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

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

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.

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