The Complexities of Casual Sex

Every so often, there’s another cycle in the fight over casual sex. This time, the argument was sparked Jaclyn Friedman’s piece on Yes Means Yes! The author describes her sexual explorations and describes how they brought her pleasure, fun, and healing.  She never suggests that her path will work for everyone. In fact, her entire story is simply a personal reflection.

But of course, that doesn’t mean she won’t get attacked for trying to ruin the world. Susan Walsh over at Hooking Up Smart insults Friedman and calls her dangerous, while making spurious claims about the current understanding of how oxytocin works:

Oxytocin is not some disinformation cooked up by the evil patriarchy. It’s a chemical that floods your body after sex, during breastfeeding, and through the early months of motherhood. Men also experience it, though its effect is tamped down somewhat by testosterone. The effects of sex hormones are bound to reside on a spectrum. Some women may produce less, which leads to less emotional attachment. Some men are suckers for oxytocin, and love spooning after sex. Anyone who regularly dismisses a large body of peer-reviewed academic studies in this area is as ridiculous as a member of the Flat Earth Society.

But if you look at the actual science, you’ll see that it’s not that simple. Heather Corinna at wrote an amazingly helpful article on oxytocin and anyone who likes to geek out about sex will get a lot out of it. Interestingly, in her reading, Heather has found research showing that there can be an oxytocin surge in lots of situations besides sex or breastfeeding:

More recently, there’s some research to show that while oxytocin enhances trust, it doesn’t make you gullible.

So instead of being a neat progression from sex to oxytocin to bonding to crying because he won’t call you, it’s much more complex. Rather than acknowledging the complexities of neurobiology and hormones, Walsh cherry-picks her science to try to attack and shame someone for their sexuality. Same old, same old, I guess.

Part of what I find so fascinating about what Walsh has written is that she does the same thing that so many media folks did when all the news about Tiger Woods came out. It’s really easy to project our judgments, assumptions, and beliefs onto someone, especially when we don’t know them. And just as all sorts of “experts,” psychologists, and pundits did with Woods, Walsh tried to shame Friedman without really listening to her story.

I can definitely understand the different sides to this issue. In my opinion, Alternet’s article 6 Reasons to Have Casual Sex offers quite a bit of insight for why casual sex might be good for some people, as well as some of the research on the topic. A lot of people have found that casual sex can help you because:

  1. Asserting your desires can create a tremendous sense of power.
  2. It might help you transcend your inhibitions.
  3. You’ll learn more about your sexuality.
  4. You might learn about yourself emotionally.
  5. You might be a better partner in a committed sexual relationship.
  6. You’ll learn more about sex.

On the other hand, I also get that when we’re talking about college students (the group that Walsh is working with and mostly addressing), decision-making skills aren’t fully online, alcohol and peer pressure reinforce each other, sexism limits young women’s choices, and there aren’t a lot of role models for negotiation and talking about safer sex, much less sexual desires and interests.

Within that context, it’s really easy for a message of “casual sex is good” to be oversimplified and reduced to the idea that if you don’t have lots of sex or lots of sex partners, you’re a prude. If we had good sex education that explained to young people what their options were and taught them how to decide what they want and how to talk about it with potential partners, this whole thing might not be necessary.

Is it any surprise that after having abstinence-only misinformation shoved in their faces for years, young adults who suddenly find themselves free of parental restraint go off the deep end? It’s as if we told children nothing about money and when they turned 18, tossed them in one of those game show cash grab booths. I saw it happen with sex, alcohol and drugs when I was in college and I don’t see why it should be different now.

The thing is- there is no one model for sexual/romantic relationships that will work for everyone. For some people, being in a monogamous relationship will bring joy. For others, it’s a prison. For some people, casual sex brings pleasure. For others, it offers disappointment. What we need is messages that reflect that diversity and tools for helping people to discover what their genuine desires are. We need to offer tips for what to do when there’s a discrepancy between what you want and is available to you. We need to support people as they learn how to navigate the complexities of talking with partners and potential partners to make sure that everyone’s goals are aligned. What we don’t need is this idea that anything is always good or always bad. We don’t need to shame anyone for their sexual practices, experiences, desires, or fantasies. That simply doesn’t improve anything.

We also need a better set of words to talk about “casual sex.” For example, that can mean anything from a one-night stand, sex with someone whose name you don’t know, a friends with benefits situation, vacation sex, a booty call, fuck buddies, sex parties or clubs, or swinging. Many of these situations can include quite a bit of emotional connection and intimacy. And some of them can last for quite a while. For example, you can have a friends with benefits relationship or a regular swinging partner for months or years. So while casual sex can often be limited in intimacy or time, it doesn’t have to be.

Similarly, “casual sex” has connotations of being promiscuous or lacking discretion, as if you’ll take anyone who comes your way. But you can be very discerning in your choice of sexual partner- it’s just a different set of criteria than you’d use for a possible life-partner. To assume that having casual sex means having no standards is to reduce someone’s decision-making capacity and take away their agency.

It would also help if we could step away from reinforcing the sexual double standards that seem to suffuse the topic. Most of the articles I’ve seen that talk about the challenges of casual sex focus on how it hurts women. Not only does this erase the positive experiences of some women who have had casual sex, it assumes that all men want and enjoy it, which erases the negative experiences of the guys who didn’t. Granted, there do seem to be differences along gender lines- there are many more sex clubs for gay men than lesbians and for every woman seeking a man on craigslist, there are a lot more men looking for women than women looking for men.

But that still doesn’t mean that ALL men want casual sex. Gender essentialism is never accurate when we’re talking about sexuality, simply because people and sex are too complex for that. Critiquing the social dynamics that have sprung up around casual sex is important. And when we don’t take into account the range of gender and sexual diversity, any solution we come up with is going to be ineffective at best, and harmful at worst.

At the same time, it is also true that being able to engage deeply and authentically with someone for a short time, knowing how to advocate for your desires, needs and wants, and having the tools to handle the complexities of sexual interactions with someone you don’t know as well can be challenging. Those sorts of self-management skills can be difficult to learn, especially since the only way to discover where you need to develop new tools through trial-and-error (usually with a lot of error) and there aren’t a lot of role models to draw on.

Most of the people I know who are successful at it (by their own definitions) are in their thirties or older and have a community of like-minded people to get feedback and support from. They’ve explored their desires and know what they want. They’ve dealt with their barriers to stating their needs, and they know how to disengage from a situation that isn’t working for them. They know the difference between “I’m feeling upset/triggered/annoyed/etc.” and “it’s your fault that I feel this way.” They can ask for support, feedback and advice from other people. These are all fairly advanced skills and are generally not the sort of tools that college-age folks have developed yet. So perhaps the issue isn’t that “casual sex is bad,” but rather that doing it well requires a set of tools that simply come with experience. And despite the stereotypes, the reality is that it gets better with age.

Does this mean that everyone will enjoy casual sex? Of course not. It’s only one option among many. There’s no reason to judge or shame anyone who does it, or who tries it and doesn’t like it, or who has no interest in it. And we certainly don’t need to slut-shame women who explore it or who make it part of their lives. It would be more helpful to find ways to make room for people who want to experience it and for people who don’t. It would be much more valuable to support young adults of all genders to create the sexual and romantic relationships that will work for them, whatever shape that may take.

And rather than assuming that casual sex is always bad, maybe we can make room for some people to discover pleasure and growth through it. Maybe we can start letting go of the idea that everyone will or should have the same experiences. And just maybe, we can stop judging it and instead, try to listen to each others’ stories, celebrate the joys and offer support around the pains. There’s room for everyone to have their unique sexual lives. Let’s stop trying to make everyone the same.

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7 Responses so far.

  1. Azi says:

    Oxytocin goes up when we all sing together?! Awesome!!! “I’d like to teach the world to sing….”

  2. Maureen says:

    Brilliant analysis Charlie, as always! I couldn’t have put it better myself!

  3. Charlie says:

    Well, thank you. 🙂

  4. Stephanie says:


  5. Angelika says:

    yes . yes . yes .

    thank you – awesome summary !

  6. Lynet says:

    So perhaps the issue isn’t that “casual sex is bad,” but rather that doing it well requires a set of tools that simply come with experience.

    That’s often true of sex inside a relationship, too.

    Personally, I found that learning about sex through casual sex was a great way to be introduced to the subject. It meant that I could make up my own mind about how I felt about things rather than being influenced by a relationship partner who I desperately wanted to please. I certainly made some uncomfortable mistakes, but the stakes are much lower in a casual situation, so even if mistakes might be more likely, they can still be a lot less damaging.

  7. Charlie says:

    That’s one of the reasons described in the Alternet article- it can be a great way to try stuff out and discover what you like with less pressure.

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