The Boston Phoenix
November 25 - December 2, 1999

[Out There]

The waiting

It's not only the hardest part, it's also the most confusing

by Kris Frieswick

At some point in your life, you reach a day when things seem to matter a lot more than they used to. Maybe it's the day you graduate from school, or the day you land your first well-paying job; for my friends and me, it was when we hit 30. Suddenly, every choice you make -- the type of bagels you eat, the thread count of your sheets, the company you keep, the people with whom you sleep -- is drenched with significance. It's as if a big Dali-esque clock appears in your mind's eye to show you that from that moment forward, you're pretty much playing for keeps.

When it happens, the variety of issues that, nearly overnight, become cause for serious deliberation is endlessly surprising. Yet none has proved as surprising to me as the topic my girlfriends and I sat pondering the other day over glasses of wine: How long should you date someone before you sleep with him?

Just a few short years ago, the very question would have seemed parochial and puritanical, the antithesis of all we hoped to achieve as empowered women of the '90s, women for whom a "waiting period" was a ridiculous throwback to a time when sex between unmarried people created "experienced" men but "compromised" women. But, truth be told, our collective half-century of unsuccessful relationship history had left us wondering whether discarding this antiquated social custom had anything to do with it. (Surely it had nothing to do with poor choices.)

The waiting period, you see, is akin to a calling card. And the length of the waiting period determines what that calling card says. Too quick into the sack and the card may as well read, "Number 68, please come to the counter when called." But wait too long, and your potential mate thinks your card says, "Thank you for your interest. We will keep your application on file." It's a delicate balancing act we didn't even know we had to perform until that damn clock appeared.

So there we were, sharing a bottle of wine one day, talking about "preserving the mystery" and "not giving it up too fast." We sounded like a bunch of 1950s teenybopper virgins. What, we asked with newfound interest, is the fulcrum point between slutty and prudish? Surely, between the four of us, we could compare our vast life experiences and arrive at the Golden Mean of Putting Out.

Judy, ever the comic, was the first to offer a solution. "Why don't we all just wait till we're married?" After we stopped laughing, it occurred to us that abstinence might just be the perfect solution. You simply declare yourself forbidden fruit. No more stressing about "waiting periods," or what impression you're giving to your suitors. And there's no fear that your object of desire will lose interest; as we all know from the history books, humans just love forbidden fruit. We all agreed that we simply adored the concept of abstinence -- except for the part where you can't have sex.

Besides, according to my 96-year-old grandmother, who lived through the whole abstinence thing at its zenith, waiting until marriage wasn't any cure-all. "You know," she told me one day, "it's good that people sleep together before marriage. Back when I was young, people got married just so they could have sex with each other. That made for a lot of bad marriages." Once I got over the initial nausea accompanying the involuntary visualization of my grandmother actually having sex, the truth of her observation hit me.

So, with abstinence out of the running (at least for us), we turned our attention to an analysis of dating timelines. What would be the optimum number of dates for a "window of inaction"? Most of the women in attendance agreed that four to six dates is acceptably demure. Yet, in today's busy society, the idea of waiting for six dates approaches the ludicrous. Take, for instance, my friend Paula, a high-powered tech executive. She met a guy, another high-powered tech executive, at a party in August. They went on their first date in mid September, and their second in late October. It was only after they found themselves planning the third date for two months later, in December, that they realized that not only were they not going to have sex, they weren't even going to have dinner.

The other problem with the date-based waiting period is defining the word "date." Does the first, usually uncomfortable "informational" date count toward the total? Or do you start counting only when you realize that you actually want to sleep with the person? Is a group date still considered a date? Clearly, a date-based scale would not work.

That brought us to the absolute-time-scale concept. We toyed with a waiting period of one to two months, but this raised another set of quantitative challenges. Sarah's newest heartthrob lived on the other side of the country. They'd seen each other once in two months. Did all two months count, or was she allowed to count only "active dating time?" And what if, during the "active dating period," the person you're dating goes off the market (say, on an extended foreign vacation, or into jail)? Does that time still count toward the final waiting period? Do you start counting when you first meet someone, or do you start counting when you go out on your first date?

Perhaps we were looking at the question from the wrong perspective. Instead, we asked ourselves, "How long is too long to wait?" The "sexperts" have weighed in on this subject, but not very helpfully. Dr. Ruth Westheimer pronounced in one of her radio programs that if two people haven't slept together by the sixth date, they probably never will. According to a reliable male source (my boyfriend), however, most men will bail out well before then as a pre-emptive strike to protect their self-esteem from a potential thumping on the crucial sixth date.

Several hours later, our analytical skills and the bottles of wine were drained. We acknowledged that an absolute measure was impossible. Instead, after much consideration, we used our collective experiences to devise the following waiting-period theorem: the length of time you wait to have intimate relations with a new partner is inversely proportional to the amount of time that has elapsed since the last time you had sex. We also finally agreed that the secret to success in a relationship probably doesn't have much to do with putting off putting out. Like most things in life, it comes down to luck and timing. Relationships just happen, sort of like car accidents. And last time I checked, there's no waiting period for car accidents.

Kris Frieswick is a magazine writer living in Newton. She can be reached at

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