The Dating Game: When's the Right Time for Sex?

Experts discuss the consequences of not playing by your own dating rules.

From the WebMD Archives

Whether you're new to the dating scene, a regular player, or jumping back into the game after a long hiatus, the same questions about dating rules apply: How soon do you lean over for that first kiss? Is it too early for a steamy make-out session? And last -- but by no means least -- how do you know when the time is right for sex?

"There's really no formula that I've encountered," says 28-year-old Andrew Reymer, a single resident of Baltimore, Maryland. "It depends on how rapidly or slowly things progress."

Joan Allen, a relationship expert, finds that baby boomers are far more likely to wait to have sex than younger daters.

"Especially among older people who went through the sexual revolution, with maturity they realize there are emotional consequences for getting involved in a sexual relationship," says Allen, author of Celebrating Single and Getting Love Right: From Stalemate to Soulmate.

According to the singles whom Allen has encountered, boomers generally play by far different dating rules than young, 20-something daters.

"I spoke with a young man in his early to mid-20s who told me that if he didn't have sex on the first or second night, he'd move on to the next person," she recalls.

While you can't apply a one-size-fits-all response to sexual dating rules regardless of age or experience, professionals who have studied the topic say it is a good idea to develop a set of prudent dating rules - before the big date.

Dating Rules: Why Wait?

By and large, Allen and other relationship experts endorse a cautious approach to the dating rules of sex.

"My advice is this: wait as long as you can," Allen says.

Her rationale for these dating rules may seem obvious, but many people tend to forget in the heat of the moment. "You might find that you don't even like the person," Allen tells WebMD.

Other experts agree that sex too-soon can lead to undesirable consequences.

"It becomes much more difficult to objectively see each other's character traits" says Susanne Alexander, a relationship coach and author of Can We Dance? Learning the Steps for a Fulfilling Relationship. "Some couples then slide into engagement and marriage only to discover they have missed seeing major aspects of each other."


Dating Rules: Talk First, Act Later

While not every dating scenario that involves sex leads to marriage or even a serious relationship, couples do owe it to themselves to talk about where they see their relationship going and how sex might change the relationship -- before they get in bed together.

"There needs to be a conversation up front. The woman may assume sex implies a commitment; the man may not see it that way," Allen tells WebMD.

Dating Rules: Talk It Over with Yourself First

Having an honest conversation with yourself about sex is just as important as discussing it with your partner, experts say.

"Every woman and man should know their boundaries before they start dating, and most of us don't," says Cheryl McClary, PhD, JD, professor of women's health at University of North Carolina-Asheville.

When McClary refers to boundaries, she's not talking just about the physical boundaries that come with sexual territory. She's also referring to emotional boundaries.

"Emotional wholeness is crucial to the decision process of whether or not to have sex," McClary tells WebMD.

To that end, McClary often tells women, "If you value a committed relationship, ask yourself, 'What do I need to do to stay emotionally whole?'"

When directing her advice on dating rules to a male audience, McClary puts things a little differently. "Make sure your brain, heart, and penis are in conjunction -- they should all be in a straight line before you have sex," she says.

McClary believes all daters should invest the same amount of time conducting these 'self' conversations about personal dating rules as they do primping before a big date. She also says the conversation, like the primping, should happen at the same time -- before that big date.

"Think about your sexual boundaries before you've had that first drink," McClary advises.

Dating Rules: Practical Matters

Once you've decided what you want out of a date, say experts, you should make it part of your regular dating rules to tell your partner.

"If you just want a one-night stand, you owe it to your partner to tell them 'it's just sex I'm after,'" McClary tells WebMD. While a dating partner may not welcome this news, it at least can minimize later disappointments.


So, too, does an up-front conversation about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

"The risks of STDS have got to be discussed and prevented from spreading," Allen tells WebMD. "I say definitely use condoms, even if you're in a committed relationship," she adds.

Concern about STDs and unwanted pregnancies can help create sexual boundaries, believes McClary. If, for instance, you're on the fence about whether or not to take sexual activity to the next level, a healthy dose of fear may cause you to pause, particularly if you're not prepared to take the necessary precautions. Plus, not having adequately prepared for these practical aspects of sex may signal an overall non-readiness to engage in it.

At some point during their courtship, many dating couples decide its time to break down initial boundaries -- be they emotional, physical, or both -- and engage in a sexual relationship. If both people are playing by the same dating rules, sex can serve as the gateway to a consensual, committed relationship.

"I thought there were differences between men and women and how they felt about relationships. But overall, I have found that very often they want the same thing," Allen says.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD


Published Feb. 1, 2007.

SOURCES: Joan Allen, author, Celebrating Single and Getting Love Right: From Stalemate to Soulmate. Susanne Alexander, relationship coach; author, Can We Dance? Learning the Steps for a Fulfilling Relationship. Cheryl McClary, PhD, JD, professor of women's health, the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

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