(Not so) hot take: Dating is hard. Between trying to feel confident, look your best, and keep your cool while talking to a complete stranger, the pressure builds. And while we often talk about things like conversation starters and the difference between love and lust, I find that the most common experiences are actually the ones we discuss the least, usually for fear that they are too taboo. This can leave us feeling alone, and as if the situations we find ourselves in signify failure when, in reality, these things happen to pretty much everyone.
Recent conversations with my friends prove this out. After opening up to each other about our most embarrassing sex– and dating-related moments, we found that these six rarely spoken about experiences are pretty universal.
1. Pre-Sex Preparations
I’m not sure why I strive for absolute perfection with my body when sleeping with someone for the first time. I almost always end up womenscaping — no, womengineering —before I suspect I may be getting intimate with someone. Rayna*, 23, mentions that she obsessively goes to the bathroom to wipe before any sort of sexual activity to combat what she fears might be odor from the day. And if she doesn’t have feminine wipes? “I take some toilet paper, run it under hot water, and dab it until I feel pristine,” she says.
We’ve all seen characters in film and on TV run to the bathroom to “freshen up” before things get hot and heavy, but we rarely see what they’re actually doing. I want to live in a world where women on screen quickly dry-shave their armpits with their date’s razor (been there), whip out the crumbled Vagisil wipe from the deep depths of their bag (I have multiple), and brush their teeth with their finger (it still counts!), all within the time it takes for their date to take their shoes off. Pro tip: There’s no shame in taking a travel size bag with a razor, toothbrush, dry shampoo, and wet wipes with you wherever you go — you don’t know the last time they replaced their razor.
2. Toilet Paper Crises
Speaking of bathrooms, almost every woman who has dated men and I spoke to mentioned finding themselves in a scenario where they were stuck in their date’s bathroom with absolutely no toilet paper in sight. I’ve heard about a variety of ways women have handled this. Between using the cardboard as a sort of impromptu piece of (very uncomfortable) toilet paper, resorting to using the closest towel in sight and stuffing it in your purse, and skipping wiping entirely, there’s no great way out of this unfortunate situation. Personal packs of toilet paper are an easy fix, as is taking a stand and putting an end to dating men who can’t spare five minutes to run to the drugstore to buy a new roll of TP. Repeat after me, ladies: If he can’t spare for a square, you gotta get out of there.
3. Pre-Screening Restaurant Menus
How many times have you pretended to look through a menu on a date even though you already knew exactly what you were going to order? Katie*, 23, almost always asks her date where they’re going for dinner, not so she can leave enough time to get there, but so she can decide what she’s going to choose ahead of time. “I want to make sure I can get something not doused in garlic so I’m not thinking about my breath the whole night,” she says. “I’m also lactose intolerant, so I’d rather call the restaurant to find out what I can eat than make a whole scene while we’re at the table.”
As someone who is gluten-free thanks to digestive issues, I can attest to the discomfort of discussing food-related grievances on a date. Nothing kills the mood quite like an upset stomach, or worse, having to explain what certain foods will do to your body. It’s not sexy, and it’s nobody’s business but your own. I either suggest a place I already know can accommodate my needs or let my date know, via text, what they are. That way, we can enjoy each other’s company and our (allergen-free) wine in worry-free peace.
4. Period Complications
Having your period while on a date is like knowing it’s about to rain and having no umbrella. “No matter how hard you try to be in the moment, it looms over your head,” says Kia*, 25. You could tell your date, but there’s a fine line between being communicative and oversharing, and bringing up your period too early can make it seem like you assume your date is expecting sex.
“One time a girl walked me home after a date, and while we were on my doorstep, I told her that she couldn’t come in because I was on my period,” says Kia. “She got really offended and said she wasn’t ready to take it there yet. I felt like such an idiot.”
In an article for Jezebel, Susan Kim, co-author of “Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation,” says, “[T]he more you talk about menstruation in a straightforward and unembarrassed way, the less stressful it gets for you and, consequently, for anybody listening.” She goes on to assert that many men actually aren’t as squeamish about the topic as we have been lead to believe. So maybe next time, bring up your period entirely separate from sex. Mention your cramps, unapologetically take a tampon from your bag before you walk to the bathroom, and maybe one date at a time, we can destigmatize dating while menstruating.
5. Canceling For Self-Care
Everyone cancels dates, and a lot of times it’s because we get cold feet or would rather hang out with our friends. Sometimes, however, something more serious is at play. Liz*, 27, who suffers from both anxiety and depression, has cancelled a few dates because she was feeling low, and the thought of going to a bar made her feel sick to her stomach. In these cases, she claimed she had the flu or a family emergency, or just ghosted all together. When I ask her why, she explains that she didn’t feel comfortable being that vulnerable with a stranger. “I don’t owe it to anyone to justify my behavior when it’s the result of my own mental illness,” she says. “Maybe when I’m in a serious relationship, I can have a more open and honest conversation with my partner about it.”
Given that dating with depression or another mood disorder is relatively common, people may be more understanding than we give them credit for. Many are even waging their own battles. You should never feel guilty for needing to practice self-care, nor should you date someone who you suspect would unfairly make you feel bad about it. That said, it’s up to you to give your date whatever excuse you feel comfortable with in whatever way works best for you. In some cases, it may be useful to take a break from dating entirely and focus on getting yourself back into a place where it is an enjoyable, even exciting prospect. Dating will always be there — never feel ashamed of putting yourself first.
6. Having Unenjoyable Sex
It takes time and communication to learn someone’s likes and needs, thus making sleeping with someone new (and it being good!) a challenge. I, for one, have been in several relationships where it’s taken months, even years, to actually enjoy the nature of our sexual relationship. I recall going out with someone a few times during college and quite liking him, but when we had sex, it was terrible. Instead of saying something, I left immediately afterward and essentially stopped texting him back. In retrospect, this may not have been the best way to deal. But although we’ve all had things not go the way we would like physically, most of us have no idea how to handle this very real, very awkward part of dating.
According to sex and relationship therapist Courtney Geter, LMFT, lack of communication about expectations is a major reason for these unsatisfying experiences. Often it’s a matter of wanting an emotional connection and only receiving a surface-level sexual encounter, and vice versa.
She recommends speaking up about exactly what you’re looking for during and after the experience, with the caveat that even if you do communicate effectively and honestly, your partner might not hear you.
Overall, dating is a highly personal experience, but we don’t have to feel alone while navigating it. I’m all for a world where I can excuse myself to shave my armpits at my date’s house, whip out my tampon at a bar, and cancel dinner plans because I’m not up for them. And if that seems too far beyond the horizon, please people, just replace your toilet paper.
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.