Stop Calling It “Casual Sex”

“Casual sex” is bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, I say that as a dedicated fan and passionate advocate of casual sex. I have no issue with people having as much or as little consensual sex as they would like, with whomever they would like, in whatever context they would like. It’s the term “casual sex” that I take issue with: it’s a flimsy, provocative misnomer used to describe everything from regrettable hand-jobs in frat houses to torrid flings between lifelong friends. At some point “casual sex” became a meaningless catchall for sex that takes place outside of a committed, monogamous relationship, which in my scientific estimate is most of the sex had around the world.

In reality, casual sex is used to describe many experiences: drunk sex, sex that isn’t planned, sex with strangers, sex with friends who we do not want romantically. Often it refers to sex that we don’t want to call what it really is because the words feel sticky and callous: sexual encounters like rebounds, breakup sex or one-night stands when we have an insecure itch we need scratched. Putting aside logistics and labels, casual sex is sex that isn’t supposed to matter. It’s not meant to change us. It’s whatever. It’s casual.

I had a lot of casual sex in my late teens and early twenties. By a lot, I mean more than zero times, which is what a nice little brunette from Connecticut is supposed to have.

I lost my virginity my freshman year of college to a man who played obscure instruments and wore vintage military jackets. He encouraged me to save myself for someone who loved me, a refrain I also heard from my abstinence teacher in high school. This musician and I were not in love, but after a few weeks of me assuring him that I would not imprint on him like a duckling if he put his penis inside of me, he finally agreed. Losing my virginity did not feel like a loss at all—it was clearly a gain, a new chapter in my lifelong relationship with my sexuality. The musician continued seeing other nice little brunettes, and I became an amateur sociologist of college hookup culture.

Over the next four years I collected one-night-stands and delicate non-relationships with men with generic names like Matt and John and David. (Names have been swapped with other generic names for their protection.) There were also some women with less generic names, though I didn’t come out as bisexual until well after graduating from college. I enjoyed myself immensely and also hated men a great deal. The intricate mating dance at Wesleyan baffled me. If we had fantastic sex together on Saturday, why would we not want to have fantastic sex again at a later date? If you told me all about your ambition to become the editor-in-chief of The New York Times by age forty on the walk back to your dorm, why would you not say hello to me at brunch? If you gave me your number at the end of the night and I texted you to say hi, why would you not answer and instead pretend we never met as if I wouldn’t bump into you at the library every week for the next three years?

I honestly didn’t get it. I wasn’t down for the unwinnable quest to be the least interested and the least affected. As I saw it, that also meant less pleasure and less dignity for everyone involved. I lived with the conviction that what I was asking for wasn’t insane or demanding, as well as the deep-seated fear that I was a desperate freak incapable of being chill. Was I the problem, or was this whole unspoken ritual of casual sex the problem? Was I violating a tacit social contract to be intimate and then pretend it never happened? Or was this all…. really stupid and self-defeating?

I wasn’t looking for a relationship, just to clarify. I wasn’t against the notion of a boyfriend or a girlfriend if one were to present itself, and I did fall in love with a tender and nerdy weirdo who left his Ancient Greek vocabulary flash cards all over my apartment. But for most of my time at Wesleyan, I was just looking for a satisfying adventure. I liked casual sex, at least what I thought it should be. I wanted to have one-night-stands where neither party had amnesia the next day. I wanted to hook up with a friend a few times and then have an adult discussion about what we wanted or didn’t want. I wanted to, y’know, talk a little, even if only in the service of more sex.

It would take me years to understand why such a simple concept was a challenge for two thousand arrogant nincompoops at a college rated the horniest school in the US. We had no idea how to talk to our sexual partners. No one ever taught us how.

There is nothing wrong with sex that is uncommitted, anonymous, surprising or meaningless. Casual sex is not bad or degrading or hurtful or doomed or dangerous or risky or a threat to civilization and the world order. The problem is not the act. The problem is how we treat each other. It’s the ignoring and the evading and the using and the taking. We’re not doing this right.

And we know we’re not, we know it during every conversation with friends about opaque text messages and uncomfortable sexual encounters. We know we have a problem when we talk about the Me Too movement and sexual harassment and wonder about the nights that were nowhere near rape but left us feeling used and diminished. We want to have sex without commitment, and we fear we’re sacrificing something vital in exchange for that freedom.

One reason we treat each other like shit is the term “casual sex” and all the sticky, unspoken baggage it carries. Our concept of “casual sex” has given us permission to be casual with each other’s humanity.

I see now as an adult that we use the phrases “casual sex” and “hooking up” as shields against vulnerability, trust and compassion. They create a false binary between casual sex and serious sex, turning emotional nuance into a shameful trap and not a normal side effect of two humans interacting. “Casual” lets us stop caring about each other and ourselves, positioning sex as about the individual and not the couple because when it’s over, we are alone again. It is supposed to be an impersonal act of taking pleasure rather than creating it together. It’s physical, unemotional. Serious sex within a relationship means that you care. Casual sex, then, is careless. And if you care, you lose.

I wish I’d known sooner that the careless is the enemy of the good. Sex doesn’t need love, or permanence, or even much talking, in order to be healthy and satisfying. But sex without care is toxic. Sex without care leads to violated boundaries, injured bodies and unequally distributed pleasure. At best, sex without care is awkward and unsatisfying. At worst, sex without care is humiliating, traumatizing and painful.

Sex without care is bad sex, or regrettable sex, or sex with weird social consequences afterward. It’s wanting to sink into the floor when the girl you kissed last weekend gets in line behind you to order coffee at the student center and doesn’t acknowledge your presence even though she clearly saw you standing there.

Casual sex that includes trust, communication and respect is possible. I know because I’ve had it before. There was the arrangement I had for most of 2016 with a lovely, kinky Twitter comedian who wanted to know about my desires and my work drama while sharing my disinterest in dating each other. There was my weekend fling in Boston with an old friend who fucked me and cooked me pizza from scratch for three days. There was the simple and pure one-night-stand I had with a frat guy at age 19; his leg was broken and we stopped having sex when his cast started digging into his skin, at which point we watched the movie Up together instead.

Healthy casual sex isn’t some myth tossed around by naïve feminists and kinky sex educators (trust me, naïve feminists and kinky sex educators are on the cutting edge of creating a world that isn’t trash). But a culture of healthy casual sex requires conscious effort. It’s not all that casual.

If “casual” is part of a sexual culture that undignifies us, let’s nix it from our vocabulary and explore what these encounters really are. By talking about sex differently, we can make room for the intimacy that we crave even though it scares the shit out of us. Being a generous, respectful sexual partner is not something we are, it’s something we learn and practice throughout our lives. It asks us to be brave, direct and generous. It asks us to see our sexual partners as fuck buddies and not fuck puppets. In order to be a good sexual partner to anyone, no matter what the context or commitment, you have to care.

Hey there! My name is Ella and I’m a sex and culture critic. If you enjoyed this essay, you’ll be right at home in my Patreon community!

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

21 thoughts on “Stop Calling It “Casual Sex”

  1. I was a virgin when I got married at 28. I know, CRAZY huh? My parents raised me that way. So, I had zero sexual experience like a lot of young people these days. Do I wish I was not a virgin? No. That is who I was. You can’t change the past. Do I wish that maybe I had more sexual experience before getting married? At the time, no. Looking back now, yes. I lost the attraction to my husband of 18 years. The sex started out great. It was brand new to me and I have loving every minute of it. But after about 5 years, I started losing interest. I am not sure if that is because he was only one man and maybe subconsciously I was wondering what it would be like to actually have other experiences. I never consciously admitted that to myself. I honestly had no idea.
    Well, in walked the many of my dreams and our sexual chemistry was through the roof. I was on the rocks with my husband by that time and this guy sealed the fate of my marriage. The sex was other worldly and I had NEVER experienced that with my husband. I saw that we were perfectly in synch sexually and that every sexual encounter topped the last. It kept getting BETTER every time and in time. Yes, with the SAME sex partner!! So, I cannot tell you I would love casual sex. I know nothing about it. But what I do know is about sex with your sexually compatible match. And in my opinion, nothing could ever be better. Our sex is like a symphony orchestra. It has it all. Fucking, Making love, role play. All wrapped up into one. And different on any given day. And with EMOTIONS, TRUST and COMMITMENT. Honestly, it is all I will ever want and need. No strange guy or one night stand will ever come close! And more than that, I have no interest!

  2. I have to say that, whatever else I may agree or disagree with you about, I’d say that the implications of the term “casual sex” aren’t remotely problematic; and the far more concerning term, intellectually, emotionally, and existentially, is the misnomer “Safe Sex”.

  3. “Sex without care is bad sex, or regrettable sex, or sex with weird social consequences afterward.” As a bisexual man, there is a world of difference between straight and gay sexuality. I can understand the need for women to bring meaning to the sexual (casual) relationship but for sexually active gay men of my era, sex represents the power of freedom from the puritan straight world. And some find physical-spiritual union with other men. Even in the anonymous setting.

    1. @BIJUEGO, first-off, I by no means mean any offense with this comment – sexuality can be a sensitive topic, and an ego is a fragile thing when criticisms are made – so I’ll try to be as gentle and constructive as possible, and I hope you don’t take offense to this…. It appears to me that you may have missed the point of the article. as a female, the author is not making an argument to bring “meaning” to the casual sexual relationship; she is simply stating that the intrinsic selfish nature of humanity is all-too-common in sexual relationships (straight, bi, or gay), and sexual relationships of ANY nature would benefit if the parties involved showed mutual respect and care for the other(s). I’d argue that the fundamental argument of this article doesn’t even have to be focused on sexuality at all; genuine compassion, humble respect (even for differences of opinions), and patient caring are the building blocks for a better world.
      Fuck as many guys as you desire, let your freak-flag fly, just be genuinely mindful of your partners’ physical & emotional needs, and be as communicative as necessary so that you meet those needs appropriately.

  4. Beautiful essay, thank you. I left this comment on Facebook:

    I think the word she’s looking for is that all acts should be ‘mindful’ whether they are are short-lived or life-long. A human in full conscious presence does everything mindfully, with gratitude and care, with compassion, ahimsa (non-violence) … it would be part of the agreements — ‘hey, we’re fucking now, and I will say hi to you at the coffee shop if I see you, because I acknowledge your humanity, there is no shame here’ …

    We just haven’t developed a culture of talking about it (and ‘casual’ sex has probably been taking place forevah …) We live in a world where liberation is still building a vocabulary.

  5. I really loved your piece and I just sent it around to everyone (literally *everyone!*)

    Thank you so much for writing this, I wish there was such wonderful, gorgeous feminists writing beautiful content like this when I was new to one-night stands like 10 years ago. I relate so much to your experiences.
    I remember even trying to have very deliberate conversations with people about this the morning after. Trying give out my number while using very simple language like “so I enjoyed this and you seemed to have enjoyed this. Maybe we can do it again. Just like this, no strings attached.”
    Surprisingly, it didn’t work. 😁😂

    Anyway, it’s awesome that you are creating this content now!

    I had a one-night stand recently that really inspired me to try to do things differently (yet again). I’m thinking maybe if we share enough alternative perspectives, maybe we can write our own stories into the social scripts that people default to…
    So I wrote a blog post that’s a bit of a love letter to one-night stands. If you wanna check it out, it’s here:

    Thank you again for having wonderfully written something that expresses so nicely my experiences and opinions on this subject 👏🙏😘💕💗

  6. Our name is John and Joe (but actually they are Larry and Phil, but we had to protect our identities). While I don’t disagree with a single word in any of this, I do have a different angle which is a different opinion from the one expressed here, I think, though these are only…i emphasize only…prelimary thoughts and are subject to change and my opinions don’t reflect static reasoning vis a vis rational or emotional modes of thought. I have had plenty of sex as a man (to use gender normative language which I apologize for, though brevity is important to me and has always been ever since I was a young child). The point I was hoping to make was that “casual sex” need not exclude nor include anything which is sexual. Much of the problem with casual sex is the sex. IF you remove the sex from the question you are still creating trauma. I feel its perhaps a small oversight but totally understandable given where you are coming from, which is different from my opinion’s location (and others’), but I do feel that its not only the penetrative sex which can cause trauma but entire ranges of non penetrative non sexual behavior which leave lasting sexual scars (petting, looking, talking on the phone, texting). I know this is coming out of left field perhaps but I just wanted to make my opinions in some way clear to everyone and ensuring we include all perspectives.
    -John and Joe.

  7. I have generally found women are proponents of “casual” sex…when they want it. As a recently divorced man of 48, almost every profile I read say “not looking for FWBs, hookups, or one nighters”. I was married for 17 years and I most certainly don’t want to be in a relationship right now. I’ve been told I’m a handsome man, but I am getting nowhere with trying to have casual sex with 40+ year old women. It’s almost as if I missed the window and they’re all casual sexed out or something 🙂

  8. While I agree with the gist of the article, I think there’s another side to it. Sure, there’s a definite shitty attitude towards sex for a lot of people, the word “casual” is part of that attitude, and I don’t want to downplay that in any way. But I think there’s also the issue that in the case of genuine fuck buddies, one of the two people eventually ends up wanting more, i.e. a relationship. And people are terrified of this, scared to hurt the other’s feelings, scared to have “led them on”, scared to be the ones hurt, etc. Scared to be vulnerable. But without vulnerability, sex is boring anyway. I think this tendency to fear it being “serious” is partly socially informed but also a partly organic phenomenon we’d be better off questioning.

  9. So let’s leave behind the misnomer “casual sex” then. I hereby nominate the term “relaxed sex” in its stead. Or if we want to get fancy, ‘res ipsa’ sex (res ipsa = the thing speaks for itself). Any other nominees?

    1. And then in 5 years when some liberal wants to take offense with “relaxed sex”, what then?

  10. Yeah, and why would you want to shield yourself against trust and compassion, against connection, essentially? Because a lot of people in our society are emotionally damaged. Look at how little some babies are held, it all starts there.

    Ultimately, those treating others as disposable are the ones loosing out the most. Those who have sex with them may experience their toxicity once or a few times, but the one at the centre of it experiences it all the time, actively making the sex they engage in meaningless. Casual need not equal shallow

  11. I’ve followed your work for 3 years, and I have had a lot of these same thoughts about “casual” sex and the shame culture around sex that so many Americans practice, both knowingly and unknowingly. I don’t know if you need any input from a 40-something lifelong polyamorist like me for your project, but I’d be happy to share insights with you if you ever do. ❤

    1. Yes yes yes yes. I didn’t understand what a gift casual sex could be until my late 20’s, and I didn’t understand why other people couldn’t want the same things as me. I want connection, conversation, and civility afterwards without being labeled as “leading” the other person on when I don’t want to date them. I love all of this, thank you.

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