“When should I have sex with the person I’m dating?”
It’s a question that has long vexed singles in search of some magical sex timeline. That’s where the so-called “three-date rule” came in — a guideline that says you should go on three dates before sleeping with a new love interest.
It’s unclear where or how the rule, which was later popularized by “Sex And The City,” originated. But clinical sexologist and sexuality educator Lawrence Siegel said he believes it emerged sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
“The three-date rule is one of those things that people love to quote but nobody can ever cite,” he told HuffPost, adding that it is “steeped in traditional social convention” and maintains “heterosexist gender role expectations around dating.”
For straight women, the guideline is intended to make sure she doesn’t appear too “easy” so she can uphold the “‘good-girl-protecting-her-virtue’ stereotype,” Siegel said.
“It’s based on the old trope that men won’t respect a woman who is too willing to have sex on the first date,” he said.
Sex and dating coach Myisha Battle called the rule “sex negative,” but said it does reflect a common experience straight women encounter in the dating scene: being written off by a guy they’re seeing after having sex with them.
“It’s funny how we don’t have a rule against that!” Battle told HuffPost.
On the other hand, for straight men, the three-date rule is thought to be about not appearing too eager or aggressive.
“The three-date rule became a clear standard to follow so he will not appear like a loser or a creep for trying to move in too early or disinterested and an a-hole for waiting too long,” Siegel said.
The Three-Date Rule Has Its Problems, But Can We Learn Anything From It?
Battle called the three-date rule an “outdated notion” because it suggests that your value as a potential partner increases if you resist having sex — even when you very much want to sleep with your date.
Three is an arbitrary number that doesn’t take into account how long you’ve known each other, how you feel about each other or how you define a date or sex, for that matter.
“You could literally have three dates over the course of two weeks, so this rule doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in terms of giving yourself time to assess someone,” Battle said.
Siegel said he isn’t crazy about the three-date rule — though he does appreciate the underlying concept of “not rushing into anything prematurely.”
But “to think there is some general rule doesn’t take into consideration how one defines dating, what one’s goals of dating are — long-term vs. short-term, committed relationship vs. casual relationship — what role sex plays in dating, how one communicates, etc.”
Dating coach Damona Hoffman — host of “The Dates & Mates” podcast — told HuffPost she believes that if two people are well-suited for each other, then having sex earlier than date three “will not automatically spell the end of the relationship,” though she also acknowledged that there may be compelling reasons people choose to wait longer.
People need to figure out a timeline that works for them, dating coach Blaine Anderson told HuffPost. But she believes the three-date rule is “useful to consider to the extent it inspires you to decide for yourself when and what you’re comfortable with.”
So Is There A ‘Right’ Time To Have Sex?
All of our experts agreed there is no rule of thumb in regards to a set amount of dates or time to delay sex. The most important element is if both partners are “comfortable and excited about the prospect” of sex, Siegel said.
For Battle, the right time is “completely subjective” and differs based on the people involved and their values.
“In my case, having sex on the first date was the beginning of my current, almost five-year-long partnership,” she said. “That was what felt right to us. But I’ve worked with people who chose to wait a few weeks, months and even until after marriage.”
According to a 2021 YouGov poll, 10% of American adults believe sex should happen within the first week of dating, 19% say between one week and one month, and 19% think one to three months is best. For 12% of respondents, waiting until marriage is more important than any set amount of time.
For some, sex and emotional connection go hand in hand. For others, they can exist separately. And an individual’s feelings about sex aren’t set in stone — they might change from one partner to another.
“Even a hedonist who craves sex ASAP might discover that the tension created by waiting is sexy too,” Anderson said. “Basically, there’s no universal ‘right’ answer, even for one individual!”
So how do you know if you’re ready, then? To anyone contemplating this, Anderson suggested thinking about both what feels good to you in the moment and what feels good to you the next day. And keep in mind there are bound to be some pluses and minuses to whatever you decide.
When Hoffman’s podcast listeners come to her with questions about how many dates to wait, she recommends not having sex until they feel comfortable talking about sex with this person — everything from sexual health to preferences in the bedroom to potential outcomes such as pregnancy.
“This conversation has become even more important in light of the strict abortion laws in many states,” Hoffman said. “I know it doesn’t sound sexy but there are very real consequences to sex today. Plus, I find that for many of my clients, if they wait to build trust with someone, they can express their sexual needs better and get what they want.”
Some people prefer to have sex early on to find out if they’re sexually compatible with a potential partner. But even if the sex isn’t great right off the bat, that doesn’t mean it’s doomed to stay that way.
“Sex with someone on the first date can be awkward — especially after a few drinks,” Hoffman said, “And in most cases, if you have attraction to someone, the sex can be improved with time and communication.”
Most importantly, remember that when to have sex is not a unilateral decision, Siegel said. You and the other person need to be on the same page.
“Therefore, communication, understanding and agreement have to be what brings you both to the decision,” he said.