The Sex Risk For Women That No One Likes To Talk About

January 29, 2010

Recently a 29 year-old guy wrote into the Love Letters section of the Boston Globe looking for guidance. Usually Meredith Goldstein, who writes the column, gives excellent advice. In which case there’s no point in my saying anything further. In this case, however, I think she really missed the boat.

Here’s the letter:

About a year ago, a friend introduced me to his wife’s friend, and we hit it off. I’m 29 now, and she’s 26. We dated, things went extremely well, and things have progressed to the point where we are both extremely happy and have been considering moving in together this summer when our leases end. All in all, a very normal, healthy, mutually respectful relationship that makes us both very happy.

A few weeks ago, however, she dropped a bomb on me. She told me that when she was in college she was pretty casual about relationships. When I asked what that meant, she told me that she had probably been with about 35 guys. I was floored. I had always assumed she had a typical dating past, and that she was a nice girl. She assured me that she had completely changed after college, but I still have no idea how to process this information. I’m pretty sure that if I knew this from the start, I never would have given her a chance. Needless to say, I’m really weirded out.

This is a woman who, until two weeks ago, I could easily have seen myself marrying. She’s been so incredibly great to me, but now I don’t know who I’m dating. I would love to get past this and go back to feeling the way I used to, but I don’t know if that’s possible. I’m also afraid that if I end it over this, it’ll be the biggest regret of my life. She makes me so happy and it’s probably the best relationship of my life, but I’m now seeing her as damaged goods. I try to rationalize why her number isn’t that crazy or out of whack, but then I snap back into it and remember that I don’t know a single woman who did anything remotely like that in college. This is just foreign to me.


And Meredith’s answer:

Your words: “I’m pretty sure that if I knew this from the start, I never would have given her a chance.’’

Aren’t you glad you didn’t know? Had you vetoed her based on a number, you wouldn’t be in an amazing, happy relationship.

How many partners would have been OK? Five? Twenty? Thirty-four? What’s your cutoff for damaged goods?

Your girlfriend knows herself well. She had a good time in college, grew up, and now wants a real partner. She chose you, trusted you enough to disclose her past, and now she’s being called damaged goods. Might I suggest that a woman who slept with only three people but didn’t understand her own motives might be more damaged – less capable of an adult relationship?

My point is, if she doesn’t feel damaged, she’s not. Please don’t label her that way. Nothing has changed about her. She’s the same woman you fell for. If anything, you should be flattered. She has experienced a variety of men and you’re the guy she wants to cohabitate with. Her experiences turned her into the woman you chose. For that reason, be thankful that she lived the life she did. Don’t ruin this – for her or yourself.


What Questions Does Conflicted’s Letter Raise?

1. Why would Conflicted care about his girlfriend’s lovers prior to knowing him?

This man’s concern about the number of sexual partners his future wife may have had is neither surprising nor illogical. David Buss, one of the pioneers of Evo Psych, writes in the Evolution of Desire about why men originally might have chosen to marry at all, considering their innate preference for sexual variety:

With concealed ovulation in humans, men who married would benefit by having greater reassurance of paternity. Before marrying, a man would seek reassurance that his wife would remain sexually faithful. One trait in a mate that could predict her faithfulness was premarital chastity.

As David Buss says, the modern conditions for mating may have changed significantly, but humans still employ the same sexual strategies. Of the 67 traits men seek in a committed partner, faithfulness and sexual loyalty rank as the most important in every culture ever studied.

2. Is Conflicted applying a sexual double standard? If so, is that unethical?

If Conflicted was a total man whore, having spent his youth banging women exactly like the one he is in love with now, I wouldn’t have much sympathy for him. If he was a cad, why should he not wind up with a woman who spent her youth having sex with men just like him? In that case, both would share a similar history and decision to switch to monogamy. However, I don’t believe this is the case here. He states clearly that he doesn’t know “a single woman who did anything remotely like that in college.”

If I had to guess, I’d feel pretty safe assuming that Conflicted was a nice Beta college guy, an earnest student who got lucky a few times, maybe even had a long-term girlfriend in his college days. Meanwhile, the object of his love and affection was either hooking up with frat stars or athletes. This bomb that she’s dropped on him is a reminder of how different their past experiences are, and how she inhabited an entirely different world from him just five years ago.

In her book Sexual Strategies, Mary Batten says:

As long as the risks were low, selection favored the basic male tendency to be aroused sexually by the sight of females.

But a woman could incur an enormous cost of energy and time if easy visual arousal resulted in pregnancy.

Selection has thus favored females who were discriminating and slow to arouse sexually, since reflex-like sexual arousal on the basis of visual stimuli would have tended to undermine female choice.

She notes that females are usually aroused not by the sight of males but by the touch of a favored male. Again, this speaks to sexual selection over many millenia. Buss says none of this is absolute; environment matters:

Every strand of DNA unfolds within a particular environmental and cultural context. All behavioral patterns can in principle be altered by environmental intervention.

The Sexual Revolution, the availability of the Pill, and women’s increased earning power have all been profound environmental interventions. Still, fifty years is a nanosecond in evolutionary terms. While men seek women with promiscuity, sexual experience and high sex drive when selecting for short-term mating, they still retain the preference for a sexually inexperienced wife, or at least one who is less experienced than they are.

In the era of hooking up, this concern is exacerbated as the number of inexperienced woman has dropped dramatically. One of the things I hear most from men like Conflicted is that they have no interest in stepping in to pick up the pieces after women have been “used up” by other men. It’s insulting to their pride for obvious reasons, and many will refuse to marry if they cannot find a woman who meets their requirements.

What Questions Does Meredith’s Answer Raise?

1. Is ignorance bliss in the matter of sexual history?

What you know can’t hurt you, until it does. The movie Best in Show comes to mind, where Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara play a married couple not unlike Conflicted and his girl in terms of sexual history. Everywhere they go, they seem to run into her old boyfriends, who want to relive their sexual adventures, reminiscing about sex “that time on the roller coaster” and asking her whether she “can still do that thing with her legs.” Of course Eugene Levy plays the pitiful chump who squirms with discomfort but sucks it up for his Alpha female, and we all laugh wholeheartedly. As far as I can tell, Conflicted doesn’t want to go through life risking those kind of doubts.

2. Is Conflicted required to state a cutoff for damaged goods?

Conflicted has every right to seek a partner whose values mirror his own. That’s what this is really about – he is questioning her values based on her past decisions. He states that “I don’t know who I’m dating.” Everything he thought he knew about her has been called into question. He doesn’t know if he can love this person he has just discovered.

3. Is a woman who sleeps with a few people without knowing her own motives less capable of a real relationship than a woman who sleeps with 35 while knowing exactly what she wants from each encounter?

Frankly, this strikes me as pure nonsense, straight from the sex-positive branch of feminism. A woman who understands her own motives is probably going to be more successful in relationships than a woman who doesn’t. However, we have no evidence whatsoever that Conflicted’s girlfriend understood her motives for hooking up during college. With an average of 9 sexual partners per year, I can only assume that she threw all reason and caution to the winds. This hardly sounds like the carefully considered behavior of a woman who knows her own mind. Since women orgasm during hookup sex less than half the time, she would have been better off with a man who knew her body and was sober during sex. She gained a short-term reward for hooking up randomly, presumably in the form of sexual validation from attractive men.

4. Should Conflicted feel flattered that she waited for him before deciding to live with someone? If her experiences turned her into the woman she is today, does it follow that if Conflicted loves her, he must love her experiences?

Doubt it, but nice try. If I were Conflicted I too would be weirded out, primarily by the fear that she was “settling” for me after spending her youth and beauty with douchebags.

This question of whether the nice guy can get past the startling revelation of his love’s promiscuous past is nothing new. Sweet Charity, the Neil Simon musical based on Fellini’s Night of Cabiria, is the story of a prostitute who falls for a shy tax accountant she meets on an elevator. When she finally tells him what she does for a living, he says he doesn’t care and wants to marry her anyway. But when the time comes for the wedding, he tells her that he cannot stop thinking about the “other men,” and he leaves her.

A more recent and hopeful ending to a similar story is Julia Robert’s rescue by Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, probably the most unrealistic chick flick ever made.

Men like Conflicted are the norm. They heed the call of nature and instinct. To be honest, I’m not sure why his girlfriend shared that information with him, “dropping a bomb” in that way. It strikes me as odd that they got that far without discussing their sexual histories, from the standpoint of both physical and emotional well-being, and they’re both responsible for that failure.

You are in charge of your own body, and what you choose to do with it. But keep your eyes wide open. I suspect that Conflicted is going to end his relationship, no matter what Meredith says is “correct.” Not every man will share Conflicted’s view or his values. If you choose promiscuity, though, you’re rolling the dice in the mating game.