When is it okay to have sex?

What’s the ideal number of dates (or months of a relationship) to have sex?

Should I have sex on the third date?

Does having sex on the first date write off any prospects of a relationship [with that person]?

If they’re willing to wait to have sex, does this mean they want a relationship?

We waited to have sex and then they ghosted me (or changed) once they got it. What did I do wrong?

What does it mean when someone sleeps with you on the first date?

Now that we’ve slept together, where is this relationship going?

These are just a sprinkling of the many questions I’ve received over the years from people who are stressed about whether and when to have sex. Our anxiety about breaking seeming rules about sex illustrates how much we, as a society, are conditioned into certain mentalities around physical and sexual intimacy. 

We think there’s a magic number of dates or a certain amount of relationship time that makes having sex ‘okay’. We also follow certain rules because they suggest that we are more likely to wind up in a relationship. There’s also, undoubtedly, a level of fear and shame about our ‘reputation’. After all, sex has been weaponised against humans, especially women, to teach them that they’re ‘clean’ or ‘dirty. Many of us also associate sex with missing out on the proverbial relationship lottery and being misled and used. As a result, we rely heavily on the ‘shoulds’ and faux rules of dating, sex and relationships.

For example:

You shouldn’t have sex on the first date.

Have sex by the third date so that you don’t put them off. 

Wait until marriage to have sex [so that you remain pure and good] and find a partner who’s earned ‘it’.

You should wait until you’re in a committed relationship to have sex. 

Any guy that’s willing to wait is a Good Guy. 

Wanting to have sex when you’re ready, not based on the rules, makes you slutty/easy.

Holding out gives you a competitive advantage over the ‘easy’ women.

Don’t be too enthusiastic in bed lest they think you’ve been around the block. 

If you don’t put out, they’ll just find someone who will. 

Guys are only out for one thing.

And then we wonder why we’re still anxious or not in the relationship we expected given that we’ve done All the Right Things. So, here’s the deal:

The rules we follow about whether and when to have sex exist as a means of not just controlling the outcome but managing our fears and avoiding vulnerability

The idea is that if we follow a blueprint, the paint-by-numbers instructions, the [faux] rules on what someone says about when, if and how physical intimacy should take place, we ’should’ get what we want. 

This in and of itself is a problem because it conflates having sex with ‘getting’ (or not getting) a relationship.

Most importantly though, a rule that appears to work in some situations is the same rule that doesn’t in plenty of others.

I’ve seen people wait to have sex for months only for things to go tits up afterwards. Others waited for months, and they continued into a loving relationship. Some of the latter relationships might go the long-term distance, and others won’t. 

I’ve seen people wait until marriage to have sex who’ve also stayed together. I’ve also seen people wait to have sex until marriage and then it all goes very wrong. I know people who waited, got married, and then it became apparent that there were major problems with physical intimacy.

There are people who had sex on the first date and never heard from the other parties ever again. I also know people who slept together on the first date and are still together many years down the road (and happy). You get the gist.

The reason all of these scenarios exist is this: what people use to control getting the desired outcome is not what determines the actual outcome.

I.e. Using sex, whether it’s having, delaying or withholding it, to control getting a relationship, proposal, marriage, etc., does not determine getting any of those outcomes. And even if we do wind up, for example, with more dates or a relationship, sex isn’t the determining factor.

Using sex to attempt to control outcomes becomes a massive blind spot.

For example, we might infer someone’s willingness to wait as a sign that we share similar core values. They might, they might not. We might inadvertently use having sex like a down payment to have a defining-the-relationship conversation and then feel used when they don’t want a relationship

Another example: If we think that what we’re doing with regards to physical intimacy determines what we’re experiencing in a relationship, we’re likely to, whether it’s conscious or not, attempt to control other things in a similar way. In essence, we will overvalue the sex’s contribution which will likely fuel anxiety about maintaining the person’s interest. And in believing that our rule worked, we’ll anxiously and steadfastly follow other rules instead of being vulnerable, intimate and authentic. 

At the end of the day, the reason why humans rely on shoulds, rules (made-up and real ones), blueprints and formulas for things that require them to listen to and know themselves is that we are afraid.

Whether it’s fear of making a mistake, getting hurt, or being left behind, we want to control the uncontrollable.

We’re also partial to shortcuts, like when we get taken in by get-rich-quick schemes. Rather than be vulnerable and listen to our values, needs and boundaries, we use sex to measure ourselves, others and the prospects of a relationship. And even though we keep getting burned by these falsehoods, we keep going. We continue pinning dating and relationship ‘success’ on the sex even when it isn’t. We cling to the rules because we’re afraid of vulnerability.

Following what are, in essence, fake rules, causes us to do things for the wrong reasons. And then we wind up feeling resentful, guilty and frustrated.

If you’ve internalised a lot of what are fake rules about when and whether to have sex, it’s time to check in with yourself. This is especially if your beliefs and attitude about sex affect your sense of self, your ability to forge healthy and intimate relationships, or you’ve struggled to date full stop. Identify and question your rules. What should or shouldn’t you do? What’s ‘good’, and what’s ‘bad’? Who told you this, and is it true, appropriate and relevant for your current adult self? Pay close attention to anything that’s a theme in your dating and relationship experiences. Figure out what’s true and right for you.

You decide when it’s okay to have sex for you, not all of the judgmental people in your head. Have sex (or don’t) because you want to, not because you’ve been coerced or are trying to ‘get’ something. Know your ‘why’ so that you don’t compromise your emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being.

This doesn’t mean that I’m saying do the opposite to whatever rule(s) you’re following; it means to make sure that you do things from a place of intention, not should. 

The rules that were designed to keep us compliant and ashamed don’t work, and they don’t lead to happiness and fulfillment. Ultimately, it’s shared core values and meeting our emotional needs that create compatibility and mutually fulfilling relationships. 

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