“There’s a stranger in my bed. There’s a pounding in my head.” I used Katy Perry’s lyrics about the hook-up culture to introduce my recent story published in The Weekend Australian – “And so to bed ” – on the whole complicated business of negotiating sex with someone new .

What’s different about today’s sexual world is that there are men and women in every age group trying to work out the right time for sexual intimacy. Now we have growing pools of singles from twenty-somethings through to the eighties using online dating to finding new partners. That means even white-haired folk can find themselves contemplating the prospect of a stranger in their beds.

What complicates matters is there are many more men than women happy to leap into bed early, long before they know whether there’s any prospect of a real relationship. Women are far more likely to only be willing to go to bed when they think it will be the start of something wonderful. They are often bitterly disappointed if it turns out that all he wanted was sex. One of my most difficult tasks as an online dating coach is consoling shattered women whose new lover has just disappeared.

My story includes fascinating Nielsen research tracking these differences:

  • Men’s preference for early activity is very clear, with nearly four times as many men as women having sex on the first date (18 per cent compared to 5). Huh? A perplexing gap, you may suggest because surely the figures should match up, assuming these heterosexual singles are having sex with each other. Well, it is quite possible that men are overestimating their skill at persuading women to leap into the cot and women reluctant to admit to their own lusty appetites. But it is also likely that some rapacious women are enjoying early sex with more than their fair share of suitors.
  • The three date rule is widespread. Sex on the third date is a popular pattern for both men and women although the fairer sex tends to delay intimacy still further, choosing 5-10 dates as their normal foreplay.
  • Everyone tends to slow down a bit as they grow older with the 5-10 date rule becoming the norm for the over 60s and fewer males in this group having first nighters (only 6 per cent) than was true when they were young and frisky (18 per cent).
  • Even in the hook-up generation of 18-25 year-olds, four times as many men as women say they generally have sex on the first night (26% to 7%).

These broad patterns give only a glimpse of the complex story underlying the tricky business of negotiating first sex with someone new. The mixed expectations and assumptions, misread signals, painful endings. But also unexpected  joy and sometimes the start of something wonderful.