Double standards = peak annoying.
As any feminist who writes about sex and love can tell you, few things are as frustrating as the frequent condemnation of sex on the first date. Insert eye-roll-worthy cow/milk analogy here. All this sex-positive progress, and women are still worried that a guy will lose interest if they have sex “too early.” And the fact is, yeah, it’s often true—that can absolutely happen. The problem isn’t that it happens, the problem is that we’re still letting it affect our choices, and our self-esteem.
Ditching after doing it is deeply uncool, but if they do it, the person probably didn’t have a real interest in you anyway. Sorry, that hurts to hear, but it should also make it easier in a sense—getting busy didn’t drive them away, and waiting wasn’t going to magically make them want to date you. Many people just haven’t yet accepted that they don’t need to misrepresent what they want to have sex with women.
To avoid that outcome, women often have to struggle between their physical desires and their fear of repercussions, showing that we as a society have yet to fully accept, much less celebrate, women’s sexual autonomy.
To be clear, we’ve come a long way. But lots of people will still judge you for having sex early on.
“With the feminist, sexual revolution of the ’60s, women started taking ownership of their bodies and their pleasure,” Lexx Brown-James, Ph.D., licensed marriage and family therapist, tells SELF. That’s been reinforced even more with today’s sex positivity movement, which is very much alive and kicking. “Women aren’t necessarily having sex to appease partners anymore, it can be to appease themselves,” Brown-James says.
But “patriarchy coupled with sex negativity” still persist, Brown-James says, meaning people have antiquated ideas about what women should and shouldn’t do with their bodies. “People aren’t conditioned to think that women enjoy pleasure, too. If you have sex on the first date, there can still be this stigma attached, like, how many people have you done this with?”
A lot of guys are like this, says Chris, 27, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy. He’s had sex early on in relationships and happily kept seeing the women in question, but he knows it doesn’t always go down that way. “It’s this fragility in masculinity where a woman who’s capable of making her own independent sexual decisions is written off as less desirable,” he says. “It’s seen as somehow usurping male power, and there’s a lot of unnecessary worry about what it means if a woman has sex on a first date.”
This creates an irritatingly fine line to walk. “[Some men] don’t want to offend a ‘nice girl’ by approaching them in a sexual manner on first date,” sex and relationship consultant Sara Nasserzadeh, Ph.D., tells SELF. “But women don’t want to ‘scare guys off’ by being too sexually aggressive on the first date and having the guys think of them as just an object. On other hand, certain scenarios suggest that if you don’t ooze sexuality, men won’t be hooked.” None of this is good or fair or logical in the very least, but it’s how it goes sometimes.
There’s a lot to weigh when deciding whether to have first-date sex.
If it’s going to be a deal-breaker if the sex isn’t awesome right off the bat, then it’s important to find out early on how you two work in bed, Nasserzadeh says. “But if your feeling is that sex is something that grows, something you can develop together, then you can wait to embark on that side of the relationship.”
If you’ve ever felt like crap after having sex on a first date, it could have all come down to your motivations for doing it in the first place. No matter what kind of sex you’re having, it’s helpful to pinpoint why you want to have it, Nasserzadeh says: “Is it to explore your own sexuality? To add experience to your repertoire? To assess your compatibility with each other? To give pleasure and confidence to the other person? To receive pleasure and confidence from them?” When you can figure out why you’re having sex, you’ll know how realistic you’re being about the outcome—having sex to suss out your compatibility is one thing, doing it to cement someone’s interest in you is another.
Depending on how the date’s progressing, this can actually be a great conversation to have beyond, “I don’t usually do this.” (Which may or may not be a lie—no judgment.) Brown-James suggests discussing the fact that you two are about to have first-date sex—maybe there’s a pause while you’re making out, or maybe it happens in an Uber on the way to one of your places. Don’t worry, those drivers have heard it all. You can ask what they're hoping for beyond tonight, or share your own intentions as a first step. The point is to determine whether this is a one-and-done thing in either of your minds.
Some people will say it doesn’t matter to them whether or not you have sex because you two have a connection, others might take the chance to say they’re not looking for a relationship, Brown-James says. Of course, people can lie to make it sound like you’re on the same page. But at the very least, it offers an opportunity to see how they respond. “See what their reaction is to help you figure out if you want to go forward with that,” she explains. This break from physical activity would also be the perfect time to talk about when you last got tested for STDs. Awkward, potentially, but always a good idea.
All of this can help you decide in the moment whether you should or shouldn’t have first-date sex—because the idea that there’s a “rule” to follow is B.S.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all prescription,” Nasserzadeh says. Some people can handle first-date sex. Some can’t. Sometimes it depends on who they’re having sex with. You’re not a failure if you try it and come away from it feeling bad, although it’s worth digging through those feelings to figure out exactly why, Nasserzadeh says.
If you’re ultimately happy with the sex but feeling guilt about going against society’s mores, that’s different from feeling like you got physical before you were truly ready, which is different from realizing the sex just made you miss your ex, and so on. All these negative feelings can get intertwined and it can be complicated, but the key is to judge your decision based on your own feelings, not your partner’s actions after the fact.
“If you’re engaging in sexual activity for yourself, you don’t have to leave feeling horrible,” Brown-James says. “If it’s great sex, great, if it’s not, you can try again. But it’s about knowing what you want, then having the self-efficacy to carry it out.”
And if you do it and he bails straight away, know that it had nothing to do with the fact that you “put out on the first date.”
It’s one thing if you have sex on the first date and it’s godawful, giving you each cringe-worthy confirmation that your parts don’t mesh. But if someone was previously into you, then dropped just because you had amazing sex after dazzling them with your wit and perfect hair, you didn’t do anything wrong; they just weren’t in it for the long (or even medium) haul.
You shouldn’t have to worry that going after what you want will sabotage anything with “potential.” Listen to your gut (or vagina). This worked for Melissa, 30, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy. She had sex on the first date a few years ago, and she’s now engaged to that guy—it obviously worked out well.
“Clearly, we felt a strong connection,” she says. “Maybe it made it a little confusing about whether we were hooking up or starting something more serious, but it wasn’t something that shifted our relationship in a meaningful way.” Prior to that, she had sex on the first date with a different guy. It didn’t work out because he was an asshole in multiple ways, not because they had sex on the first date. “It’s not like that relationship would have been awesome if we’d waited until date four, and it’s not like sex on date one with my fiancé made our relationship work,” Melissa says.
The takeaway is that it’s really up to you, Nasserzadeh says: “Do whatever you want, but know why you’re doing it.”
Written by Zahra Barnes.
This article originally appeared on Self US.