This week, Institute for Family Studies released a new study. Its key finding: married people are happiest if their spouses are the only people with whom they have ever had sex. While it has been reported before that those who marry as virgins have the lowest divorce rates, no study had observed whether marital quality was affected by prior sexual history.
This study found that women who reported one sexual partner over the course of their lifetimes were the most likely to be “very happy” in their marriages (64 percent); the least likely to be very happy were women who had six to ten lifetime sexual partners (52 percent). For men, the same held true—71 percent of men who reported one lifetime sexual partner reported being “very happy” in their marriages; just 60 percent of men with five lifetime sexual partners reported such happiness. Overall, the biggest dip for both men and women occurred beyond one lifetime sexual partner.
The sexual revolution promised elevated levels of happiness once sex was disconnected from commitment; the opposite has held true, particularly for women. An oft-cited 2009 study from Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania showed that female happiness has declined markedly since the 1970s—the advent of the modern feminist movement. Stevenson and Wolfers reported that “measures of women’s subjective well-being have fallen both absolutely and relatively to that of men…women no longer report being happier than men, and, in many instances, now report happiness that is below that of men.”
Not all of that is attributable to increased promiscuity, of course. But it is largely attributable to baseline changes in the nature of male-female relationships.
Marriage, as an institution, inherently linked sex and commitment. The sexual revolution, however, began to disconnect sex from commitment. In doing so, women were left at a significant disadvantage, because men see sex differently than women do. For women, sexual pleasure tends to be connected with emotional intimacy and comfort level with partner. For men, sexual pleasure tends to be connected with sexual objectification. That means that a society that turns others into sex objects rather than partners in intimacy inherently disadvantages women.
That’s precisely what our society does. We urge people to engage with more sexual partners before marriage; that reduces sex to a physical interaction rather than an emotional and spiritual one. Virginity until marriage is actually frowned upon in the modern world, with its adherents castigated as simpletons or religious fundamentalists. Men and women are told to sleep together before marriage to ensure “sexual compatibility”—as though sex habits are unchangeable, and as though quality of sex alone defines quality of marriage.
Yet marriage is about far more than sex—which is why sex is about far more than sex within the context of marriage. When we first fall in love with someone, we tend to fall in passionate love, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it—the birds are singing, the bees are buzzing, and we can’t keep our hands off each other. But as marriages progress, passionate love drops off radically, and companionate love gradually rises—the kind of love that carries you through thick and thin. As Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis, “True love exists, I believe, but it is not—cannot be—passion that lasts forever. True love, the love that undergirds strong marriages, is simply strong companionate love, with some added passion, between two people who are firmly committed to each other.”
Sex, then, is vital to marriage—but marriage is also vital to sex. Severing sex from love has hurt human beings. Reconnecting sex with love would be a welcome change, and a necessary precondition to the restoration of a deeper happiness that binds us together.
Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire and host of The Ben Shapiro Show.