Everything Old is New Again: A Brief History of Casual Sex and Cultural Attitudes

Casual sex is one of those things that, so far as we know from the study of people and sex in history, people have always done. Given that for most of human history, basic survival was seriously tough, people's lives and interactions often were more brief than either are now, and many people or cultures were nomadic, it's pretty safe to say there's probably been as much, if not more, "casual" sex as "relationship" sex in all of human history.

So, casual sex isn't new: it didn't only start happening in the 1960s in America or in the last five years among college students. However, for as common as it's been, it's also commonly been very maligned via some religions, cultures and in a great deal of propaganda and media. How it's been maligned -- or celebrated, or just ignored -- has varied depending on the source, the specific historical environment, and the agenda. People have been made to feel intentionally afraid of casual sex many times in history, and that's something that's been done with a range of motives: some of that's been about socially controlling certain groups of people, for instance, while some has come from earnest concern -- albeit sometimes concern that's been uninformed or misplaced -- about people's well-being and safety.

Sexism has played a huge part in most cultural treatment of casual sex throughout history. In many cultures, women have been treated as the property of men, so the idea of women having their own sexual desires, and engaging in sex outside those property frameworks, no less -- or even thinking about it! -- has been mighty threatening to a whole lot of people. Perhaps obviously, casual sex is a serious threat to those frameworks, especially if and when it's up to and wanted by women, not just up to or wanted by men. "Good girls don't," has been a common cultural sentiment and control used around this time and time again, including in the present day. Women who have engaged in casual sex, or other kinds of sex seen as outside socially-sanctioned behaviour, have been culturally presented as everything from evil and dangerous to sad, bad and without any value as people; worthy of everything from scorn to assault to murder as a punishment or control for engaging in, or being willing to engage in, sex solely for pleasure outside the context of marriage or other approved relationships.

There's also been a lot of classism, homophobia and racism in the historical treatment of casual sex. In fact, to a large degree when it comes to CASUAL SEX IS THE BIG BAD rhetoric, any and every kind of sex that hasn't been between people who are straight, white and married (to each other) has been presented as casual sex. And it's largely -isms of various sorts that have written those scripts, or been the reason why people don't question them or go along with them.

Casual sex has often been presented as something only "low-class" people do, or that only people of color engage in. Black women in America who were enslaved, for example, and commonly raped within slavery, were often presented as "loose" women engaging in casual sex or adultery when, in fact, they were not themselves engaging in any kind of sex at all, but were victims of abuse. Native American women have suffered similar treatment, and both groups of women are often still painted with chronic "bad reputations" through this hideous, and most often intentional, misrepresentation. Rape has also been commonly conflated with casual sex historically in these and other ways.

One common way people have added an extra dose of hardship to women of the working classes has been to paint casual sex as something only women of those classes would do, with the implication they do not have the value, as people, to seek out or have anything else. (And in a few more paragraphs, you'll see that's still going on today). Of course, these generalizations also have dismissed the fact that sometimes survival sex -- rather than sex with the intent of mutually sharing pleasure -- was what was actually going on. Some women painted with these brushes have been doing less exploring of their own sexual desires and more sex as an exchange, often the only thing they had to exchange, for needed food or shelter, or as a way to try to mollify people who would otherwise do greater harm to them, their children or someone else they cared deeply about. And of course, some who have engaged in prostitution or survival sex may have themselves presented it instead as casual sex, because while the social stigma of casual sex was high, then, as now, the stigma for engaging in sex work was far greater.

Marginalized people have often been told or felt they had to be more cautious about casual sex because of the double discrimination-whammy engaging in it can, and often does, bring. Some people have had valid fears that engaging in casual sex, or anything that could be viewed as such, would "prove" racist, classist, sexist, orientation-based or other stereotypes about them, or be something where, because of already being marginalized, the potential "cost" of casual sex, or even the suggestion they've engaged in it, could be incredibly high. Some of those fears have been about ways they could be and have been harmed or mistreated due to engaging in casual sex, or even just the mere rumour they have (even if it is false or malicious), like young working class women who were literally jailed or otherwise institutionalized around 100 years ago because of engaging in casual sex or having someone say they did, or women who are at an earnest risk of being abused, assaulted, kicked out or literally stoned due to their sexual choices.

The irony, mind, is that, in the grand scheme of things, casual sex -- and again, by this we mean consensual partnered sex people take part in without any mutually agreed, intended or implied commitment or relationship beyond that sexual encounter -- has been a sexual context that has more often been one upper or middle-class, white people choose than those of color or those of the working classes. Additionally, many people in history had the kinds of sex they were having deemed casual by others, most often because they did not occur within marriage or what was seen as intent to marry, were not afforded the right to marry, or access to the things often required for relationships or marriages to be considered bonafide. So, a lot of sex certain groups of people were having that other groups called casual was anything but, and was often the same kind of sex, per the desire for an ongoing committed relationship or already being in one, people in those groups were having. Goodness knows, too, that plenty of people historically and now who have been or are the loudest and most intense when it comes to broadcasting the perils of casual sex often have turned out to be people willingly engaging in it or seeking it out themselves at the same time.

In the 1970s in the United States, influenced in large part by the popular (and fictional) book Looking for Mr. Goodbar, a lot of messaging about how casual sex will get women violently murdered hit a fever pitch: that message has stuck around, even though we know that, in fact, women's risk of being killed is far higher within ongoing, intimate relationships than in casual encounters. In the 1980s, HIV/AIDS was something new used to make casual sex (and gay men) seem scary. But even though casual sex was one common context for HIV transmission, the real issue was a lack of safer sex, and not knowing how to engage in sex -- in any context -- in ways that reduced the risk of sexually transmitted infections. Those are just two snippets in a long, long history of casual sex often being used as a scapegoat for something else -- be it adultery, homophobia, sexism, the denial of the realities of domestic violence, a lack of sex or health education or access to healthcare or even just our human vulnerability to illness.

That's not to say bad things haven't happened over history around or with casual sex: they have, of course they have. Bad things have happened and do happen in every possible sexual context there is and ever has been. But most big, scary rhetoric about casual sex has been overly generalized, at best, often presenting exceptions as rules; or, more commonly, intentionally amplified or manufactured by someone with their own agenda. We've long known, at least since Kinsey's studies in the 1940s and 1950s, that people's realities and personal experiences have been much more varied than those messages and more often than not have not involved death or dismemberment.

Here in 2014, casual sex still has a pretty bad rap. Having more study and information about people's sexual realities, including casual sex has, alas, changed very little in the way it is talked about en large.

The prevalence of "hookup culture" in the media shows us plenty of people still make a huge moral hooplah about casual sex, especially when they're talking about someone else's actual or assumed choices. This sort of frenzied huff comes from people of all ages: not just older people, and not just from young people. Some people think that they hold a moral high ground if they don't participate in casual sex, or put it down, or that their refusal to participate or be accepting of other people's choices makes them more valuable or noble.

There seems to be a current widespread freakout that casual sexual relationships will replace committed ones. Some folks are afraid people will stop wanting to "settle down" and instead only have sex sans commitment. Of course, such a world will likely never happen; it hasn't before -- including when that same panic was widespread at other times, like in the 1920s and the 1960s -- and it likely won't anytime soon. While some people only ever want sex without romance or commitment and never want to get "serious" with anyone, most people, at some point, will tend to seek out and sustain ongoing relationships that also include sex.

The thing is, though, the current panic over "hookup culture" is largely unnecessary and is also misleading. Young people now are engaging in casual sex less frequently than they did in years past, not more. More often than not, the casual interactions they are having when they do "hook up" are also not high-risk activities like vaginal or anal intercourse. Sometimes, it might be as low-stakes as a fully-dressed makeout session. In fact, a recent study actually showed that a little under a third of college students have had sex with more than one person in the past year.

What's also changed is the way it's presented in media, and how much and how frequently media covers it. We have more access to "graphic" material depicting casual sex in television shows, pop music, magazines, and websites. There's an assumption often made that if people are talking about something more, it must be happening more. That's rarely been accurate, and it's particularly iffy in an era when we have so much access to so many diverse forms of media, and when so many people can self-publish to a wide audience. Really, we just talk about most aspects of sex and sexuality more openly and freely, and with more channels, than we have in the past.

The sexism around casual sex hasn't gone away in 2014. Through history, women and their bodies were often literally considered their husbands' property, and before that, their father's; in some communities, areas or attitudes, they are still. Having sex with whoever women want to, separate from love or marriage seriously flies in the face of that setup.

Historically, a lot of the stigma about women, specifically (and in this case, women defined only as who's got a working uterus), having sex outside committed relationships (primarily outside marriage) involved paternity concerns. Before the advent of reliable contraception and paternity tests, more pregnancies happened when people had sex. When it came to pregnancies outside committed relationships, it was a lot harder to know whose kid someone was besides their mother's. But while these attitudes have stuck around, they're particularly out-of-place in a world where that reality is a non-concern much of the time: we have a wide range of reliable forms of contraception and we have the ability to easily test for paternity.

Some people fear that an acceptance of casual sex might mean women "will start having sex like men" (whatever that means). More of the negative attitudes, and some of the most dangerous of them, are lobbed at women than men. Think of the weight words like "slut" and "whore" have when they're thrown at women, especially women who are also marginalized in other ways. Men are rarely called these slurs in any serious context, and even when they are, it doesn't have a very big impact. Sure, you may hear a guy referred to as a "man-whore," but it's usually mostly in jest or a kind of compliment. So-called "promiscuous" women have been consistently shamed and judged -- and in some cases done serious physical or emotional harm -- all around the world for centuries. Men judge them. Women judge them. Heck, even "promiscuous" women pass judgment on other "promiscuous" women.

A new study published in Social Psychology Quarterly found that some young women in college will define their approach to sex as "classy" and deem other women's approaches as "trashy" or "slutty" as a way to elevate themselves. The women doing the calling out are usually having just as much, if not more, sex than the women on the receiving end of that slut-shaming. In fact, it was found that slut-shaming perpetrated by college women against other college women had more to do with social status and socioeconomic class than it did with a young woman's sexual behavior. In other words, a woman at the top of the social/socioeconomic food chain berates a woman of lower status so she can make more space for her own sexual experimentation without losing social status. The "higher-status" woman sets the standard, then, for what exactly makes another woman "slutty" and beneath her, and what doesn't.

As far as men go with this, they haven't been totally spared, either. There's been -- and there still is -- a good deal of "concern" in history about controlling men's "beastly" or "dangerous" sexuality. (Sadly, the origins of sex education in the United States were steeped in those ideas.) Marriage has been and still often is presented as the only way men could safely have sex. The assumption was that if men were to freely explore sex with partners in other contexts, or even just masturbate, they or their partners would be ravaged or devoured by male sexuality. (And yes, that is bonkers. Don't worry, guys: we know your sexuality is not made of monsters.) Most men -- gay men being a huge exception -- have not been hit as hard as women by cultural stigma around casual sex. That's true. But really, people of all genders have been impacted by these attitudes on one level or another. We're all often made to feel that in order to be truly good or righteous, we must limit our sexual experiences to the confines of serious relationships, if not marriages.

People's experiences with casual sex, historically and today, have varied way more than those messages and will always vary far more than any cultural treatment of casual sex. While it's been much more common for casual sex to be widely presented as bad, negative, or corrupt, people's actual, lived experiences have varied just like they have with sex in other kinds of interpersonal contexts. Cultural or historical attitudes about casual sex usually tell us far more about a given culture, community, or government's views about sexuality on the whole (as well as social class, gender, orientation, race and other related issues that loom large around this topic) than they tell us about people's actual experiences and their own view of them.

If you're interested in more of this kind history and commentary, here are a few good places to start at your library or bookstore:

  • Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, John D'Emilio
  • The History of Sexuality (Series), Michel Foucault
  • Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920, Mary E. Odem
  • Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, Sharon Block
  • Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830, Clare A. Lyons
  • American Sexual Histories, Elizabeth Reis
  • Sexual Revolution in Early America (Gender Relations in the American Experience), Richard Godbeer
  • Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, Judith Levine
  • Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality: Documents and Essays, Kathy Peiss
originally written 06.18.2014  •  updated 06.18.2014  •