“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.
Related Reading: Bad Sex, or the Sex We Don’t Want But Have Anyway