbolically to fertility. I'm saying what sex means to a 22-year-old is most often very different than its meaning to a 62-year-old.

It occurs to me that, in the last 60 years or so, the world has changed radically as regards collective sexual mores. Some greatly lament these changes -- the world is going to hell in a handcart. Some see the changes as liberation. But, whatever your view, the changes cannot be denied.

In what follows, my task is to describe one such change in our collective sexual mores and then to explore the implications. My effort is objective, sociological, behavioral -- not a moral inquiry. I will imply moral questions, but must leave that discussion for another time and place. Please resist the temptation to infer my personal values from what follows.

Collective sexual mores are customs, rules, and practices shared by the greater whole of a culture. The mores contain and protect collective meaning and thereby protect the identity, the health, the wholeness and greater bond of the tribe. The mores direct individual behavior, and in some cases sanction (penalize) persons behaving outside of the collective norm.

What has changed is that our collective sexual mores are greatly reduced. That is, there are many fewer things on the list of archetypal agreement. Rape, adultery, sex with children -- these behaviors are amongst those still listed as prohibitions in the collective. But no longer do modern people wield a wider, collective understanding of what makes mutual, adult sexual behavior right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate.

Let me say all that again with a little folksy candor: Most people are out there making it up as they go along. For themselves. Moment by moment. Situation by situation.

For example, it is actually surprising now to meet an individual who asserts (let alone adheres to) the strict, unyielding idea that only sex in marriage is moral, all sex outside of marriage is immoral, and who therefore, in principle, puts all potential suitors on immediate notice: "You will never see me naked until you marry me. Period. The end."

Not saying those people don't exist. But even devout religious people who are convinced their Maker vehemently disapproves of any sexual expression outside of marriage ... well, they find themselves traipsing to confession with no little regularity.

So, in the absence of the collective admonitions, what's on the menu? What are the options? And what are the risks particular to each?

You can decide, for any number of reasons, not to have sex. Any sex. Of any kind. At all. I'm thinking we're not going to see a mad dash to line up for this any time soon.

But, when chosen from a place of strength, abstinence can make a useful and even vital contribution to certain times of life. For example, I push abstinence for minors. I take my best shot at convincing adolescents to delay sex until they are least 18. In my perfect world, as late as 21. Why? Not because it's naughty or bad -- that's silly -- rather because the research is clear: Intercourse much under the age of 18 muddies, delays, and impedes psychological differentiation -- the journey of becoming a whole, solid self.

Another example for both married and single people: Times of acute grief often draw our vitality away from our sex drive and deep into our broken heart. Sexual courtship might be a kind of distraction from the healing task at hand. Later, renewing the courtship becomes part of what heals.

Newly divorced people, too, are often well-advised to embrace a time of abstinence, though few in my experience heed that advice.

And abstinence is always the best choice when the alternative is having sex you don't want to have -- sex that doesn't fit your own values.

Sex as mutual recreation
This includes "one-night stands" and other sorts of more or less anonymous sex. You might or might not know your playmate's first name. Then again, you might even know the last name and whether he/she is local or just traveling through town. But the point remains, it likely doesn't matter whether you know these things.

This sex is anonymous at least in the sense that it does not imply or necessitate any real connectedness in relationship. Indeed, connectedness would most often contradict the goal. Mess it up. Ruin it.

Commonly, this sex occurs once and rarely more than twice with any given partner. Further contact of any kind is not the norm.

None of this is to say that these partners treat one another with disdain or disrespect, at least not necessarily. The partners can be genuinely grateful and appreciative of the experience and therefore of each other. But the point remains they don't tend to continue further contact, of any kind, let alone a continued liaison.

Some people go looking for sex as mutual recreation. It's the reason they get dressed up and go out. Still other folks habituate it. Make a lifestyle out of it. Some people are really good at it. They seem to naturally, not to mention frequently, attract and meet partners who are likewise amenable.

Other times it is a freak occurrence. Right time, right place, right person, right chemistry, right amount of alcohol, right amount of "life's been hard and what the hell." It's a surprise. You didn't expect it. Weren't looking for it. One moment you were just an employee at a fundraiser, and the next moment you were in a stairwell, a car, or an apartment you've never seen before.

Whether by surprise or by intention, some people thoroughly enjoy these experiences. Others enjoy it but blush a little the next day. Others enjoy it and then feel guilty about it. Still others avail themselves to this experience as a kind of filler or stopgap while they long for something more. Something deeper.

Some people choose sex as mutual recreation and hate it. And hate themselves for doing it. Never enjoy it. Don't even think it's particularly erotic. But they keep choosing it. Even though it makes them emptier, and emptier, and emptier ...

Some people foreswear sex as recreation on moral principle -- it's wrong. Other people decline it on philosophical principle -- it lacks meaning. Other people avoid it for practical reasons -- it's reckless. These people remind themselves there are a lot of crazy people out there, and it's stupid to expose that kind of vulnerability to someone you don't know.

Some people can choose this behavior occasionally. They reach for it from a place of psychological solidity. Authenticity. They enjoy it for what it is. They are objective, responsible, and self-directed.

With other people, it is difficult to determine whether it is a choice or a compulsion. A happy lark, or a destructive impulse. An admittedly hedonistic but nonetheless positive experience, or an unconscious strategy to withhold true vulnerability and dodge the work of real personal growth.

I am unconvinced everyone is having the fun they say they are having.

Casual sex
Casual sex means sex occurring in some construct of relationship, perhaps a dating relationship, but not even that necessarily. It includes the erstwhile "friends with benefits."

The relationship contains regard, chemistry, some filial sense of trust. You know your partner "has your back."

The relationship contains affection, perhaps great affection, sometimes even love, but not in-love-ed-ness, nor any necessary intention of falling in love. The partners might already know that it is unlikely for them ever to fall in love, and they state this clearly and "up front."

Casual sex might or might not be exclusive. But when it is exclusive, it is often more about the two people not wanting complications or wanting to be safe from disease, not because they are feeling jealous or possessive or protective of deeper meaning.

One of the risks of casual sex is sometimes one partner falls in love. Ouch. That is difficult. Sex is gestalt. It cranks you open. And you don't always get to decide when your heart spontaneously opens to another human being. So casual sex comes with this warning label: "WARNING! YOU MIGHT SOMEDAY LOOK ACROSS A PILLOW AND FIND YOURSELF HEAD OVER HEELS IN LOVE WITH SOMEONE WHO IS NOT IN LOVE WITH YOU. AND THAT WILL HURT. AND YOU WILL LIKELY LOSE YOUR FRIEND."

And sometimes casual sex can unfold the happy surprise that both people fall in love. Sometimes casual sex is the serendipitous road to something deeper, even if both parties could've sworn they were not looking for it.

Courtship sex
Courtship sex differs from casual sex because of its intention -- courtship! That is, courtship sex intends to explore the possibility of falling in love and the hope of something significant and lasting.
Courtship sex is one of a collection of behaviors in which a courting couple engages to discern potential, and whether the potential of something deeper could be realized. Indeed, sex is part of what they believe might grow this "deeper thing."

If it's not immediately exclusive, courtship sex tends to become so, and that quite quickly and most naturally. Assuming the courtship continues in an enthusiastic trajectory, you end up wanting exclusivity, because it's the only way, finally, to really explore the potential.

I'm saying that exclusivity in these cases is not a duty, favor, obligation, or practice of piety. It is more a natural evolution. If you or your partner begins to resist it or resent it or lie and cheat, it would seem a reasonable inference that someone has changed their mind about wanting a courtship.

Write this down: People who keep their sexual options perpetually open tend to do so with great intention, albeit perhaps unconscious intention. We keep our options open so that our heart will never have to radically rely on any one person. And, even if that's not our intention, it is nonetheless the consequence.

Not saying it's a bad thing. Or a good thing. Just that living well means doing it consciously.
Sex in a Great Love Affair/Marriage
Most people still think of this as the ideal. That is, sex finds its deepest expression and greatest potential when contained in the bond of a great love. This ideal is still contained in our collective mores.

And here there is a surprise worth mentioning. A delightful paradox. Once sex is grounded and contained in a great love, it suddenly can and does embrace a comprehensive menu of choices. All of the above. At various times and places, a Great Love embraces sex as recreation, as spontaneous animal instinct, as outrageous adventure, pure hedonism, sex as warm friendship, sex as comfort, sex as stress relief, sex as solace, sex as continued courtship, sex as profound union, sex as deep meaning.

Sex as worship.

It's all there. All there for the having. The taking. The sharing. The reveling. Celebrating. Enjoying.

The risk? Oh. Yeah. Forgot. The risk of great sex in a great love affair is the greatest risk of all. It's not for the timid. It takes colossal courage. Uncommon strength and endurance. Most people, frankly, can't or won't do the work of personal development this risk necessitates.

It is so much easier to have great sex in recreational (anonymous) relationships, because you never have to unload the dishwasher with the tourist from Hershey, Penn. Or have the flu. Or have a conflict. Or tell the truth. Or grow up. Or grow old.

Great sex in a great love affair is the risk of knowing and being known. It is the risk of being naked. In your mate's eyes, forever and always naked. Exposed.

David Scharch, Ph.D., says it like this: "Intimacy is difficult to achieve; and, once achieved, even harder to tolerate."

I would understand if you stopped breathing for a moment after reading that. Just means you get it.