Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?
As I surveyed real friends, Facebook friends, Twitter friends, and total strangers about having sex on the first date, the unfortunate cow comparison came up no fewer than five times in my first twelve interviews. Everybody complained about it, bemoaning the lack of nuance, the icky imagery, and the overt transactional implications. And yet, it kept rearing it’s ugly little antiquated head. Are there kernels of truth buried there? Is first-date sex a relationship nonstarter? Are we, as we often claim to be, past the era of plastering A’s on each other’s chests?
“There’s a lot of pressure on women to control the pace of the relationship,” said 24-year-old Jess, “and not ‘give away the milk for free.’” Ugh, there it is again. “But let’s face it,” she added, “we have hormones and sex drives us, just like males out there. Our generation is in conflict with this idea of restraining from sex to keep a guy interested. It seems to encourage us to find ‘randos’ at a bar to satisfy our urges, so we can be prim and proper in front of the men we actually want to be having sex with.”
It sounds preposterous, but it does make a certain sort of convoluted sense. In front of people whose opinions matter, like potential “relationship material,” we don’t want to seem promiscuous. Imagine you went on 10 first dates, and nine ended with chaste goodbyes. But on the 10th, things click into place, the mood is good, the vibe is there, and you really, really want to get it on. You hesitate, because this person across the table doesn’t know that the last nine got pecks on the cheek or ass-out hugs. He or she thinks that the freaky-deaky version of yourself you just unleashed is your usual M.O. Now you’re that girl, or that guy, the one who puts out “too soon.”
And that’s where the expectation game becomes a big soupy mess of missed signals, false assumptions, and dashed hopes. Rachel is 36, “I’ve definitely gotten into a couple of accidental relationships when someone followed up on what I thought of as a hookup.” Laura, in her forties, added, “The only thing first-date sex triggers is anxiety. If I’m not interested in next steps, I wonder how to extricate myself if he wants to see me again. If I’m hoping for a relationship, I worry that I’ve given the wrong impression, and he’ll think I’m a slut.” How many first-date, post-coital conversations begin with, “I swear, I never do that.”
But of course, for a whole host of reasons, sometimes we do. Harry, a married forty-something, calls sex “part and parcel of the decision making process about whether this person is a keeper or not. Do we have chemistry together? How do our bodies connect?” In fact, he slept with his wife on the very first date, “I think it’s a myth that getting naked too soon means trouble.” For some people, testing sexual compatibility early makes perfect sense. They want to know if there’s that initial physical spark before investing time into the growth and evolution of the relationship.
The reasons not to have sex right away are many and eminently practical. The less time you’ve spent with someone, the less likely you are to know his or her sexual history. Maybe you haven’t yet had (very necessary) discussions about STIs and protection. Medical risks aside, new partners should mean new conversations about boundaries and preferences, conversations most people aren’t comfortable having right off the bat. Leanne is a twenty-something New Yorker in a relationship. “Before I sleep with someone, I want to make sure I trust them to treat me respectfully, and that I trust myself to be assertive enough to make clear what I do and do not want.” Articulating desire is hard enough with people you know well, throw in the pressure-heavy mind games of first dates, and it seems damn near impossible.
Even if the stars align in your favor, and you and your date are both down for a good time, you might hold off. You might not want to risk whatever nugget of potential you two have by jumping into the sack. You might decide, like 22-year-old Cara, that waiting would serve you both well. “I might delay it to develop the initial bond further…. When we have sex, it can be an activity to truly add strength and another dimension to our already complex connection.” Or, no matter how badly you want to go for it, the mere possibility of a “slut” label, spoken or unsaid, just isn’t worth it.
And even those of us who do, from time to time, put out on a first date know that locker room one-upmanship and girl talk over brunch aren’t figments of our imagination. People do gossip, and they do judge. The question is, do we care?
Tom, 40, was shocked when he heard how horribly men speak of women they just hooked up with. Though perhaps times are changing; according to Colin, 24, “Out of the majority of my friends, frat brothers included, there’s very little slut-shaming. If she’s down, then odds are I’m down too.”
This survey was full of surprises. I posted the link on Facebook with the headline “First Date Sex?” and the first comment I got was from my 30-year-old married cousin, with whom I agree on just about every political and social front. Her comment? “Ew…just…ew.” I was shocked; her blanket statement was so far from my own heavily-caveated, wishy-washy, “if”-dominated multi-paragraph treatise on personal decision-making. How did we two, of such similar minds, arrive at such different answers?
My point is this: playing the assumption game regarding first-date sex will get you nowhere. To some, it is a clear indication that the only place this thing is going is to bed, so you might as well take it there. It means, “there’s no future here, but I’m into it, you’re into it, so let’s have some fun.” To others, it’s a sign that you want something more, a nonverbal way of saying “I really, really like you.” Harry called it a “diagnostic tool” in weighing potential. Amelia, 23, left my favorite comment of all, “It’s always a risk letting someone be that intimate with you for the first time, so I feel like it almost doesn’t even matter if it happens on our first date or the tenth.” She’s right, it is a risk, but it’s one we each have to weigh for ourselves. At the bare minimum, you can’t think ill of your date if he or she slept with you right away; after all, you did the very same thing.
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