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Sex vs. Relationships: A Rant About the Great Chemistry Experiment

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I don’t think I could count the number of times I’ve been told, “Just because you have awesome sex with someone doesn’t mean they should be your boy/girlfriend/partner/husband/wife!” Other variations include, “Sexual chemistry doesn’t equal relationship chemistry!” and “Just because they’re great with the lights off doesn’t mean they’re great with the lights on!”

Fuck. That.

How many times have you heard the opposite? “Just because you have awesome conversations with someone doesn’t mean you’ll have great sex with them!” Or how about, “He may always bring you flowers, but that doesn’t mean he’ll give good head!” Or “She might be the sweetest darned thing you’ve ever talked to, but an awful lay!” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say anything like that as a general cautionary tale–only as a furtively muttered specific (“I went on this date with this guy, and he was so sweet, but he was just so boring in bed. I feel like a terrible person for saying that.”)

You know why we hear the first one all the time and the latter only occasionally? Because our culture tries really hard to convince us that even as it bombards us with daily reminders about how significant and important sex is, that really, sex shouldn’t be that important to us (especially if we’re women. Guys… well, they just can’t help themselves, right?). After all, you marry someone, you have sex with them for awhile, and then you just don’t much, right? I remember reading an aphorism from some social scientist claiming that if a married couple put a penny in a jar every time they had sex for the first year they were married, they could take a penny out every time they had sex for the rest of their lives and still have pennies left over.

Fuck. That. I’ve been enthusiastically fucking my husband several times a week for the last 9+ years (and 5 years before that when he was my boyfriend), and I fully intend to keep doing so until both our bodies are too old and decrepit to keep it up. There’s lots of other things I love about our relationship, but if the sex wasn’t awesome and fairly frequent… that would be a problem for both of us.

When you think about it, the entire institution of vanilla dating is really set up to make sure that you prioritize relationship chemistry waaaaaay more than sexual chemistry. You’re supposed to meet someone, get to know them, then slowly make your way to having sex with them. Women are warned not to have sex on the first date, lest they be branded unmarriageable sluts. Indeed, I hear rumors that people in the vanilla world wait weeks and sometimes months before having sex with someone.

Fuck. That.

I tried that whole dating-the-way-you’re-supposed to thing a couple of times, and it was bullshit. It turns out it’s actually pretty easy for me to find people to have good conversations with, but it’s a helluva lot harder to find people to have awesome sex with (though certainly easier in the BDSM scene). And there are all kinds of things about someone that help me predict whether I’m going to have good conversations with them (for the life of me, I can’t tell that okcupid’s match system is valid, but it is undeniably reliable in terms of relationship compatibility–my husband and I are 99% matches). But it’s really fucking hard to predict whether I’m going to have awesome sex with someone. I will go out on a limb here and say that without some major leaps forward in technology, no computer will be able to predict how my pheremones are going to interact with someone else’s. And if someone creates that algorithm, I will bone them in gratitude (assuming the computer says it’s a good idea). But the worst part about that traditional dating system is that you’ve already invested time and energy in someone at the point where you’ve finally slept with them, so you feel bad if you just leave when the sex isn’t that great… And you keep fucking them for much longer than you ought to because you like them so much as a person… And…

Fuck. That.

The truth is that the old adages are right: sexual chemistry and relationship chemistry are very imperfectly correlated. But that dice rolls both ways, and people almost never talk about the converse of the conventional wisdom: just like people often wake up to find that a night of glorious passion with someone leads to relationship hell, people often find that their kind and sweet date leads to a night of bland and awkward. And both are very problematic, but society makes you feel super-guilty if you back away from the nice date who’s a boring lay.

I think society wants you to believe that sexual chemistry just isn’t that important. For some people, I’m sure that it’s not. For some people, sex just isn’t that important, period. And that’s fine. I’m sure that bondage is way more important than sex for some people, that cooking is way more important than sex for many people, and parenting skills are much more important than sex for lots of people. By all means, pick your partners based on the thing that matters most to you that’s the hardest to find. But I’m going to go out on another limb here and guess that for a significant chunk of the population, that’s sex.

That’s why I prefer dating the way people tend to do it in the hook-up culture of the scene: meet someone, decide you might have chemistry, play with them a bit, and then if you have good chemistry, date them. I have learned, through this system of partner selection, that if I find people that I have reeeeeally awesome sexual chemistry with, the chances are actually quite high that we’ll get along in other ways as well. The first few times I hooked up with my partner VirginSlut, I knew next to nothing about her. But after fucking each other’s brains out one night, we finally got around to talking, and it turned out we had a lot in common. In fact, she was someone I probably would have messaged her if I just found her on okcupid. This is not the only time this sort of thing has happened to me, and I don’t think it’s just a random occurrence. Now that might be because I place a high priority on sex, and people I fuck well with do too. But I swear it isn’t just me. I know a lot of serious long-term partnerships among my friends in the BDSM scene that were formed after the people met at happy hour, hooked up that night, and just… stayed together. I think the oft-ignored truth is that the way people fuck says a lot about them as people, and the comfort level I have with someone to enable me to have awesome sex with them says a lot about how well we’ll relate to one another more generally.

Now I have two devil’s advocates in my head. The first is the voice of one of my friends saying, “I can only have good sex with people I really care about.” Clearly, the hook-up-to-date strategy wouldn’t work well for people like that. But I suspect that matching on this point is probably still a really significant predictor of relationship compatibility. The second voice says, “sexual chemistry tells you nothing about how someone balances their checking account.” Well, duh. Neither does someone’s witty date conversation. One of my vanillaish friends was complaining about how much she hates dating as an institution, saying that she’s not an “entertainer,” and “dating” favors people who are witty and entertaining. She said in frustration, “I’m loyal, I’m responsible, and I earn a good income–this is what I bring to a relationship! Go to the movies if you want to be entertained!” (I told her that sounded pretty hot to me; my partner @InspiredIniquity agreed and quipped, “How’s her gag reflex?”) Traditional dating institutions do nothing to help you quickly learn about these qualitites of a potential partner (their income or their gag reflexes). No matter how you do it, finding a compatible life partner is fucking hard, but what are you willing to compromise on? For myself, I’m willing to compromise on a theoretical spouse’s dishwashing abilities, but not our sexual compatibility. I’m not willing to marry someone who’s shit with money, but it’s not like you can really bring up money management early in the dating process anyway.

My point is that it’s true that sexual chemistry is probably not an excellent predictor of relationship chemistry–but it’s probably a better predictor than most people credit. Moreover, I think it’s at least as good, if not better, than most of the alternatives. Most importantly, relationship chemistry may be as bad–if not worse–at predicting sexual chemistry than sexual chemistry is at predicting relationship chemistry.

I’ve always had the tiniest bit of sympathy for this quotation from Pride And Prejudice (thanks, Ms. Austen): “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.” My additional wisdom: happiness in marriage (and dating) is mostly a matter of chance, but if you play your cards right, the one thing you can know is that at least for a little while, you can have awesome sex. So for Goddess’ sake, marry and date people you like to fuck.

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