Casual...Cool? Making Choices About Casual Sex
Ah, the mysterious and elusive beastie called casual sex. It goes by so many names. You might "hook up sometimes, and it's no big deal." Maybe someone's your booty call, bonk-buddy, or f-word-friend. Maybe you're just knockin' boots; it's no strings attached. Maybe you go out expressly looking to just get laid. Maybe you're "just messing around." Perhaps someone you know "hit it and quit it" with someone they met at a party in a one-night stand.
Casual sex has been defined in many different ways, and called many different things. But whatever you call it, and however you define it, when we're talking about casual sex here, what we'll mean is: consensual partnered sex (of any kind, not just intercourse) people take part in without any mutually agreed, intended or implied commitment or relationship beyond that sexual encounter.
Many people have partnered sex within some kind of ongoing relationship. In such instances, sex is only part of the relationship; some kind of greater commitment or intent is involved. This can entail boyfriends or girlfriends, engagement, living together as a couple or triad, marriage, or sex within a friendship. Casual sex, on the other hand, is more "sex-for-sex's-sake." It's meant to be a singular sexual experience -- not part of a larger, ongoing, or developing relationship. It's more t-shirt than tuxedo.
Casual sex, in and of itself, isn't necessarily more complicated than sex within ongoing relationships, though it can seem that way. As you probably already know, sex is often complicated, period. Some contexts for sex are more universally approved, even celebrated, than others. Casual sex, however, has an almost universally thorny cultural history.
The way a lot of people talk about casual sex, it's like it's in a cagematch with sex within relationships; a mortal enemy of love and commitment. People who engage in it have often been put down, punished or shamed. At the same time, casual sex is sometimes presented as proof of sexual liberation or empowerment. When someone feels like it's not a good fit for them, they might feel it should be, or like they're sexually repressed or prudish because it isn't.
For younger people, whose early sexual experiences are often more casual than committed, and sexual relationships are often so brief that it's tough to figure if we're even talking about casual sex or relationship sex sometimes, all of these attitudes and messages can be doubly confusing. And people's actual experiences with casual sex have been so much more varied than the messages we hear about it, that's another giant wad of confusion to toss on the pile. All of that is usually why it can feel so confusing and complicated. That is most of what can make casual sex so difficult to navigate, or even figure out if it's something you want and can handle.
So, what we're going to do for you here is this: we're going to lay out what casual sex often does and doesn't involve. We'll talk about what's different with it than with sex in ongoing relationships; discuss ways you can louse the whole thing up and offer up some help to make these choices, or engage in casual sex, without disaster. We're also laying down some cultural history and current context to help you get a sense of the big picture. Our aim is to give you information, advice and some food for thought to help you make your own best choices with this, whatever those are.
Is it for you?
- Do you want to engage in sex where it may be the only interaction or relationship you have with this person or people?
- Do you feel good about that? Does it feel right in both your head and your heart (as well as your loins)?
- Overall, do you feel comfortable pursuing and taking part in casual sex?
- Do you feel good about all of the above with the particular person and the unique situation you're considering it with?
- Is/are the other person or people clearly communicating that this is what they also want and feel good about?
Those are the basic questions we'll generally want to ask ourselves when making these choices. There aren't any right or wrong answers to them, just your answers, which will likely vary a lot based on who you are, what you want and feel comfortable with, and the specific situation you're thinking about. But without more information -- about casual sex in general, and the specific situation -- they're not likely to be questions with clear answers, or may just leave you with more questions instead of clear answers.
The interpersonal context in which we have sex -- in this case, whether we're engaging in it within an ongoing relationship or not -- really only determines so much about what happens and how it goes. With sex in or out of relationships, people do and don't communicate clearly, do and don't get off, do and don't stick around after sex, do or don't treat each other with kindness and respect, have sex they find satisfying and sex they don't, do and don't transmit disease, and are or are not safe in various ways. How a sexual experience goes has a lot more to do with what people do (and don't do) than in what social context they do it.
Does any of this sound familiar?
- The people involved in casual sex don't care about each other in any way.
- One person must be taking advantage of, or using, the other.
- Emotional intimacy can't and won't happen in casual sex: it's sex without feelings.
- Respect isn't part of casual sex; it's a given no one'll be respected because anyone who engages in casual sex doesn't respect themselves or others.
- You have no responsibility to communicate with a partner during casual sex.
- Engaging in casual sex must = low self-esteem.
- People who want or enjoy casual sex must be sluts.
- Casual sex is morally, ethically or emotionally inferior to sex within a committed relationship or marriage.
- Casual sex presents way bigger dangers than sex in other contexts, like of rape or sexually transmitted disease.
Those are some common statements you may have heard about casual sex. But they're based mostly in stereotypes, bias, fear or ignorance about casual sex, or sexuality in general, especially when "unfettered" from the context of certain kinds of relationships. They're not a good representation of people's diverse experiences, realities or motivations. By all means, those statements will be true about some people's experiences with casual sex. The thing is, they'll also be true about some people's experiences with sex within ongoing relationships, and they won't be true about plenty of people's experiences, both casual and not.
What's casual sex like in reality, rather than stereotype?
• People choosing casual sex generally aren't interested in pursuing or maintaining a romantic or committed relationship, even a friendship, with each other; they're primarily interested in only a sexual encounter at the time. Casual sex that's something people feel good about requires that people are comfortable with and prepared for no relationship, or even any other interaction, occurring after casual sex, be that a romantic relationship or a ride home.That doesn't mean that people don't, won't, or can't care about each other as people before, during, or after sex together, just like it doesn't mean that when we talk about something deep or loaded with someone we don't intend to see again. Sometimes relationships (be they romances, families or friendships) do start with casual sex, even though that wasn't anyone or everyone's initial interest or aim.
• People generally seek out or green light casual sex because they're interested in mutually exploring or sharing pleasure with someone in a limited way, rather than with the intent of taking advantage of anyone. Some people do use casual sex as a way to take advantage of other people, or without any real care for the other person's pleasure or comfort. Some people, though, do that within ongoing relationships, too.
• Deeper intimacy, the kind that takes time to build, won't happen in a singular casual sex encounter with someone new to us. However, sex is intimate for most people, and sex in any context can and often does involve other shared intimacies, like talking about what someone wants, setting boundaries, sharing sexual histories, or letting someone into the place you live. Sometimes people feel bolder or safer sharing things with semi-strangers than they do with people familiar to them, so they may experience another kind of intimacy that's not only physical with a casual partner. Sometimes people have casual sex with someone, like an ex, they once were in an ongoing relationship with, where they built deeper intimacy they're bringing to the sex they're having now. What level or kind of intimacy people experience with casual sex varies, and is more limited by the brief time window it usually occurs in than the fact that they're not in or intending an ongoing relationship.
• No matter the context, respect is essential for people to engage in sex in ways that are emotionally healthy. Some people seek out or engage in casual sex with the idea that it's okay to be disrespectful and they don't treat their partners with respect. But this is something we know also happens in all kinds of relationships or interactions: alas, nobody can avoid jerks just by only having sex in ongoing or committed relationships. (If only!) By that token, when people are jerks in casual sex, it is generally easier to then get away and stay away from them than when we have to extract ourselves from an ongoing relationship.
• Casual sex can require more immediate, clear communication than sex in a relationship, because we don't usually have history with the other person. Clear, active consent -- not body language or grunts -- from everyone involved in a casual encounter is vital. In casual sex, people do often communicate what they want sexually pretty openly: some people even feel more free to in casual contexts. But unlike sex within a relationship that's already been developing, casual sex requires a crash-course in communication. We have to learn big things with and about the other person fast. It's easier to hide some feelings or motives in casual sex, so sometimes people do have things they intentionally don't communicate. Too, some people don't feel comfortable engaging in sex outside ongoing relationships. If they choose to engage in casual sex anyway, such folks are often passive or noncommunicative, and trying to tease out clear communication from them can be difficult. Extra efforts are often needed to make sure the other person or people involved feel safe and sound, because we don't start off in a relationship where we've been building trust or know any of each other's more subtle cues.
• Self-esteem isn't something determined or demonstrated just by whether or not someone has or wants casual sex. However, people who choose to pursue and engage in casual sex with the idea that casual sex = people of little to no worth may themselves have low self-esteem or seek out partners who do.
• Some people think people who engage in casual sex are sluts: whatever that word means to them, and it means any number of things to any number of people. A slut to a given person, might be someone who has casual sex, or who they think has more sex or sexual partners than they personally approve of, or even just someone with a desire for sex outside of making babies (and even if they, themselves, have that desire separate from reproduction, as nearly everyone does). It may even just mean "person I do not like and feel threatened by, who I call slut because I know that word can hurt them." But that word, in this and most other contexts, is generally meant as a slur or a social control: as a word weapon. It's a way of thinking about people that often tells us things about the person using it that way, but tells us nothing about the person or people it is being hurled at. Whether or not someone wants or engages in casual sex doesn't tell us anything about that person, nor their value: that only tells us that they want or engage in casual sex.
• Peoples ethics, morals and values are both diverse and subjective, even when shared by a larger group, and no set of any of those things is universally higher or lower than the other. Some people do go about casual sex in ways that are widely considered unethical or immoral. Yet, again, the same is true about some people and sex within ongoing relationships.
• Casual sex can be more risky in some ways than sex might be within an ongoing relationship. When we don't know someone well or at all, personal safety is often a bigger question mark. STI risks are always higher with new partners, casual or not. It's harder to catch someone in a lie or deception. Emotional care is not as sure a thing as it can be when we're already involved with someone in other ways and know they will care for us if we need care. Sexual and other kinds of abuse, however, occur just as commonly with people in some kind of relationship as people who aren't, and STI rates in people the age of our readers are higher than everyone else's whether they have sex only in relationships or not. We'll often have to work harder to protect ourselves and our sexual health in casual sex than we do in ongoing relationship, especially in mutually monogamous ongoing relationships. That might mean taking more precautions when we're alone with someone, using barriers for sexual activities we might not with a longtime or ongoing partner, dual contraception, getting screened for STIs more often, and being doubly-assertive with partners about our boundaries or our sexual health.
• Casual sex can sometimes surprise us more than sex in an ongoing relationship. Because we don't have much, of any, history to draw on, about the other person or people, or about how we feel with them sexually, sometimes parts of casual sex can be a lot less predictable, or known from the start, than sex with someone we know well can be. A person also may be more likely to need to get themselves off in casual sexual encounters. Lots of people feel nervous, overstimulated or anxious with new or one-time partners. We know that some people find it difficult to reach orgasm or really let loose with casual encounters, especially women. While it can seem like casual sex is the kind you have if you just want to get off, it may be more apt to say it's what you do when you just want to be sexual with someone, even if you or they won't high-five the Big O.
• Casual sex most often means less shared responsibility, and more going solo, including with any tough outcomes that might occur. You might need to make sure that you yourself always have condoms, lube or a ride to pharmacy to get EC. You might need to deal with a pregnancy scare, a pregnancy, an infection, hurt feelings or a super-pissed parent or roommate without any help or support from the other person involved.
• Casual sex usually means making high-stakes choices at warp speed, rather than thinking or talking it over for days, weeks, months or years. We've got to have a good handle on what we generally want and don't, what we do and don't feel good about. We've got to be able to easily access and go with our gut feelings and our own moral compass. This isn't a context where people get a lot of time to get comfortable and confident asserting themselves, to become comfortable being naked or sexual with someone, or to gradually learn to communicate openly about sex.
"Sex without feelings" is a seriously strange notion to those of us who study sexuality. That's because we know there's no such thing.
Most of human sexuality is about and primarily driven by the brain and central nervous system. There's no way to magically separate out our feelings and thoughts from our sexuality, or any sex we're taking part in. Sex and sexuality involve feelings, physical and emotional: we can't have a sexual experience that's somehow only about genitals or body parts. It's just that what kinds of feelings we have in different sexual contexts or experiences vary, and those feelings aren't always the kind we or others consider or experience as romantic or related to love.
"Casual" does not necessarily describe the way a person may feel about a sexual encounter or interaction. The "casual" in casual sex is really meant to describe a more informal or impermanent interaction than we have or intend in committed or ongoing relationships: some people use the word "recreational" instead to make that clear. People's feelings before, during, or after casual sex vary, just like with sex within relationships. Many people generally won't engage in casual sex with people for whom they have romantic feelings because they don't feel comfortable with the idea of those feelings being without an ongoing or potential relationship to live within. What people usually really mean when they talk about casual sex as "sex without feelings" is that there is a lack of what people consider or experience as expressly romantic feelings: as in-love feelings or big-love feelings. But that doesn't mean there are no feelings.
Often people don't develop or experience romantic feelings. Often casual sex isn't the start of some kind of ongoing relationship. Sometimes, though, people do develop -- or, more commonly, already have -- feelings that are something more than sexual desires. Sometimes, casual sex does wind up being the start of a larger relationship, be that a romantic relationship, a friendship, or a continued sexual relationship.
Why do people like casual sex? Why don't they?
As with anything, our preferences and opinions vary. We can talk to each other about what we do and don't like about it, and, if we engage in casual sex, get to know our own set of likes and dislikes, based on our own unique experiences. We can look at some of the broad data we've got on casual sex, and sex in general. When we do all of that, there are some common threads.
As one example, people listed feeling positive, negative, or neutral about parts of their experiences with casual sex in The Multigenerational Experiences With and Attitudes About Casual Sex Survey (2010 - present). It currently has over 10,000 respondents whose ages range from 16 to over 90 years old. Around 80% of those who responded have engaged in both casual sex and sex within relationships. We've pulled a few limited multiple-choice sections of the larger survey for this piece: you can see those sections all in one place here.
Overall, people in that survey reported similar numbers of positive, negative and neutral sexual experiences with casual sex and non-casual sex (Table 1). The majority of people reported mostly positive experiences with both (Tables 4 and 5) . However, slightly more did report very positive or mostly positive experiences with non-casual than casual; slightly more also reported mostly negative or very negative experiences with casual sex. Some of this difference may be due to cultural messages about casual sex: when asked to consider their feelings before casual sex and after, more people reported feeling more positively after their experiences than they did before (Table 3). For some people, however, how positive, negative or neutral they have felt about their experiences may have had nothing to do with cultural attitudes or messages.
Some reported positive effects of and feelings about casual sex: Feeling adventurous; feeling free or uninhibited. Being able to explore a sexual fantasy or a part of identity they didn't feel they could otherwise. Not having commitments or obligations. Knowing if a partner didn't turn out to be a good fit, you could just walk away. Being able to be alone after sex.
Some negatives or less-positive effects and feelings: Feeling out of control during casual sex. The feeling of taking risks, or feeling like they were breaking the rules. Being on the down-low (though just as many or more people listed all of those things as positives). Only half as many people who felt positive about their ability to just walk away felt the same about the other person's ability to do so. And of those who felt negatively about a partner's ability to walk away, only around 20% of those felt the same way about their own ability to jet. (Table 6)
Some people have enjoyed being alone after sex; others, not so much. Just as many people who described feeling out of control as a negative described it as a positive. Some people enjoy a feeling of risk: for others it's negative or just a big "whatever." These likes and dislikes tend to vary from situation to situation, not just from person to person. Someone might like part of one specific experience with casual sex, but might not feel so hot about that same thing in a different scenario. Maybe you didn't really feel like chatting and hanging out post-sex with one partner. With another, though, you'd have loved to order a pizza and have a Netflix marathon after, but they didn't, and it sucked that they took off right away.
While some people fall totally to one side or the other, most will float somewhere in between. People who have a mix of casual and not-casual sex in their lifetimes will find that sometimes, it's been amazing. Other times, it's been a bore. Sometimes, it might even have been just awful, in any number of ways. There's no guarantee casual sex will always be great, or always be bad. Some people are more or less cut out for it than others, for sure, but for most of us, it'll be a mixed bag, just liek sex within relationships tends to be.
People's experiences with casual sex often are not reflected accurately by cultural, community or media representations of, or attitudes about, casual sex. Those messages most often generalize way too much, choose to focus on the most provocative or negative stories, and often don't mesh with the diversity of people's lived, personal experiences. In the survey cited above, less than 10% of those who responded felt cultural and media representation about casual sex was in a lot of alignment with their experiences. The majority of people felt those representations have little or no alignment with their experiences (Table 7);
Want a little history and current context on attitudes about casual sex?
How to make a hot mess: a few popular recipes
Casual sex can be a healthy, beneficial, satisfying sexual choice that a person can make and feel really good about. It can also be a totally crappy choice and something people make a real mess of and feel bad about. Just like fantasy football, stinky cheese, or intercourse, it's not for everybody, or for everybody all the time, in every situation. Just like with anything else, there are some things that can make it more likely to be great, and more likely to suck.
Here are a few ways in which casual sex often goes south or is more likely to:
Using it as a means of self-harm, self-destruction, or as a way to harm/humiliate someone else. Sometimes, we choose partners who hurt us or take punches at our self-esteem because we're in a dark place and we think we deserve it. We may choose casual sex or certain partners to "prove" our own low opinions of ourselves so we can stay miserable or avoid dealing with our own issues. Emotionally healthy sexual choices don't leave us or someone else feeling terrible or come from a place of feeling terrible. Same goes for using casual sex as a means to try and harm or hurt someone else in some way, or to enable their self-harm.
Using casual sex to try and gain social status or peer approval. In some social circles, it might seem like casual sex is "the thing" you must do so you're not a loser. It may seem like everybody is hooking up and always feeling awesome about it (maybe they are, maybe they're not: people are often dishonest with peers about sexual experiences). But at the risk of sounding like an after-school special, peer pressure is generally not the best way to decide if you should participate in anything; especially your sex life. That status or approval can also turn on a dime: you might get it one week, but the next week, or with a new peer group, discover it's resulted in disapproval and a loss of status.
When we don't communicate clearly and openly and check in with each other throughout. We don't usually know each other well when sex is casual. If we're not talking as much, if not more, and checking in as often, if not more often, as we would with someone we've already developed a relationship and sexual communication with, we're in for everything from just a bummer of a time to perpetrating a sexual assault.
Disrespecting our partners, or treating them without basic care and kindness, or being treated without respect and care. Just because you might not see a person again does not mean they have the right to treat you like dirt, or vice-versa. Sex should make you feel good emotionally, not just physically. Sex is somewhere people are physically and emotionally vulnerable. A place like that requires care, respect, kindness and sensitivity, whether we're in it with a longtime girlfriend or someone we just met at a festival. No surprises here: when we treat someone or each other like garbage, we or they are going to feel like garbage, especially with something where so many people get so judgy and so judged to begin with.
Finding out about dealbreakers too late: If we've got deal-breakers beyond casual or not-casual, we can wind up finding out about them in casual sex only during or after if we don't put them on the table before. We might, for example, find out someone is in a committed relationship, that they're not the age we thought they were, or that they aren't down with safer sex or birth control. Not checking in about dealbreakers first can make something that otherwise was something we wanted to be doing become something we really, really wish we hadn't.
Assuming a "casual" dynamic guarantees we'll never have to interact with this partner again. A casual dynamic does not promise that this person will disappear from your life forever after. Even if you hooked up with a random while you were studying abroad, there's no guarantee that you'll never have to deal with them person again. For all you know, they may wind up interviewing you for a job ten years later: the world is a strange and random place. If you never, ever, never want to see someone again after having sex with them, or because you did, choosing to have sex with them is usually not the choice you'll want to be making, especially since if seeing them again is the last thing you want, you probably will see them again. (It's like some kind of sexual Murphy's Law, for real.)
Using, or trying to use, casual sex as a way to rope someone into an ongoing relationship or romance. When we are purposefully vague about our intentions and real desires. You might try to convince yourself that casual sex could "work" in this context, or that you want it, when you really don't. If you know you're not down for something, or want something different, doing it anyway is nearly guarantees disaster, or at the very least, something that just plain sucks. It's also deceptive, and even potentially coercive, to do anything to try and make someone want what you want by pretending you want something different: manipulation never makes for the good stuff.
Assuming we'll never have any kind of feelings for a person with whom we had casual sex, or they won't for us. Again, the whole idea of "sex without feelings" is busted -- sex fundamentally involves feelings. Moments of real intimacy can sometimes be part of our casual sexual interactions, and people can, in fact, feel things: about themselves, about the situation, or for the other person. You or they might feel some emotional stuff; it's not realistic to expect you never, ever will. If you really don't want to risk developing or experiencing feelings for or with this person, or risk them having them with or about you, something (sex) that can be intense and involve big, raw feelings -- even outside relationships -- probably isn't where you want to be.
* (And yep, these are ways sex can be more likely to wind up being crummy for people, or make people feel crummy in sex within ongoing relationships, too.)
But there are some things that can help prevent those pitfalls:
Only pursue or do casual sex when you feel good about yourself, and with other people who seem to be feeling good about themselves, too. Sex doesn't often make for a very good handkerchief, especially with people we don't know well. Casual sex, in particular, often isn't going to leave you or someone else with a shoulder to cry on, or help with their mental health or personal crisis. Saving casual sex only for mutual happytimes can help keep it from becoming one more tough thing you or someone else are dealing with when you're already struggling in some way. If you've been dealing with some heavy stuff, be sure you're actually dealing. Some escapism is okay -- helpful, even -- when times are tough. Still, sex isn't going to fix our problems. It isn't a sustainable method of long-term coping, and it can actually cause even more fallout. If you make efforts to otherwise care for yourself, you're more likely to make the best choices here.
Be sober. Be sure the other person or people involved is/are, too. This especially holds true if you're new to this. The data and anecdotal information we have so far about casual sex suggests that, currently, more young people feel bad about casual sex than good about it. One of the most common reasons young people end up feeling negatively about casual sex is because they are mixing it with, or, even more often, only doing it because of, booze or other drugs. Here's an easy answer: you can consider casual sex with someone when you're drunk or they are, but don't pursue it unless everybody is clear-headed and sober. A general good rule of thumb with pretty much anything in life -- including, if not especially, sex -- is that if you or someone else has got to get wasted to do it or want to do it, it's usually not a thing to be doing, period.
Base your choices here on your wants, needs, personality and the unique situation: not on your friends. If you have friends saying casual sex is great for them and they're telling the truth, chances are that's what they're doing, after all. You're not the same as your friends, or as the people you admire. What's right for them -- if and when it is -- isn't always right for you. Your friends also might not be giving you the full details of their experiences with or feelings about their sex lives, either. Because they want to sound chill, they might act like a certain casual sexual encounter gone awry didn't when it did. They might feel too vulnerable or embarrassed to be honest. You just don't know. Do it for you; not for your friends or social group.
Speak up, keep speaking up, and make clear the other person or people involved need to do the same. This isn't a wise place to be shy or passive: you and anyone else need to assert themselves clearly. That means being clear and assertive about consent (and this goes for any gender: consenting is not just something guys need to do for or about girls, but something we all need to do with and for each other), limits, boundaries, wants, and needs, and checking in with each other frequently and openly. In an ongoing or committed relationship you've been in for a while, you'll have learned at least some of a partner's non-verbal cues and may rely on them sometimes, or be less verbal about consenting, wants or boundaries because you have those to work with. But when you're with a person you don't know well at all -- or know at all -- you can't rely on subtle gestures or cues. Using your words for consenting and checking-in is all the more essential here: if you're not very comfortable or confident doing that, best to hold off on casual sex until or unless you are.
Lay out your dealbreakers before sex. If there's anything you know would make you NOT want to go ahead with casual sex with someone -- be it their relationship or STI status, things they do or don't like sexually, condom use, how they voted in the last election, how far away their place is, if they like Justin Bieber, whatever -- but you don't have that information about them or the situation to know, ask. It's also a great idea, after you take your turn, to invite them to tell you their dealbreakers and check in about those. This is also a good time to check-in and be honest about any desire for interaction or a relationship after. If that's what you or they really want, or you feel like somebody isn't being honest about that? Best to walk away, not get down.
Treat the other person as a person. Insist on the same treatment from them; do not accept anything less. In a word, be kind, respectful and compassionate. This is a person: so are you. Sex is a vulnerable place. If you feel like you just aren't able to really see them as a whole person rather than a walking sex toy, or vice-versa? Or feel like you'd treat a stranger next to you on the bus better than a casual sexual partner? Please back away from the sex tent pronto. For a person to feel okay about a sexual encounter, they need to feel like a person -- not an object.
If you're worried about this, know that treating a person with basic respect, care, and kindness will not make them want to love you forever. Some people may balk at the idea of taking care with or of a casual sexual partner. A person may fear someone they're sleeping may want something "more" if they are kind ot them. But if you're clear that the encounter/interaction is casual, your partner should respect that: being kind doesn't mean you, or they, don't still get to have boundaries. Kindness is not an agreement to enter into a relationship. Fear of lovey feelings is just not a sound reason to treat a partner without care. If you feel iffy about being nice to a casual partner for these or other reasons, or unsure if you can hold your own lines should someone want more, that's a strong cue this is not a good idea.
Accept you might see them again, or have them connect with you in some way, and make sure you really are cool with that. A helpful check-in around with this can be to ask yourself: "What if this person decided at any point in their life that I was a person they wanted to talk to about something hard? What if they wanted to process something with me, or needed my help? What if I see them again -- at a job, at school, at a party, on the bus, when I'm applying for a loan, at my wedding -- would that be okay?" If we don't like someone enough to think we will ever want anything to do with them ever again, we probably don't like them enough to be having sex with them, in any context.
Same goes for any of you potentially developing unexpected feelings. You just never know. There's a chance you'll feel something for at least one casual sexual partner eventually, or someone else will with you. Even though the arrangement is casual, it might not always feel casual, and might feel more intimate than anyone thought it would. Sex sometimes stirs up feelings for us we didn't expect it or want. If you don't feel up, at all, for those possibilities, or don't feel like you can manage them if they happen, you probably won't want to take that risk at all.
Err on the side of caution when it comes to safer sex, contraception and your personal safety. Don't go anywhere or with anyone when you don't feel super-safe. Know how you're going to get yourself home in advance. Have a reliable person to call if need be for any reason. If you feel unsafe at any point, do all you can to just get gone.Make safer sex -- including the use of barriers for any oral, vaginal, or anal sex -- a requirement, right up front. Always. Not a "maybe," or a decision based only on what a partner wants. Don't just ask someone about their STI status and then go without barriers if they say they've been tested recently and are in the clear. That's a whole lot to trust someone you barely know with.
Even if a partner says they're on hormonal birth control, just use a freaking condom. Seriously. If the kind of sex you're having means there's no risk of pregnancy, still use a condom or other barriers: STI risks are no less major than pregnancy risks. Figure that a person's report of their STI status may be unreliable, outdated or uninformed. When you're having casual sex, a good rule of thumb is to get tested twice as often as you do when only having sex within relationships. Do yourself a favor and just don't engage in casual sex with anyone who isn't on board with basic safety measures. Chances are that if they're pursuing casual sex with you, they have with others. If they won't use safer sex with you, then they probably haven't with others, which makes them an awfully risky gamble when it comes to your health. If a casual partner says they don't want to play safe, make clear that that's the only way you play, so if they're not down, then you're not going to be getting down.
If you know or suspect casual sex isn't what you really want or what the other person does? Just don't. It's really that simple.
* And yep, again, all of these things can be good helps with other kinds of sex, too, as it turns out. Go figure.
On being used (or not)
Fears or warnings about casual sex often involve the idea that someone will inevitably take advantage of someone else. Some folks even think casual sex is inherently parasitic or exploitative. You might hear these fears expressed as a form of (usually contrived) concern toward women sleeping with men. You may have heard something like this, for example: "She should do what makes her happy, but I just don't want to see her get hurt. When she puts out without any commitment first, she's just opening herself up to be taken advantage of by creepy, skeezy dudes who only care about her body." Or this gem: "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?"
The thing is, sometimes people -- including women -- just want sex just for the sake of sex (and sometimes that's what they want even within relationships!). Sometimes, we just want momentary companionship or some shared sexual expression. Not everyone, of any gender, wants commitment or an ongoing sexual relationship all of the time.
Most often, these kinds of concerns or sentiments involve casual sex between men and women. They often present men as opportunistic, horny predators, and women as fragile flowers without their own sexual desires that are separate from commitment or love. Ideas like these imply that women must and always do leverage sex as a bargaining chip so they can get something else they want, or don't have a sexuality without a heart-on, and that men seeking out or having sex outside relationships are always dangerous jerks. (And that women are cows on the auction block: moo...umm, rather, boo). These flawed perceptions of casual sex represent everyone poorly and generalize about people based on gender and their sexual choices in a way that doesn't accurately represent the wide range of people, and their sexual experiences, relationships, interactions or motives.
While real intimacy and feelings can certainly be part of casual sex, intense romantic feelings or the desire for them are in no way a given. Sex is not something that can somehow "make" those feelings happen for everybody -- or only for people of a certain gender -- all by itself. Sex can be magical, sure. But unless you're having sex at Hogwarts, it's safe to say love spells are not going to be part of that magic.
There's nothing about casual sex that means people have to "use" each other, or are aiming to do so. People have the right to want, choose, and pursue shared pleasure solely for the sake of pleasure. There's nothing about casual sex that requires one person must be predator and the other prey.
While it's a choice and not a mandate, people certainly can and sometimes do go about it that way, whatever their gender and/or orientation. This can happen in any other kind of relationship, though; such a toxic, dishonest dynamic is not exclusive to casual sex. It's no secret that, sometimes, one person may mislead another to get what they want. It could be about a promise of commitment, but it might not be about that at all. A deceptive or predatory sexual partner might lie about anything from their current relationship status to their STI status to their reasons for seeking you out in the first place. Some people are looking to just "use" someone for their own pleasure or ego, and it can be tougher to see such people coming before or with a casual encounter. We just often won't know them well enough to understand how they operate outside this context. It can be hard to tell whether they're being real.
In order to do what we can to avoid being deceived, all we can do is tune in to what we can observe. We can pay attention to what a person says, and if their words seem to differ from their actions or attitudes, and to how we feel with them. Intuition is not the only thing we should rely on in our decision-making, but it's powerful, especially with something like casual sex where we're making big decisions in a very short time, and with limited information. If your gut is telling you something's off about a person or dynamic, trust that, and just take a pass. Even if your intuition isn't right and it would have been fine? No harm done. You'll both have other opportunities: no one's sex life or awesome sexual experiences hinge on just any one partner or opportunity.
So, is it for you?
Let's check out those questions again:
- Do I want to engage in sex where it may be the only interaction or relationship I have with this person or people?
- Do I feel good about that? Does it feel right in both my head and my heart (as well as my loins)?
- Overall, do I feel comfortable pursuing and taking part in casual sex?
- Do I feel good about all of the above with this particular person, at this time, in this unique situation?
- Is/are the other person or people clearly communicating that this is what they also want and feel good about?
Our best advice -- as it is with any sexual choice -- is to use the general, sound information you have, your answers to questions like those about the unique situation you're considering, and to trust and honor your own feelings and wants, aiming for choices that align with them best and to just do your best be a decent person to anyone else involved. This may or may not be the right thing for you in general or in a given situation; there simply is no singular, perfect set of sexual choices for everyone. There's only what, to the best of your knowledge, seems and feels most right for you and with someone else, uniquely, at a given time.
If you're not sure, or you feel uncomfortable? Just walk away or steer clear until you feel good and positive: until you are -- if you are -- at a big hells-yes, rather than at a no, maybe, or an I'm-not-so-sure-right-now. Sex, of any kind, in any context, that feels good to us both physically and emotionally, starts with good feelings right at the gate. And with a kind of sex that's often even more just about the looking-to-feel-good part than others, going into it without already feeling good just makes no kind of sense.
For more about sexual decision-making, consenting and other communication, interpersonal sexual contexts and making choices with those, check out:
- Driver's Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent
- Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist
- Risky Business: Learning to Consider Risk and Make Sound Sexual Choices
- When Sex "Just Happened" (And How to Make It Happen Instead)
- How to Understand, Identify and Make Choices About Desire
- Be a Blabbermouth! The Whats, Whys and Hows of Talking About Sex With a Partner