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How Long Should You Wait to Have Sex?

As long as you darn well please.

| February 14th, 2012
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How Long Should You Wait to Have Sex?

When Cathy, 25, moved to Manhattan after college, she cast her net in the sea of eligible New Yorkers by filling out online dating profiles. One question on OKCupid stuck out to her, symbolizing the mismatch she’s felt with single guys:

Say you’ve started seeing someone you really like. As far as you’re concerned, how long will it take before you have sex?

  • 1-2 dates
  • 3-5 dates
  • 6 or more dates
  • Only after the wedding
Screenshot from OkCupid Questionnaire
How Long Should You Wait to Have Sex?

She chose six or more, with the emphasis on ‘more.’ Her matches chose 3-5, in her opinion, “for the sake of not sounding like a douchebag.”

“This is always a huge stress for me,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten it right. I always feel a pressure to give in sooner than I want to.”

MORE: Your Online Image Affects Your Love Life

Many women struggle to decide when to have sex with a new partner, especially in the age of the digital date when the person you’re seeing may be a perfect stranger. Casual sex is more common today and women wait longer to marry, but there are still plenty of stereotypes about women who give in “too soon” and women who “won’t give it up,” leading many women to feel caught in a web of conflicting pressures.

To navigate that mess well, stay true to your emotional and physical needs.

“If you make your decisions based on someone else or how you hope they’ll react, that leads to a lot of disappointment,” says Lena Chen, 24, a self-described “reluctant sexpert” best known for authoring the blog “Sex and the Ivy” while she was an undergrad at Harvard. "Your sexual decisions should be based on what's right for you and your body."

When YouBeauty Self-Image Expert Heather Quinlan, LCSW, counsels women about this decision, she encourages them to focus on the choice that’s right for them. “It’s not really a question of right or wrong,” she says. “It’s about, how can we get a healthy outcome?” That answer is different for everyone.

Each of us decides when to have sex in two phases, explains Quinlan. First, you start with a hypothetical, like “If I meet someone new, I want to wait until we’re exclusive before sex.” You’ll consider questions like, what does my religion or my culture teach? What do my friends and family say? Do we need to be in a relationship? Does he or she need STD testing first? You’ll come to a seemingly logical, perfectly planned out time frame.

Then, as anyone who’s been there will know, real life will botch the best-laid plans. 

Quinlan points out that the circumstances—“who is this particular person?”—matter most. Attraction, relationship status, physical or emotional risk, and emotional availability are just a few of the many factors that suddenly come into play when a real prospect enters the picture.

QUIZ: Are You Sexually Satisfied?

Sex researchers David Buss and Cindy Meston have found that there are 237 reasons why women choose to have sex, ranging from love to pleasure, duty to curiosity, pleasing a partner to seeking an ego boost. Especially among young women, many in their study chose to have sex for the experience or adventure, even the conquest.

One 27-year-old graduate student in Boston, MA has always planned to wait three months (“the amount of time it seems like it would take to get to know someone seeing them once a week”)—but so far, that plan has never worked out. Reasons like physical urges, convenience, and alcohol have always gotten in the way. “This issue may be one of the reasons why I hate dating,” she says. “The protocol is so unknown and it feels weird to talk about it.”

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