From the forums:
I have yet to find a man who is worth those risks despite a former relationship of nearly four years. Would it be advantageous to save sex for marriage? What’s the best dating formula for someone who doesn’t plan on having sex? Am I making a foolish life choice and missing out on an important form of intimacy? — 27-Year-Old Virgin
I get a lot of letters – several a week — from people who have reached an age they think makes them unique or weird or even somehow damaged because they haven’t had sex (or, in many cases, even a date or a kiss). In fact, I have a reply at the ready that I copy and paste and send to the LWs since they are all essentially asking the same thing, which is: “Is it too late for me? Can I still find love? Am I dateable?” In my form reply, I link to past columns where I answered similar questions – columns like this one and this one and this one. Your letter is not like theirs though. You are not asking whether it’s too late for you, whether you can still find love, whether you are dateable. You are asking something else entirely: You’re asking whether love is worth all the potential risk.
I know, you’re saying to yourself that your letter isn’t about love at all – it’s about sex, but I’m arguing that “sex” is simply the word you use in place of love. For a lot of people, sex and love can be, and often are, separate. A woman can sleep with someone and not feel “used and disposed” like a tissue or distraught if a man didn’t “give her his heart” because… well, she didn’t want his heart in the first place; it was just casual sex and she wasn’t looking for anything more than that. Or, shocker! Sometimes there’s mutual love and respect between a man and a woman having sex and no one is “disposed.” Some of the risks of sex that you mention — like pregnancy and single motherhood — do remain, but, frankly, the risk of pregnancy is very low when highly effective forms of birth control are used correctly.
Even abortion isn’t something that is often “emotionally and physically traumatic,” like you say, leading to a woman’s feeling haunted by guilt forever. The anti-abortion rights people would like you to believe that, but there have been numerous studies done, including one I linked to yesterday, that have found that not to be the case at all. Maybe you have friends who have had abortions that were traumatic for them and I don’t mean to discount their experiences, but a wider lens shows a far different perspective and picture.
Here’s another perspective for you on the risk of a broken heart — which is what I believe you are most afraid of: While there is no guarantee that the pursuit of love won’t leave you broken hearted, I can promise you that such a pursuit, and even the broken heart it may result in, will bring you important and character-building life lessons. Having the experience of falling in love, even if the love doesn’t last in the way you hope it would, will enrich your life. And the experience of falling out of love, picking up the pieces, and moving on provides an opportunity for immense personal growth — the kind of personal growth that lessens the fear of future adversity by showing you how strong you can be. But you have to be open to the growth. You have to be willing to suffer a little bit.
The idea of suffering is a hard pill to swallow, I get it. It’s especially hard if you don’t recognize examples in your life of successful suffering (suffering that eventually led to a positive outcome) and you can’t imagine anything — or any man — worth the risk of suffering. And it may be that you won’t recognize such a path until it’s directly in front of you, and even then you might miss it, being so focused on all the hurdles and road blocks you imagine lie ahead. You say you have yet to find a man who is worth the risks you outline above, but I wonder how often you are really looking at a man and not, instead, at any signs of the hurt loving him might cause. I certainly wouldn’t advise you to ignore red flags, but I would advise you to let yourself be open to the imperfections the man who will love you and accept your imperfections will undoubtedly have. I would advise you to be open to imperfect love because it’s the only kind of love there is.
It’s ok if you aren’t open to sex without love. That can be your deal and you should let men know that upfront before you pursue a serious relationship. And it’s ok to save sex for marriage. But I urge you not to save love for marriage in the hopes that the legality of the union will save you from ever having your heart broken. It doesn’t work that way, and in withholding love from yourself — in avoiding intimacy and vulnerability – you withhold real joy from yourself, too. By closing yourself off to the possibility of love, you aren’t protecting your heart, you’re sacrificing it. And your life is much less rich as a result.