First date etiquette: going dutch, hitting the sack, and breaking all the rules

There’s no such thing as the right way to date.

By Lena Chen. Originally published on September 14, 2010 on

Prior to my first date with my now-boyfriend, I almost threw up on the train ride to dinner. It wasn’t the first time a guy has made me nervous, but it was definitely the first time a guy made me nauseous. Hoping for some moral support, I called my best friend. He knew that I didn’t take other people’s opinions on my love life very seriously, but given my vulnerable state, he saw his chance and grabbed it to drive home one key point: “Whatever you do, do not—under any circumstance—go home with him.” This wasn’t because he thought I was going out was a serial killer, nor did he even know whether my date was the sleepover type. But what my best friend did know, even as a gay man, is what every straight woman has been told since her induction into dating: if you sleep with a guy on a first date, he won’t respect you in the morning or call you the next day. Once I saw my date, however, all desire to vomit disappeared and was replaced by an overwhelming urge to disrobe him.

Unfortunately for my best friend, that’s pretty much exactly what happened between the dessert course and the arrival of the check. Fortunately for me, the object of my unrestrained lust now shares an apartment and a dog with me. But even two years of cohabitation later, some of my friends still write off the beginning of my relationship as a fluke. In other words, given normal circumstances and normal people (i.e. those who aren’t former sex bloggers), there’s no way a relationship could have grown out of a first date that ended in sex! But if I’m the exception to the rule, just how ironclad are these dating edicts anyway?

I, for one, don’t have a hard and fast rule when it comes to the etiquette of paying, but the sentiment commonly expressed by “dating experts” is that the man gets the check in heterosexual relationships. According to one Zagat survey of New Yorkers, 60% of respondents stated that men should pay for the first date. That’s a definite majority, but asking such a question requires making all kinds of assumptions: that the first date necessarily costs money, that the couple in this instance is a man and a woman, that this holds true no matter who did the asking out, and that the man is financially equipped to be paying for two. Rachel Kramer Bussel, The Village Voice’s “Lusty Lady”, once wrote: “It’s also circumstantial; if I know my date makes three times more than me and he doesn’t even offer to pay, I won’t be amused.” I think it could make sense to divvy up expenses depending on each person’s means rather than gender, but regardless, it takes two to tango. In other words, women shouldn’t simply sit back and wait for their companion to pick up their tab, even if they know or suspect their date is better equipped financially to do so. In my dating days, I usually offered to go dutch or take turns getting the check.

Obviously, there’s no clear consensus on what constitutes a first-date dealbreaker, so I was surprised to learn the lopsided results of a poll asking about the worst first-date offense. The results? An overwhelming 43% are most turned off by their dates “being rude to the staff people [they] encounter (waiters, theater attendants, valet)”. Lesson learned: regardless of who pays, tip big.

There are a litany of dating rules out there, and tons of conflicting advice. But even if all the experts reached a consensus, how much does their opinion matter when it comes to actual dates? Some say that sex on the first date is “running the bases backward.” But if you happen to be extremely attracted to your date and mutually interested in a post-dinner romp-in-the-hay, should you stop yourself lest you doom your relationship? While hitting the sack right off the bat might not be right for everyone, I’m proof that it’s not romantic kryptonite. Along the same lines, when faced with someone you really like, are you really going to nip a relationship in the bud because he didn’t offer to pay the full bill? Etiquette is important when it keeps us mindful of other people’s feelings and encourages considerate behavior, but the rules for dating have become so contrived in this modern age that they often force us to deny our own desires (and the desires of others) in the name of doing things the “right” way.

There’s no such thing as the right way to date.

My friends can safely assume that given the litany of choices I might be presented with throughout my life, I am almost certain to make the least conventional decision possible at any given time. When it comes to first dates—situations in which all kinds of rules govern each party’s behavior—my unorthodox conduct has confounded, turned off, or downright offended my unlucky dining companions. But even though I boast a colorful romantic history, my friends have also acknowledged that the type of person who would make me happiest is someone who wants to be with the real me and not the more socially acceptable version of myself. I broke what some consider to be the cardinal first-date rule, but in doing so, I wound up with a guy who appreciated my willingness to own up to my sexual urges rather than play the coy Good Girl. And though I’ve also gone out with men who have bedded me and burned my number in the aftermath, I can assure you that I’m no worse off for not having been called back.

Lena Chen is a blogger, writer and speaker on sex, gender and feminism. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times and Newsweek.

Want to learn more?

Select one of the related topics to find more.