For years, the phrase “sowing wild oats” has been used to describe the sexual activity of single adults – particularly young men. However, what exactly does the phrase mean? And more importantly, does having multiple sexual partners help or hurt single adults when they eventually get married? These are important questions to ask since most single adults in the United States today desire to one day have a successful, lifelong marriage. However, they also report desiring to have multiple sexual partners before they get married. In fact, recent studies show that most college students would like to have multiple sexual partners each year1 and that college men, on average, desire to have ten sexual partners before getting married; while women, on average, desire to have four sexual partners before they marry.2 Are these desires for “sowing wild oats” in the single years compatible with the desire to have a loving and lasting marriage later? Let’s take a look at these questions.
Sowing Wild Oats
What does the phrase “sowing wild oats” actually mean? A careful look at this question reveals that there are some contradictions in how people use this phrase. Traditionally, the phrase is referring to a European grass species with the formal name Avena fatua, which is often called “wild oats.” Farmers for centuries have hated this plant because it is a useless weed whose seeds are difficult to separate from those of useful cereal crops, so the seeds tend to survive from year to year and ruin the harvest. Thus, the phrase sowing wild oats “was applied figuratively to young men who frittered away their time in stupid or idle pastimes.”3
However, modern uses of the phrase often cast the saying in a positive light. The term is now commonly used to refer to a useful, and perhaps even needed, part of young adult development where a young man gets out all of his promiscuous and impulsive sexual desires before “settling down” and getting married. The thought process is that if “he got all the sex out of his system before he settled down he would be more likely to remain faithful to his wife” later in marriage.4 The same perspective is now applied to single adult women too.
This way of thinking views premarital sex like “test driving a car”
These two uses of the phrase “sowing wild oats” seem to be based on very different views of healthy sexual development. The current use of the term implies a “get it out of your system” hypothesis that contends that having multiple sexual partners helps young adults gain greater appreciation of the range of possibilities in a sexual partnership. By experimenting with these possibilities, individuals will discover their personal sexual preferences and be better able to form an eventual marriage with “sexual chemistry.” This way of thinking views premarital sex like “test driving a car” and having multiple sexual partners is simply the process of “shopping around.”
However, the traditional use of the term “sowing wild oats” implies that sexual promiscuity creates unrecognized problems, like a field full of weeds, that will emerge later in committed marriage relationships. This perspective implies a “get it into your system” hypothesis that suggests that numerous sexual experiences might produce “wild attitudes” that separate sex from emotional intimacy in a relationship in ways that might make staying in a committed relationship less likely.
Having multiple sexual partners before marriage inhibits healthy relationship formation
Until recently, studies on the effect of “sowing wild oats” before marriage have been limited. However, several recent studies provided evidence that having multiple sexual partners before marriage inhibits healthy relationship formation and leads to higher rates of divorce.5 In a just-completed study of nearly 2,700 married individuals, my colleagues and I found that spouses who had multiple sexual partners before marriage had lower levels of sexual quality, communication, and relationship stability in their current marriage, even when controlling for a wide range of variables including education, religiosity and relationship length. These findings were similar for husbands and wives. We found no evidence that increasing the number of sexual partners before marriage benefitted later marital outcomes.6
These research findings also suggest that the negative consequences associated with “sowing wild oats” may reach beyond just marriage outcomes. Numerous studies have shown that getting married and staying married is linked to several aspects of individual health and well-being, such as better financial status7, improved physical health8, enhanced mental health9, and higher sexual satisfaction10. Therefore, if sexual experimentation before marriage increases marital instability and the likelihood of divorce, it may also cause people to miss out on these other benefits of marriage as well.
Why Doesn’t Sexual Experience Help?
We need more studies to confirm exactly why having multiple sexual partners before marriage is associated with poorer marriage outcomes. However, there are some likely explanations for why sexual restraint and abstinence increase single adults’ chances of forming loving and lasting marriages. A primary reason why sexual restraint benefits couples is that it facilitates intentional partner selection. Simply put, you have a better chance of making good decisions in dating when you have not become sexually involved with your dating partner. Proper partner selection is often skewed for sexually-involved couples who experience strong physical rewards with each other, thereby causing them to ignore or minimize deeper incompatibilities in the relationship.
Sexual restraint also benefits couples because it requires partners to prioritize communication
Sexual restraint also benefits couples because it requires partners to prioritize communication and commitment as the foundation of their attraction to each other. This gives couples a different type of foundation than couples who build their relationship on physical attraction and sexual gratification. This difference becomes particularly critical as couples naturally move past an initial period of intense attraction and excitement into a relationship more characterized by companionship and partnership.
Ultimately, loving marriages are ones where sexual intimacy is a meaningful physical symbol of the emotional intimacy shared between the spouses. Without this, sex is just physical and lacks the meaning needed to be truly satisfying and lasting. In dating, couples should focus on developing a foundation of friendship and communication that will serve as the ongoing foundation for sexual intimacy in their marriage. By practicing sexual restraint, couples allow themselves to focus on a true foundation of intimacy – acceptance, understanding, partnership, and love.
1. Fenigstein, A., & Preston, M. (2007). The desired number of sexual partners as a function of gender, sexual risks, and the meaning of “ideal”. Journal of Sex Research, 44, 89-95.
2. Pedersen, W. C., Miler, L. C., Putcha-Bhagavatula, A. D., & Yang, Y. (2002). Evolved sex differences in the number of partners desired? Psychological Science, 13, 157-161.
4. Aarons, Z. A. (1970). Normality and abnormality in adolescence: With a digression on Prince Hal—“The sowing of wild oats.”. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 25, 309–339.
5. Heaton, T. B. (2002). Factors contributing to the increasing marital stability in the UnitedStates. Journal of Family Issues, 23(3), 392-409; Kahn, J. R., & London, K. A. (1991). Premarital sex and the risk of divorce. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53(4), 845-855; Paik, A. (2011). Adolescent sexuality and the risk of marital dissolution. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73, 472-485; Teachman, J. (2003). Premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, and the risk of subsequent martial dissolution among women. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 65, 444–455.
6. Busby, D. M., Willoughby, B. J., & Carroll, J. S. (2013). Sowing Wild Oats: Valuable Experience or a Field Full of Weeds? Personal Relationships. Personal Relationships, 20, 706-718.
7. Ahituv, A., & Lerman, R. I. (2005). How do marital status, work effort, and wage rates interact?, Demography, 44(3), 623-647.
8. Schoenborn, C. A. (2004). Marital status and health: United States, 1999-2002, Advance Data, 351, 1-36.
9. Waite, L. J., & Gallagher, M. (2000). The Case for Marriage. New York: Doubleday.
10. Busby, D. M., Carroll, J. S., and Willoughby, B. J. (2010). Compatibility or restraint? The effects of sexual timing on marriage relationships. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(6), 766-774.