Over on the Good Vibrations Magazine, I received a comment from a woman whose husband travels a lot. The two of them have a non-monogamous relationship and she’s had some difficulty finding casual partners:
I wanted to address your concept of having casual sex in a positive fashion, and how difficult that seems to be, especially for men. It’s a paradox…most men seem to choose casual sex because they don’t want to have to deal with “relationship” stuff, but if you’re sleeping with someone on a regular basis, you’re having a relationship, albeit one that leads to the bedroom and not the altar. It’s much more difficult to have casual sex than a committed relationship: it takes honesty, openness, integrity and an extremely high degree of communication. It seems to be way too much work for most men.
I think that part of the difficulty she’s facing may be partly due to the ways that we talk about casual sex and I think it’s worth unpacking that a bit.
There are a lot of different meanings that people apply to casual sex and it often seems like we think of it as an either/or. Either it’s a casual thing (and there’s no “relationship”) or there’s an emotional commitment (and it’s not casual). And this is the sort of thinking that seems to make this so difficult.
It’s important to recognize that there’s no such thing as “not being in a relationship.” There’s a relationship between any two things, people, or concepts. That relationship may be physical, mental, emotional or a combination of the above and some people would also add “spiritual” to the list. It may also be indirect, or quite distant. But to say that you want to have sex without having a relationship is simply inaccurate- a relationship is already there. The question then, isn’t how to keep from having a relationship, but rather, what kind of relationship you want to create.
Once you start asking that question, then you can start to figure out where your needs, desires and wants are. This particular person wants to find someone for occasional sex with someone who is willing to meet her husband (and get the green light from him), will check in with her every so often to make sure that everything is working for each of them, and is ok with telling her when he has other lovers. None of that seems unreasonable to me, but if she starts her search by looking for someone who thinks of casual sex as “we’ll get together, boink, and go home”, that’s likely to lead to a mis-match. And given that many people define “casual sex” like that, I’m not surprised that she isn’t finding what she wants.
It can also be challenging for women who want to have these sorts of relationships with men because a lot of men get caught up in the virgin-whore dichotomy. Not that this is limited to men, by any means, but finding guys who can have a sexual relationship with a woman that’s not centered on dating/marriage without putting her in the whore/slut category isn’t easy.
Making this even more complex, many men simply don’t have the emotional self-awareness or relationship skills to manage what she’s asking for. In general, boys aren’t taught the skills they need to figure out what they’re feeling, how to tell someone about it, how to ask for what they need/want, how to listen to a partner, etc. It’s not that boys and men don’t have feelings, but a lot of them deal with the difficult ones by getting angry or disconnecting. And how in the world is a guy whose skills are limited like that supposed to manage a relationship like the one she describes above? (Fortunately, some people are teaching their boys better skills than these, but it’ll take some time before that’s the norm.)
It sometimes seems to me that some men say that they want casual sex because they’re scared by emotional connection and want to avoid it. Emotional connection can be scary when you don’t know how to create and nurture it. And when we continue to talk about it as either/or, we only make it worse. When the only choices we hear about are full-on-commitment or 100% uncommitted, it’s no wonder that so many of her potential partners get scared off.
So my suggestion to her and to other women in similar situations is to stop looking for casual sex and instead, to look for someone interested in creating a sexual relationship that fits her needs. Put the cards on the table from the very beginning, perhaps in an online personals ad, and let that be the first filter you use. Let go of the idea that either you’re in a committed ongoing relationship or you’re in a casual connection, and instead, create the relationship you want.
I also want to point out that any relationship will work better when there’s “honesty, openness, integrity and an extremely high degree of communication.” Having multiple partners certainly adds extra challenges, simply because there are more people to take into account. But the skills that help people deal with conflicts, stay connected, and generally create successful relationships aren’t limited to any particular structure.
Since I like to offer resources whenever I can, here are a couple of really good books on the topic:
Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships is a great look at the more common (and many of the less common) forms that open relationships can take. There are also lots of tips and suggestions from people with real-life experience with each of them.
The Ethical Slut: A Roadmap for Relationship Pioneers offers a lot of really good information on many of the concerns or questions people have around things like boundaries, safer sex, flirting and jealousy.
There are also a lot of online resources and communities, especially if you’re looking for info about swinging or polyamory, so take a look there. The best way to find someone is to be in the communities that they’re likely to be in, too. Plus, you’ll find lots of helpful info, so you can avoid some of the mistakes that other people have made.
Lastly, don’t settle for less than you deserve. It’s absolutely possible to create the sort of relationship you want, and it’s a lot easier when you’re clear in your intentions and you’re not willing to settle.