An important question every person and couple faces is how long to wait before having sex when dating. Sex is a very wonderful experience, but it can also cause a lot of pain as well. Relationship expert Aline P. Zoldbrod, Ph.D., or "Dr. Z." as she is also known, says that if you want emotionally fulfilling sex within a relationship, there are many things you should consider before having sex. Dr. Z is a licensed psychologist and a certified sex therapist. She is author of the book, Sex Smart, and has a private practice just outside of Boston, MA.
The Emotional Dangers of Having Sex Too Early
LoveToKnow (LTK): The media often portrays sex and dating as having no risks besides pregnancy or disease. Is that all you have to worry about when having sex? Are there any emotional dangers?
Aline P. Zolbrod (AZ): Yes, there are most certainly emotional dangers when you have sex with another person. In some ways, it's easier to have mind-blowing, exciting sex with a stranger. But if it is intimate and emotionally satisfying sex you want, that usually comes from having sex with someone who you trust--someone with whom you can communicate; especially, someone that you can ask to touch you in a certain way or in a certain place.
Looking at the statistics on alcoholism, family violence, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse and neglect, it is clear that at least a quarter of men and women in the U.S. have grown up in families where they learned it is not safe to trust others. In my book SexSmart, I talk about being able to trust as an important ingredient in being able to have emotionally-connected sex with another person.
When you have sex too early in the dating process, you're essentially having sex with a stranger. You risk getting hurt emotionally. If you come from a background where you already have experienced others as untrustworthy and not interested at all in your feelings, experimenting with empty or disappointing sex can further your general feelings of alienation from others, vulnerability, and depression.
Emotional Dangers for Women
LTK: What specific emotional dangers should women be aware of?
AZ: Women need to be honest about what they want in life, not just tonight, but looking down the road a few years. If you're a woman and you just want casual sex, in most cases, you won't have any trouble finding it. But my rule for my female clients is, "Remember, it's not about who wants to SLEEP with you tonight, it's about who wants to DEAL with you, long term."
It's tough to be a woman nowadays. Most of us have had periods where we feel unattractive. However, as they get older, past high school and even college, many women who previously felt unappealing finally come into their own look, but there's a danger in this new found allure.
I see women get intoxicated by their sexual power over men, but at the end of the game, it's often the women who lose.
It's amusing and flattering to dress up and go out on the town and watch the guys drop at your feet. It's amazing and almost addicting to access your inner Venus, Goddess of Love. Guys are so visual, and if you look good, they can be putty in your hands. However, at the end of the night, if he "fell into your trap," you "get him," you have sex, and then, you get treated shabbily and get discarded, you didn't win, you lost.
My practice is full of wonderful women who make bad sexual choices when dating. For women who are looking for an emotional, committed relationship, it's dangerous to your future mental health to have a lot of experiences where you have been used sexually. It makes you bitter toward men, and your bitterness is apparent when you talk. It might turn off a future guy, one who actually likes you for your personality and might want an intimate and committed relationship.
Emotional Dangers for Men
LTK: Can men get hurt emotionally by sex as well?
AZ: Sure, and they do all the time. It comes as a great shock to men, since they go into casual sexual escapades thinking that there is no such thing as bad sex. But there are some stupid and shallow women out there, and they can say mean things--about your physique, your staying power, you name it, and you won't forget what they said. Also, men's erectile abilities are much more vulnerable to psychological attack than most men realize. So, if you meet up with a cruel, drunk, or exceedingly uneducated or demanding woman (however hot she may be), she does have the capacity to say something that will give you sexual insecurity going forward.
Bad Sexual Experiences
LTK: How might a bad sexual experience in a past relationship affect future (or current) relationships?
AZ: Feelings about whether one is lovable, sexually competent, or sexually appealing are central to self esteem. I've heard more than my share of stories of horrific sexual experiences, ones which do lasting damage. People tend to think that actions are more important than words, but cruel comments about one's sexual prowess or about body parts or shapes stick in people's minds, potentially forever, creating insecurity in future sexual relationships.
If you run into a partner who rudely criticizes, for instance, the shape of your breasts, the kind of stimulation you need, the length of your penis, etc., please run the other way. By the way, these kinds of negative sexual experiences can be treated and often cured. A treatment technique called EMDR is helpful here.
LTK: Are some people unaware that they had or are having a bad sexual experience? What signs or symptoms should individuals look for?
AZ: I find that people do recognize a bad sexual experience, but there are people who have one after another bad experience sexually and find that they cannot stop this self destructive pattern. I do find that there are people who compulsively use sex as a means of trying to find love, or as a means of working through some other conflict. Here are a few signs of bad sexual experiences:
- The person treats you like an object
- You feel depressed afterwards
- You obsess about whether you have just contracted an STD or AIDS
- You feel ashamed or regret it
- You keep the extent of your sexual activities from your friends and family
- You felt degraded by what you did or how you were treated
- You wanted to say no to any part of the experience but didn't
Great Sex or Great Love?
LTK: Do some people confuse sex with love? How can you tell the difference between "great sex" and "great love?"
AZ: This is the million dollar issue. If you jump into sex early in dating someone, only time can help you tell whether what you are experiencing is great sex or great love.
Sex addles our minds. The chemical baths our brains are soaked in when we experience lust seem to shut down our rational thought processes. Lust sure feels like love. The massive amount of oxytocin released during sex in women seems to cause women to bond more strongly and disengage with greater difficulty once a relationship has progressed to a sexual dimension.
Let's face it, flirting and going out to a nice restaurant, a ball game, or an exciting concert is fun and exhilarating with all but the most boring companion. If you do have fun, you have just established whom you can have fun with under the very best circumstances and nothing more.
Love is forged in the flames of enduring trying times together. So, try not to get sexually attached prematurely, and just wait and see. Life's ups and downs are so reliable that you'll soon see how much your dating partner cares about you.
How to Handle Pressure When You're Not Ready
LTK: If someone in a relationship doesn't want to have sex yet, what should he or she do if their partner pressures for sex or threatens to break up?
AZ: Have a long talk with them about what sex with you means to them. Talk about what it means to you. What would you need to have, in the realm of assurances, to want to have sex with them? If after that, you can't come to a meeting of the minds, you could get some outside help, particularly if you suspect that you're being unreasonably neurotic or inhibited. But if you feel it's not a match, and you are unmoved in your point of view, then throw them back and keep fishing.
Are You Ready?
LTK: What is the best way for a couple to determine they are emotionally ready to have sex?
AZ: This is a huge question and there is no right or wrong answer. It would depend on each person's values. Certainly, make sure that you match up on the fun vs. future relationship dimension. And if you're serious about the future, slow down and gather data about the person--their values, their ideas about what a future life should look like, etc.
Assuming that they are interested in a serious relationship, then along with the discussion about birth control, medical histories, etc., they should consider the following:
- You should know that they are who they say them are
- You should know a lot about them and their family
- You should feel that this person "gets" who you are--that they know how you think and what you feel about a range of important topics. This comes from having spent enough non-sexual time together in conversation with each other.
- You should feel that the two of you have important things in common other than just sexual attraction
- Understand what role sex would play in the entire context of your relationship.
- You should understand and agree together as to whether this will be sexually monogamous.
- You should feel emotionally intimate enough with them to talk about what you like and don't like sexually.
How Long Should You Wait?
When trying to determine how long to wait before having sex when dating, Dr. Z's advice will help you figure out what is best for you and your relationship. For more information about Dr. Z, to learn more about her books or to find contact information, visit SexSmart.com.