What is it with the number three?
All of the catchiest, most enduring slogans are three words: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”; “Veni, vidi, vici”; “Stop, drop and roll.” In visual art, we have the rule of thirds — a guideline for creating appealing compositions. And in comedy, the third and final item in a list is usually the punchline.
The power of the triad is apparent even in the world of romantic and sexual relationships. As best I can tell, the “Rule of Three” was popularized by the prim and proper character Charlotte York in Sex and the City. See, Charlotte is the traditional one of the friend group, and she believes a Lady shouldn’t relent to a man’s ravenous sexual appetite until at least the third date. “The Victorians were onto something,” she proclaims in episode six, season one. However, Charlotte does, in fact, break her rule at least once, counting dinner and dancing at a wedding as two “micro-dates” before sleeping with a man who quickly turns out to be a total jackass. Poor Charlotte, that’s what you get!
With American society mainlining Sex and the City to cope with the troubled beginnings of the 21st century, the three-date rule quickly spread throughout culture and became a Thing, ready to be adopted, argued against or parodied. But mass awareness of the rule, especially by men, brought change — it shifted from a matter of propriety to a horny countdown clock.
If the third date rolled around and you hadn’t yet slept together? Well, it was probably going to happen that night or else she was going to come down with a sudden case of having to wash her hair.
Of course, like all social mores, the three-date rule is subject to flux. The growth of heterosexual “hookup culture” in the 2000s complicated things by introducing relatively mainstream alternatives to dating — one-night stands and fuck buddies. The relaxing of sexual mores plus a growth of social networking and dating apps allowed for a blooming of no-strings attached sex among straight people.
That’s the idea, at least. But it’s not just a free-for-all out there. In fact, young adults tend to actually overestimate how much casual sex is happening among their peers, according to a Harvard School of Education report from last year. Additionally, the ideals of sex positivity and the growth in acceptance of polyamorous relationships can conceal sexual harassment and continuing power imbalances between men and women. And so, on the ground, navigating the heady realms of romance and sexual intimacy remains as fraught an endeavor as ever.
In the face of complex situations, one useful tool is the heuristic, or, in common parlance, a rule of thumb. Much like the pirate’s code, these are more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. And so, people develop their own systems to navigate the treacherous waters of dating and sex.
“I’ve done it on my first date a few times, but I’ve noticed that boys [were] subtly more shitty and seem to respect me less or take me less seriously as a potential partner when I did,” says Kayla, a 21-year-old student in Austin. “So I don’t do it anymore unless I know for sure that I don’t care to move forward with the relationship.” Similarly, in Austin-based 30-year-old Carey’s experience, “having sex not only means that’ll be the only date, but also usually brings the date to an abrupt end afterward.”
This doesn’t seem to be an uncommon sentiment, especially (but not only) among women. James, a Brooklyn-based reporter in his mid-20s, says, “I used to be very comfortable with having sex on the first date, and did it frequently, whenever the date felt nice and my partner also wanted to have sex. But over time, I’ve come to realize that I prefer to wait, and so now I usually wait until at least the second date.” And Julie, a 25-year-old Brooklyn-based writer, tries not to even kiss on the first date — “it’s a good way of gauging whether the guy (or girl) will follow up with me.”
Maybe all this isn’t surprising. It actually seems downright traditional in a sense, calling to mind that old saw about men not wanting to buy the cow when they can get the milk for free. But the important thing is that unlike Charlotte’s worldview, it doesn’t necessarily mean buying into those beliefs about what people “should” do, just accepting what they tend to do. Call it realism or radical acceptance, depending on how pessimistic you’re feeling.
There are, of course, other reasons to abstain until a repeat engagement. Eli, a 23-year-old IT professional in Los Angeles, subscribes to a flexible version of the three-date rule — but for them, this has less to do with propriety or partner reactions than their own perceptions. As they put it, “I’ve had too many bad experiences where I go into dating full-on hungry like the wolf, and end up awkwardly lying in bed next to someone I don’t feel as strongly [about] as my genitals led me to believe.”
Here I have to own up to my own experience of “seducer’s gloom,” a term I first came across in Edward St. Aubyn’s novel Lost for Words. As he puts it, “Just as a ‘good shot’ might kill two hundred partridges over a weekend without being expected to eat them all for dinner on Sunday night, a woman with Katherine’s genius for engendering desire and devotion couldn’t be expected to deal with all of its consequences.” I don’t mean to brag, and I am not proud! But having recognized this tendency towards boredom after hopping into bed on the first date, which perhaps stems from a fear of intimacy — or of being wanted — I’ve made conscious efforts to hold back and draw things out. It’s less about playing hard-to-get — trying to make myself seem more desirable by withholding attention — and more about working against my own emotional programming
There are plenty of reasons not to fuck on the first date, whether they be religious, personal or simply practical. And while you might expect the main reason to fuck would be obvious (you’re both horny), there are other motives here as well — like, maybe you are looking for something ongoing, but don’t want to commit to more dates with someone who just doesn’t sync up with you in bed.
Mariella, a 30-year-old culture writer from New York, says, “I hate wasting time with surface-level bullshit and tentative energy. Give me depth or GTFO. Fucking, or other forms of sexual intimacy on a first date, is a part of that.” She actually has a specific rule in this regard that’s the mirror of Julie’s “no-kiss” doctrine: “If a person doesn’t at least kiss me on a first date, I don’t go out with them again. It’s been my experience that people who can’t bring themselves to kiss a person they want to see again usually have intimacy or confidence hang-ups that will get projected onto me instead of worked out with their therapist.”
And despite the many good reasons I and others I spoke to have for waiting, some long-term relationships really do begin with first dates where two people jump into bed together. After all, there’s nothing that precludes continuing closeness after early-onset intercourse. Lily, a 26-year-old writer from L.A., tells me that she fucked her boyfriend in a closet within four hours of meeting him. “We slept at the party together,” she says, “and I woke up in the morning and saved his number with a heart next to his name on the way out.”
Or take Robin, a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad in Kentucky. He and his wife — who now have children together — bedded down on their very first date. “I’ve never had strong feelings about it either way,” he says, “and was delighted to find another person who also seemed fine with it going either way.”
And Julie, who tries not to even kiss on the first date? She admits, “I’ve jumped into bed with someone after meeting them in person for the first time and we dated for like seven months.”
The upshot? Whatever your rules and the reasoning behind them, it’s worth subjecting them to a little scrutiny once in a while. If you’re someone who waits, allow yourself to entertain the possibility of throwing caution to the wind and abandoning yourself to desire. And if you tend to dive right in, consider exploring the pleasures of prolonged anticipation.
While Charlotte York’s temporary lapse saw her cosmically and ironically punished, just remember: You don’t live in a sitcom. “There are no rules except the ones you make for yourself,” Julie reminds us, “which you can totally break if you feel like it.”