Taylor and Charlie, who have been together four years, had sex on their first date. Andrea and Brandon, now married, waited three months. Does it matter how many dates you have before becoming sexually intimate?

We have so many beliefs, attitudes and emotions about sex that affect what it represents for us, and it’s perhaps these that have an impact on how a relationship develops rather than the exact timing of when we first have sex. And of course the role and timing of sex varies by sexual orientation, age, cultural background and intention.

For Taylor, sex is a way to get to know someone. “As well as enjoying finding out someone’s values, interests, hopes and dreams, I want to experience how they express themselves sexually and how comfortable they are being intimate – it’s an important part of who they are.” Charlie agrees: “If you don’t connect sexually, it’s a bit like two musicians not being able to create music together. You need to enjoy similar ways of having fun in bed.” Research shows that having a goal – such as wanting to increase closeness – is associated with greater sexual satisfaction.

For Andrea, sex represented commitment, and so she wanted to wait until they both knew each other, rather than having sex with a fantasy: “The more I know about the other person, the more meaningful sex is. Sex as a purely physical act doesn’t do anything for me. I need it to be with a multi-dimensional person, with all their quirks and hang-ups!” Brandon had fears about being rejected or hurt, because of past experiences, and was keen to clarify where things were going before they became sexually intimate. “If someone has sex with me and then doesn’t want to see me again, I don’t feel good. It’s a vulnerable act and I want to know the other person values me for my mind and my personality, not just my body or my ability to give them pleasure.”

If you’re dating casually with the purpose of enjoying sexual intimacy, the number of dates before sex may be lower than if you’re looking for a relationship, and the trajectory different.

One trajectory is this: Interest is generated by the novelty of intimacy with a new person and sex is the pinnacle of the experience. Once experienced, things may quickly become too “relationshippy” and that excitement wears off. Once you start talking about arrangements to meet, whether you’re going to stay over, or what you’re going to eat, the illusion gets replaced by reality. Moving onto a new person may feel like the only way to enjoy that intensity again.

If this sounds like you and you want to change that, consider whether there may be some avoidant behaviour involved here: becoming intimate emotionally and practically (with all those mundane messages about arrangements) may not feel comfortable. Another reason may be that sex in a relationship not fit with our mental model of what we think the context for good sex should be: we may just associated sex with danger, excitement, mystery or something forbidden. If you want to change that, you may need some coaching or counselling to work out where this pattern is coming from and to learn other ways to relate and feel comfortable with getting close to someone without losing your attraction for them.

Another trajectory is this: The sex isn’t that good because it usually isn’t with people we hardly know (as research shows!). And then we’re disappointed and think the other person isn’t right for us. We’re using sex as a way to get to know someone but not in the right way.

Is this you? Next time, try making sexual exploration part of a wider investigation into each other’s temperament, attitudes, and background – not as an isolated element. Discuss what sex represents for each of you, what your hopes and fears are about sex, what you were brought up to believe about sex, what you have internalised from the media or peers. And communicate during sex: it’s ok to train each other a little, and to adapt to each other, like musicians playing a duet, who will listen to each other and talk about how to bring out the best in the music as a joint project.

Part of communication is, of course, consent, which is essential for each step along the journey towards sex. It’s important to think through in advance what you’ll be comfortable with and practise saying confidently “I’m not comfortable with that” or “I’d like to stop now”. And if you’re going back to someone’s home when you don’t know them well, make sure you have a date protection officer!

If you’re dating with the intention of finding a long-term commitment, it’s still a great idea to discuss these questions on dates before you are ready for sexual intimacy. And of course you’ll both need to communicate how long you might want to wait, why, and how you’ll know when you’re ready. Misunderstandings can easily arise if you don’t!

Whenever you decide to have sex, whether it’s after one, three, five, ten or a hundred date (or after marriage), it’s important to have a clear idea of how your thoughts and feelings about sex have been shaped and what you are happy to hang onto or reject. Taylor was brought up believing that sex was something men used women for, and it took a long time to unravel that as well as work out how it applied to dating different genders. Brandon found it difficult to talk about his needs during sex, because that was seen as shameful in his culture.

It’s well worth investing in some coaching or counselling to explore your relationship with your body and with sex. There are some beautiful metaphors – such as making music, dancing together, or even just being playful – that can help to change what sex means for you. And don’t isolate your concept of sex from the rest of your relationship: a sex life that is integrated with the rest of your relationship journey is more likely to survive the ups and downs of a relationship, particularly as you both get older.

Why not get in touch to make an appointment with Rachel and take your first step towards a healthier sex life?

Main image by Ketut Subiyanto.