You’ve been on a few dates, it’s going well, and you’re happily ensconced in that first flush of love. You think this could really go somewhere. Maybe it’s time to take it to the next level… but how can you be sure? It’s a question we all ask ourselves at the beginning of a relationship, and we can’t help but worry if we’re moving too fast or too slowly. Does science have the answers?
There was a time when we wouldn’t have been allowed to ask this question in polite company. Social norms in much of the Western world used to dictate that couples must wait until marriage before having sex. Even today, people who choose to get intimate with a new partner very quickly, or who have multiple sexual partners, can face a huge amount of negativity and judgment from others.
But there are many people, largely for religious reasons, who still practice abstinence, and there are some studies backing up their choice.
One from 2010 concluded that waiting longer before sleeping together was associated with better marital satisfaction later down the line. “The conventional wisdom in the current dating culture is that couples should test their 'sexual chemistry' before moving to deeper stages of commitment,” wrote the authors. “The results of this study do not support this theory.”
A further study in 2012 concluded much the same thing, using data from an internet survey of 600 married and cohabiting couples in the US. They also suggested that cohabiting early, sometimes due to economic pressures rather than conscious desire, could be a driver of this.
Jason S. Carroll, a co-author on the 2010 study, expanded on this view in a blog post for the Institute for Family Studies, an organization whose self-declared mission is to “strengthen marriage and family life.” Carroll’s analysis came to two broad conclusions: one, that holding off on sex allows people to be more intentional about their choice of a partner; and two, that couples who aren’t focused on sex can spend more time on more emotional aspects of their relationship, leading to deeper intimacy.
Reading all that, you might conclude that you should wait to jump into bed with a new partner for as long as possible – after all, you don’t want to store up problems later down the line, right?
But this is not the whole story. This kind of research is inherently very subjective – often, we’re relying on self-reported data, which is prone to bias, and it’s important to remember that researchers themselves bring their own preconceptions and ideas to the table too. Many historical studies in this area have only covered very specific groups of participants, and often only heterosexual people. As such, there’s no shortage of people working in the sex and relationships space who take a very different view.
One of these is psychotherapist Barton Goldsmith, who has some great news for you if the thought of waiting any longer has you heading for a cold shower.
Goldsmith told Insider in 2015 that – as long as both parties are comfortable – 36 hours is all you need. Even better, those 36 hours don’t have to be consecutive. After a few weeks of dating, if both of you are keen, Goldsmith reckons you should go for it.
Others take a slightly more measured view, though not by much. In the same article, psychotherapist Toni Coleman suggested that three months, or until you’re sure the “honeymoon phase” has passed, is the best length of time: “You move past that, and your feet are more on the ground.”
But more important than the “when”, many argue, is getting to grips with what sex means for you. Are you quite happy with casual sexual encounters, or do you need to have more of an emotional connection with a person before you commit? There’s no right or wrong answer, it’s just important to keep up a dialogue with your partner so everyone’s on the same page.
You might be sensing that we’re moving towards an inescapable conclusion here, which is that science really does not have the answer to this question. When you choose to get intimate with a new partner is a personal decision that has to come from open and frank communication between the two (or more) people involved. There are no rules and no “perfect moment”.
When everyone involved feels safe and happy, and is giving their enthusiastic consent – that is the right time.