Dark side of romance: Don't let your budding relationship fade to black.

Dear CityKat,

I've been hooking-up a lot lately. And I'm not even of the generation that defined the term. When I was single in the 80s, hooking-up – as in shagging someone randomly – wasn't really a thing.

But now I'm single again, and hooking-up seems pretty standard.

At first I thought it was great – liberating! I thought: 'You mean, I can have sex with that hot guy, and I don't have to worry about whether he'll get clingy, because it was just a hook-up?'

So I went forth, and I hooked-up, and it took some getting used to, but when I got the hang of it, I couldn't help but think kids these days have it figured out – try before you buy! If only I had that luxury with my ex-husband! I thought: 'Great – I'll only bother with the whole business of dating if I think it's worth it!'

But now, I'm not so sure.

Because I've met a man I've hooked-up with, and would like to see again. And this is a problem because:

1) I don't know what the etiquette is and 2) I don't know if he's going to be interested – I can't help but think of that awful old saying, "who'll buy the cow if they can get the milk for free?”

What should I do?

Help!

Hook-up No-hoper

It is awful but it's true. Too many women fear cow-theory. The fear, the udderly-irrational fear, that their "worth" has an inverse relationship to the sex they're having. The more she shags, the less she is valued. Ridiculous. Men aren't judged this way. There is no reason women should be too.

But it is interesting to contemplate the timing of sex, and whether it has an impact on relationship outcomes.

Is it true that people are less interested in relationships if they shag early? Is it better to delay sexual gratification for the sake of long-term satisfaction? If you hook-up and then date, are you doomed to fail?

There have been a few studies of hook-up culture published along the years. One, undertaken in 2010, found that the longer a couple waited while dating before becoming sexually involved, the better their relationship was after marriage. In fact, couples who abstained until after they were married reported higher satisfaction levels than those who had sex early, and about twice the satisfaction as those who shagged late in the relationship, but before they were wed.

This, in part, contributes to the sexual restraint model. An idea that suggests couples who delay or abstain from sexual intimacy during early stages of their relationship allow communication and other social processes to become the foundation of their attraction to each other – not just the sex.

But really, how likely are people these days to wait until marriage to sleep with each other? Not that likely. Especially for people who've already rung wedding bells once and might not be so keen to do it again.

Are we likely to change our behaviour knowing our chances of success could be improved if we waited? Again, not likely. Especially when you consider the "friends with benefits" phenomenon – for these couples, who start shagging after a friendship has been formed, but before any romantic relationship develops, effective communication skills, and all the other important foundational.

So I turn to a more recent study on hook-up culture that addresses the question of relationship success. Unlike other studies, this one focused on how first-sex timing associated with relationship quality among couples who were unmarried.

10,932 unmarried people who reported their relationship status as serious, steady or engaged had their relationships interrogated. "How soon did you and your partner have sexual intercourse?" How well do you "resolve conflict" or "share time together", and could you please rate "the love you experience". And so forth.

The results were interesting.

Most respondents (49.7 per cent) indicated they had sex after waiting at least a few weeks from the start of their courtship, but the next largest group had sex on the first date, or shortly after (35.5 per cent). A small amount (9 per cent) said they had sex prior to the first date, and even less (6.6 per cent) reported having no sex at all.

(Here's the more interesting part, drawn straight from the text).

“Individuals in the No Sex group were more likely to be younger, have newer relationships, and attended religious services more than any other group. Individuals in the Predating Sex group were more likely to have less education and a longer expected timetable towards marriage than any other group. Individuals in the Predating Sex group were also more likely to be Black or Latino than other sexual timing groups. The No Sex group had the highest proportion of men.”

(Interesting, right!)

Yet what does it mean?

Well, ultimately, after several other layers of research and analysis, bad news for Hook-up No-Hoper. The authors eventually concluded that sex early means a worsening in relationship satisfaction later on. “This effect was strongly moderated by relationship length, with individuals who reported early sexual initiation reporting increasingly lower outcomes in relationships of longer than two years.” In other words, the idea of trying-before-buying may be popular, but it's somewhat misguided.

But why? The researchers suggested it could be to do with the fact that high expectations of great sex forever can complicate relationships where the sex is had too early. Better, it seems, to have no sex, and then be pleasantly surprised.

Of course, the results don't speak for every situation. There's nothing to suggest, Hook-up No-Hoper, that you can't turn your one-night-stand into something more meaningful and satisfying.

As for the etiquette, well, that's where our dear readers come in.

Have you ever hooked-up with someone you've developed a relationship with? How did you do it, and how successful was the love affair? And for everyone else, what stage in a relationship is the best one for sex – pre-dating, post-dating or only after marriage?