The Third Date Rule Is Back. Why Was It Ever a Thing to Begin With?

According to those who ought to know, waiting to have sex is in vogue again

Black and white photo shows a couple on a dinner date
Do the rules apply here?
Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

We pretty much stop counting dates after three. If you make it that far, they stop being “first dates” or “second dates” and just become dates. Three is the last one that’s significant, and according to dating folklore, the third date means sex. Yes, even in our current era of dating apps, one-night stands and “hookup culture,” the idea of a “third date” is still almost synonymous with sex.

For this, we can thank a little thing often referred to as the “third date rule.” Seemingly a relic leftover from a bygone era of less sexually liberated courtship, the “third date rule” encouraged singles (female ones, in particular) to wait until the third date to have sex with a potential new flame — especially one they were hoping to lock down on a longterm basis.

While the three-date rule seems to maintain a level of cultural recognition today, it tends to recall a pre-internet era of courtship where dates were arranged on answering machines instead of dating apps, blind dating, speed dating or wondering whether he was going to call instead of waiting for a text. In short, the third date rule is reminiscent of the Sex and the City era of dating, one that may or may not have ever really existed, but remains immortalized in our cultural consciousness. And not unlike Carrie Bradshaw herself, the third date rule seems to be the latest bit of ’90s/’00s ephemera making a comeback.

That’s according to Match, the online dating platform that first harnessed the powers of the internet for romance back in 1995, well before anyone had even dreamed of a world in which you could find your next hookup, partner or husband with swipe of a finger on your phone. Match — whose parent company now also owns multiple popular dating apps including Tinder and Hinge — announced the three-date rule renaissance last month in its 2021 Singles in America Survey, which found that two in three singles “want to wait until after the third date to have sex.”

Match offered up a handful of predictable theories as to why this may be, including a reasonable pandemic-driven reluctance to hop into bed with a bunch of possibly COVID-infected strangers as well as a reactionary return to “slow-dating” in response to the culture of instant gratification that dating apps fostered throughout the 2010s.

What’s interesting to me, however, is not necessarily why (or whether) the third date rule is making a comeback, but rather why it was ever a thing to begin with. I don’t necessarily mean this in a critical way. While the third date rule — as it has historically existed and presumably been practiced — certainly carries some sexist and sex-negative undertones, I’m not strictly opposed to the idea of slowing down physically, nor entirely skeptical of the benefits doing so may have on the longevity of a burgeoning relationship. What I am curious about, as a person who knows a lot about dating in this day and age and relatively little about dating in other ones, is how, when and why lucky number three got to be the magic sex date. To find out, we have to travel back in time to the land of pagers, answering machines and rules — The Rules, to be precise.

While most cultural historians seem unclear on the exact origins of the three-date rule, many tend to associate it with the last decade or two of the 20th-century — though Mia Levitin, author of The Future of Seduction, says the rule “was firmly in play in New York before Sex and the City popularized it.”

Still, like so many other things that already existed before Carrie and company stepped on the scene in 1998 — rabbit vibrators, cosmopolitans — the third date rule was undeniably popularized by and remains associated with the show.

“I have no idea when the ‘third date rule’ began, but I know for certain it was firmly driven into my head back when I used to watch Sex and the City,” says Marni Kinrys, founder of The Wing Girl Method and creator of The F Formula. “I was obsessed with that show and they were the new leaders in sex for women. Whatever Carrie Bradshaw said was my new bible and roadmap.”

This association with the third date rule, specifically, can be charted back to a first-season episode in which Carrie is debating having sex with Mr. Big on the first date.

“I thought you were serious about this guy, you can’t sleep with him on the first date,” Charlotte warns in typical Charlotte fashion. “Third date?” Carrie counters, which Charlotte still decries as “too soon.” The other women mock Charlotte for being a Rules girl, referring to a then-iconic, now very poorly aged self-help book from the ’90s to which we might better trace the pre-SATC origins of the third date rule.

For the uninitiated, The Rules, published in 1995, was presented as a modern woman’s guide to locking down a husband by following 35 simple rules that mostly amount to suppressing all wants, needs and other signs of autonomous personhood for long enough to trick a man into marrying you before he figures out you’re an actual human, which would be unsexy. The rules mostly involve various forms of playing hard to get (“Don’t call him and rarely return his calls”; “Don’t accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday”) paired with a healthy dose of downright de-humanization: “Don’t stare at men or talk too much”; “Don’t open up too much.”

Unsurprisingly, The Rules also features at least two whole chapters devoted to sex in the early stages of courtship: Rule No. 14, “No more than casual kissing on the first date,” and No. 15, “Don’t rush into sex.” While The Rules does not explicitly enforce the third date rule, instead stating that the Rule, in this regard, “depends on your age and personal feelings,” it does gesture toward it. The Rules never officially sanctions the third date as a sexual green light — instead vaguely suggesting that women “wait a month or two” — though it does, on multiple occasions, make reference to the fact that sex on the first or second date would be unforgivably reprehensible.

But what if you like sex a lot too, and denying yourself is just as hard as denying him? Does that mean that you can sleep with him on the first or second date? Unfortunately, the answer is still no. You will just have to exercise a bit of self-restraint and character building here and trust that if you hold off for a few weeks or months, you won’t be sorry.

Why? Because “if you play your cards right, you can have sex with him every night for the rest of your life when you’re married!”

Clearly, the Rules have not held up terribly well, and have been routinely roasted on each of the book’s milestone anniversaries of the past decade or so. While there’s hope that the next generation of third date rule-followers is approaching the “rule” from a less sexist, mostly self-motivated desire to know and trust a potential sex partner before sleeping with them (according to Match, this preference extends even to those who are not necessarily interested in a monogamous relationship), perhaps the most enduring truth is that there are no rules when it come to dating — at least not easily enforceable ones — beyond practicing consent and trying not to be an absolute jerk if you can help it. In the ever-wise words of Samantha Jones, “A guy can just as easily dump you if you fuck him on the first date as he can if you wait until the tenth.”

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