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The Third Date Rule: Fact or Fiction?

“This is our third date, and we both know what that means.”

“We do?”


On a classic episode of The Big Bang Theory, Howard learns about the third date rule – the idea that the third date is the “sex date,” the date when it is deemed appropriate for a new couple to have sex. Is this a dating rule that people take to heart (or to bed) or is it just another urban dating myth? 

As researchers, we know more about the first date than the third date. Classic research on dating and sexual scripts – the events that people endorse as being part of a “typical” date or sexual experience – provides information about people’s dating perceptions. Despite the idea that there are more egalitarian gender roles in heterosexual relationships, this research indicates more traditional attitudes for the first date – there are higher expectations for men to initiate, plan and pay for the date.1 According to this work, the vast majority of which focuses on first date scripts held by heterosexual undergraduate students, both men and women think that men have greater sexual expectations and are more likely to make a sexual move on the first date.1,2

When college students report about a recent first date, they typically indicate little sexual involvement (usually equated to a goodnight kiss or making out). In one study, fewer than 4% reported sexual intercourse on their most recent first date.2 Alcohol consumption was associated with greater sexual involvement; those who drank the most on their date reported the most sexual involvement.

Interestingly, in one study on the timing of sex in a relationship, people do endorse the third date rule for the “average” man.3 In one study, participants thought about their most recent relationship and indicated the number of dates they went on before they engaged in sexual activity. They also reported how many dates needed to occur before they thought the “average” man or women would expect sexual activity. Men said sex occurred between date 9 and 11, and women said it was more like date 15 to 18. However, they thought the “average” man or women would expect sex sooner– the 3rd or 4th date for the average man and the 12th or 14th date for the average woman.3

According to this research, it doesn’t appear that the notion that sex will occur on the third date is a hard and fast rule. Rather, there is a belief that many people’s expectations are in line with the third date rule, but it is not consistent with real-life dating experiences (at least not that of heterosexual undergrads). Nevertheless more recent research is needed to explore modern dating scripts in more diverse populations.

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1Laner, M. R., & Ventrone, N.A. (2000). Dating scripts revisited. Journal of Family Issues, 21, 488-500.

2Mongeau, P.A., & Johnson, K. J. (1995). Predicting cross-sex first-date sexual expectations and involvment: Contextual and individual difference factors. Personal Relationships, 2, 301-312.

3Cohen, L. L., & Shotland, R. L. (1996). Timing of first sexual intercourse in a relationship: Expectations, experiences, and perceptions of others. The Journal of Sex Research, 33, 291-299.

Dr. Amy Muise - Sex Musings | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Muise’s research focuses on sexuality, including the role of sexual motives in maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships, and sexual well-being. She also studies the relational effects of new media, such as how technology influences dating scripts and the experience of jealousy. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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Reader Comments (4)

I know that gratuitous sex is every where in this society, but the 3rd date rule still floors me. You barely know one another.

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDani

This is really interesting! I recently dated a guy who actually caused an argument because we didn't have sex on the third date...proving to me (at least) that there was no way we were ready for that level of intimacy. Sex should be a mutual thing, whether it's the first date, or the 100th! It has to be down to both parties. He and I didn't get beyond the third date.

October 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlison

Two ladies above me are basically preparing themselves to be single & sexless for life...

October 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHomer

My first date went on for 6 hours, the second 4. I'm pretty sure they'd have gone on longer, but during the first I had a 10 page paper to come home & write and during the second... I still live with my mom, so I had a curfew. When you just click with someone and can talk to them for hours at a time, the excuse that you barely know the other doesn't apply.

At this point, I know his family history, his mother's hobbies, his siblings' career paths, his dreams, favorite color. He knows how much I love horror-related things, my neurotic mother's behaviors, everywhere I've lived, my dreams, memories. We've swapped embarrassing stories regarding wasabi...

My point is, do it when it feels right. Every situation is different. I'm thinking of waiting till the fourth date, just to tease him a little bit, but in reality, had his roommates not been home, we'd have probably done it on the first, and I don't feel bad about that...

May 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNicola
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