Dater X: Why Does Sex Change Everything?

As Scruffy Beard began unhooking my bra, a panic signal went off in my head. Uh oh, Dater X, I thought to myself. This is your third date and you are straddling him in a chair. Your shirt is across the room, and you can feel his hard-on through his pants. You are on a steam locomotive powering towards sex town. This. Is. Not. Good.

I pulled back, feeling suddenly shy about the fact that I was topless. I looked him in the eyes—definitely his nicest feature, though I’d come to appreciate the rest of his face in the two weeks we’d been dating, too. His gaze seemed filled with adoration and desire, and he leaned forward and kissed me, soft and slow. I felt his hands squeeze around my butt. And that was it. Soon the rest of our clothes hit the floor, our makeout session getting more intense with every kiss and touch.

Casual sex is in some ways an oxymoron—there is nothing casual about sharing your body and your desires with someone. There is nothing casual about seeing and feeling someone orgasm, and vice versa.

“Do you have a condom?” he asked.

I got up, feeling his eyes take in every curve, and motioned for him to follow me into my bedroom. On my bed, we continued where we left off. I pulled a rubber out of the bedside drawer and rolled off of him while he put it on. And for the next half hour, we royally pissed off my neighbors having loud, unbridled, position-bending sex.

When we were done, Scruffy Beard hopped up. I heard him throw the condom in the trash can in my bathroom. As he strolled back into my room, flashing a weirdly stiff smile my way, I could tell something had changed. He climbed back into bed, pulling the covers up. I wriggled my naked body underneath them, too, and he pulled me in to rest my cheek on his chest, his hand awkwardly rubbing my arm. As we lay there talking, everything that had felt so right before had shifted. All of a sudden, we were two people who barely knew each other playing the roles of a couple. It felt like we’d entered some strange politeness twilight zone—one that seems all too frequent after casual sex—where he wanted to run out the door as quickly as possible but felt he needed to feign interest just a little longer for my sake.

Twenty minutes later, he said, “Wow, it’s really getting late.”

No way, I thought. Is he really going to …

“I should head home,” he said. “I have to get up early.”

In all my years as a sexually active woman, both casually and in relationships, I’ve never had a guy leave my apartment after sex. I’ve heard that this happens, but never actually witnessed it, just like the monsters under the bed. As he put on his clothes and I walked him to the door, I felt slightly … used. All of a sudden, a connection that had seemed so promising a few hours before—heck, I was getting over my looks-ism for a cool guy—now seemed so illusory.

And just like that, Scruffy Beard was gone. I got a text from him late the next day saying, “Get together again the week after next?” The week after next—seriously? Could he sound a little less enthused? Had having sex with him really evaporated his interest in me?

It’s obvious that when you’re dating, having sex for the first time can change things as surely as flipping a light switch. But for the past few days, I’ve been thinking about why exactly it has this irreversible morphing effect. The commonly held adages on this usually paint some picture of modern guys as homo sapiens in dark caves rubbing two sticks together to create the first fire. Men like the chase— once they catch their prey, they move on. Men have a primal need to spread their seed to as many women as possible—you know, because they’re single-handedly tasked with populating the species. Right, because pregnancy is so often the goal in modern hookups.

There may be something to that, but obviously, I’m pretty skeptical of evolutionary arguments when it comes to how the genders interact with each other in this whole dating game. I think something much more modern is going on here. I think that, from a young age, every pop culture message out there tells guys to avoid commitment like the plague, that women are proverbial balls and chains. Meanwhile, we women get the message that our value can be measured in our ability to retain a stable mate and, if we can’t do it, there must be something wrong with us.

(Side note: I, like many of you, read the story “8 Reasons You’re Single” last week, and found it’s a perfect illustration of the “something is wrong with you if you’re not in a relationship and want one” phenomenon. I’d like to propose a ninth reason you might be single: because you haven’t had the good luck of meeting one of your green zebras yet. It happens for all of us at different ages, under different circumstances.)

Obviously, the gendered messages we get are greatly at odds. I worry, sometimes, that we’re creating a society where romantic relationships are becoming increasingly impossible.

But the reason I think sex changes everything has more to do with both genders’ very human need to protect ourselves. Casual sex is in some ways an oxymoron; there is nothing casual about sharing your body, your most delicate organs, and your desires with someone. There is nothing casual about seeing and feeling someone orgasm, and vice versa. It is one of the deepest ways to know a person. And I think in casual relationships there’s a basic misfit of those two things—it’s hard to share that kind of intimacy with someone who only knows the breadcrumbs of your life story, who only understands the bits and pieces you’ve presented of who you are as a whole. From what I’ve seen in my experience, I think men tend to react to the discomfort of this dichotomy by running. Women, or at least myself, tend to react by clinging and trying to fill in the other pieces of the puzzle.

Now, I will say that after sex, if a guy loses interest in me, I’d rather he make that clear, like Scruffy Beard. A guy friend once told me that after he has sex with a new woman, he pledges to talk to her for two more weeks because he feels guilty if he doesn’t. I felt sick hearing him say that, as I’d never want anyone to pander to what they think I want in that way. I only want someone to talk to me if, gasp, they want to talk to me.

When it comes to sex, I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. I’m looking for love and want to find my green zebra. But I don’t know when that will happen—it could be a few months, or a few years. In the meantime, I’d like to have great relationships—and great sex—with men I feel connected to, even if it’s not the connection. But now, when I start dating someone whom I feel that with, one part of my brain screams, “Whatever you do, DO NOT HAVE SEX WITH HIM,” because I know what usually happens. But then there’s the other part of my brain that feels the chemistry and, darn it, that just wants to get laid, preferably on repeat. That part of my brain tells me that connecting with people physically is hugely important and that good sex is part of living a happy life. (Unless, of course, for religious or personal reasons, it’s something you’ve decided isn’t right for you.)

For the moment, I’m not sure which half of my brain to listen to.