Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/1/2008 8:21:59 AM ET 2008-05-01T12:21:59

The rules of sex can often seem like "The Rules of Golf," that bible of fair play conduct on the course that tells us all about water hazards and ball weights and how many clubs we can carry. There’s the no-teeing-off-before-the-third-date rule, for example, and the ex-of-our-friend-out-of-bounds rule.

And just like golf, many sex rules have ancient antecedents. The church confessors of medieval Europe established rules such as no sex on major religious holidays and not during Lent, Pentecost or Advent; while naked (which could put a damper on the proceedings); during the day; or on Wednesdays, Fridays or Saturdays.

Yet just as there is always a guy on the course who declares the “hand wedge” an integral part of his equipment, people do tend to rationalize their own set of rules when it comes to sex.

I know a woman, in every way the epitome of discretion, restraint and buttoned-up behavior, who insists that once she is outside the continental United States, she is free to sexually act up in ways that would make a "Girls Gone Wild" highlight reel.

All's fair in Aruba
“If I’m in Aruba,” she argues, “it doesn’t count.” Justifying her logic, she says, “Hey, I don’t order blue drinks at home, either.”

There’s no arguing with that.

A friend reports that her college roommate and pal, an observant Catholic, felt guilty about having premarital sex and so made a rule for herself that she would only have sex on holidays. At first, these included only the majors, like Christmas and Easter. Then came Halloween. And then, when she began dating a Jewish man, she granted herself special dispensation to have sex on all Jewish holidays, too.

Of course, there is the admonition made famous by film writer and director Jules Dassin: "Never on Sunday."

But the very same medieval church authorities who seemed to spend a lot of time figuring out when people were not supposed to be having sex, created a few exceptions themselves. Brothels were often tolerated, for example, but the rule said only single men could use them, the thought being that it was far better for the randy males to use hookers than try to corrupt the proper girls.

If you liked dressing up in women’s clothing, the church gave you certain days — festivals — on which you could wear a dress. Our analog today is Mardi Gras, otherwise known as Show Us Your Boobs! Day. (Authorities have apparently expanded Show Us Your Boobs! Day to include all major league sporting events, pop concerts and being cruised by any car cooler than a 1985 Chrysler LeBaron.)

While traveling around the country to research my book "America Unzipped," I found any number of people who made up sometimes intricate rules to govern lust. Some people said they would never go into an adult store during the day. Some women told me they and their spouses or boyfriends had made up rules for vibrator use, like never using one alone if the guy was physically in the house. If he was out, they could buzz away. Some said porn could only be used as a couple, never solo.

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A photographer I once worked with told me that he and his wife had “an arrangement” that either of them could have sex with other people only if they were traveling outside the country and only if they told each other exactly what had happened when they returned. Since they both traveled heavily for their work, they had lots of opportunities.

Putting boundaries on impulses
All this individual rule-making begs a question: If we can all make up our own rules as we go along, why have rules at all?

“People have sexual impulses,” explains Marty Klein, a sex therapist in northern California and author of the book "America’s War on Sex." “Those can essentially be unlimited and that is scary. People develop rules so that the impulses have boundaries, a safety net.”

Like young Egyptians who make a temporary “urfi” marriage to legitimize premarital sex, Klein suggests, we create “workarounds” to justify what we would otherwise be unable to justify. We create a rationale structure to give ourselves permission.

“Normal sexuality includes the desire to blast through somebody’s limits, the desire to permeate the boundaries,” he explains. “For example, the desire to submit or to dominate can be part of both healthy and unhealthy sexuality.” So to help ourselves steer a safe course, we make up rules of the road.

This isn’t always easy.

Take "Kevin" and "Liz" (whose names have been changed to protect their privacy), a couple living in the Pacific Northwest. Married for just over a year, they have formulated elaborate rules to manage their relationship.

Like many others, their sex rules have depended on the work of land surveyors. If one of them crossed state lines, intercourse with a third party was acceptable. Within state lines, flirting, kissing, fondling were acceptable. Intercourse within state lines with a third party was only acceptable if both Kevin and Liz, who is bisexual, were involved. Co-workers, colleagues or any third party who might complicate their relationship were strictly off-limits.

The rules, Kevin explains, originated during a conversation they had while dating. “It was to establish a code of conduct, a dialogue to make it possible for us to retain who we were with our sexuality and not get that feeling of being doomed to sleep with the same person for the rest of your life,” he recalls.

Much to his surprise, Liz was enthusiastic. “Her reaction was a solid ‘Yeah! That sounds great!' Later, I began to think about the implications. Did it mean I had just given my girlfriend permission to [have sex with] other guys?”

That is exactly what Kevin had done, so more conversation ensued and the rules were established. But as both Liz and Kevin admit, theory is one thing, practice another. After Kevin traveled to California on business and had sex with another woman, he told Liz about it, as both had promised they would do under the rules. But she was surprised by her reaction. "I was really angry with him and I had not expected that,” Liz recalls. “I do not know why, but I was more upset than I thought I would be.”

So it was back to the drawing board. Now there is no intercourse with any third party either in-state or out, whether over the continental divide, east of the Mississippi, or even in another hemisphere, unless they are together.

Kevin says the rules are a work-in-progress. “There are some things I have not had to face,” he explains. “Liz has not gone out and had intercourse without me. Under current legislation, she is not allowed, that’s not part of our guidelines. But if she decided she wanted to, I will be interested in what my reaction will be.” There would be a discussion and a binding decision based on circumstances.

Where to draw the line?
Both say their rules are revisited often, but that revisions can led to confusion. “If one of us goes out to a bar and meets some honey, we can make out, touch, do lots of fooling around, but no intercourse,” Kevin says. “Oral is acceptable.”

Liz, on the other hand, says, “Oral? Boy that’s a gray area. That would be probably not be OK, but we have never really drawn the line.”

Whether people wish to be as flexible as Kevin and Liz, they do set a good example in one way, say relationship experts. They talk about sex.

Studies of swinging couples by social scientists indicate that people leading even more challenging and potentially difficult experimental sex lives than Liz and Kevin do can manage if they communicate.

A British team at the University of Sussex, for example, concluded that swingers “highlighted the importance of discussion and negotiation to develop a shared couple identity and shared rules and boundaries that allowed them to manage jealousy so that they could better enjoy swinging. Rather than seeking to eliminate jealousy, swingers may manage their feelings of jealousy in order to increase sexual excitement and arousal.”

That’s a lesson for everybody.

Brian Alexander is the author of the new book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction."

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