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First Date? Third Date? When’s the Best Time to Start Having Sex?

First Date? Third Date? When’s the Best Time to Start Having Sex?: © Adam Hester/Corbis

© Adam Hester/Corbis

When it comes to dating, is there a right time to start having sex?

People are of two different mindsets.

Some think that getting right down to business is essential in order to establish sexual compatibility. By contrast, others think that there should be a waiting period because they want to see whether they click mentally before getting physical.

Opinions are split on just how long this waiting period should be, though. As some evidence of this, let’s take a look at what dating website OK Cupid found when it surveyed one million users about their feelings on this matter.

When asked how long it would take before they started having sex with someone they really like, here’s what OK Cupid found:

• 28 percent said 1 to 2 dates
• 47 percent said 3 to 5 dates
• 20 percent said 6 or more dates
• 5 percent said “only after the wedding”

As you can see, most people today think there should be some kind of waiting period, with most adhering to the three-date rule. Many prefer to wait quite a bit longer.

So is one approach linked to having a better relationship in the end? In other words, does a period of abstinence make the heart grow fonder, or does figuring out whether you’re sexually compatible right away ensure a happier relationship?

It may surprise you to learn that neither one guarantees a better outcome.

In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Sex Research, researchers looked at how sexual timing was linked to relationship quality in a sample of over 10,000 unmarried men and women. Participants were 27 years old on average and all of them were currently involved in a “serious or steady” relationship.

What these researchers found was that those who had sex early (meaning on the first date or in the first few weeks) had very similar levels of relationship satisfaction and communication to those who waited a few weeks or longer before having sex, as well as those who were still abstaining. The average scores for all groups were at the high end of the scale, suggesting that everyone was in pretty good shape.

The delayers and abstainers had slightly higher scores overall, but the difference between them and the folks who had early sex was just one-tenth of one point on a 5-point scale.

In other words, they were virtually identical.

On a side note, if you look at the original article that reports on this study, the researchers argue that this miniscule difference is evidence that sex on the first date is a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad idea. I encourage you to completely disregard this interpretation because it’s based on the classic error of confusing “statistical significance” with “practical significance.”

In other words, although this teeny tiny difference may have emerged as “statistically significant,” it’s so ridiculously small as to have no real world importance.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family provides further support for the idea that timing of sex isn’t particularly important. Although this group of researchers also found a link between early sex and lower relationship quality, this association was largely accounted for by the fact that couples who had sex earlier tended to move in together much faster.

Put another way, when couples start having sex doesn’t really matter—but when they decide to move in together does. Rushing into shared living arrangements doesn’t seem to bode well for the future.

In short, people have many different ideas about when the right time is to have sex with someone they’re dating. But it doesn’t seem to be the case that any one approach is necessarily better than another.

You can do it early, or you can wait awhile—whatever you and your partner are comfortable with. The good news is that, according to the research, the timing of sex is unlikely to be the thing that makes or breaks your relationship.

However, when it comes to moving in together, that’s something you might want to take slow.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.


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