There’s been a flurry of articles recently about the shift on college campuses and within feminism about casual sex, hooking up, and abstinence. According to these stories on Salon.com, the Atlantic.com, the New York Post, and others around the internet, women are discovering that casual sex doesn’t work for them and are embracing celibacy and abstinence. And I think that most of these articles are missing the point.
First, though, I want to be very clear about what I think sex-positivity has to offer when talking about abstinence. From a sex-positive perspective, it doesn’t matter how often you have sex, or how many people you have sex with, or what kinds of sexual activities you do. What matters is that your decisions are coming from your authentic desires, your genuine wants, and your well-being. What matters is that your consent is honored and that you honor the consent of your partner(s). What matters is that everyone does what they can to take care of themselves and their partner(s).
There’s nothing in that that requires celibacy, monogamy, or multiple partners. There’s nothing in that that demands being heterosexual, queer, vanilla, kinky, or anything else. Sexual diversity exists and the only person who can tell you where you fall on each of the possible continua of sexual difference is you. And that, I think, is where we need a better understanding of these issues.
From talking with a lot of different people about some of the patterns around “hookup culture,” it seems to me that for some young people, there’s a certain amount of pluralistic ignorance going on. Pluralistic ignorance is a situation when a majority of people disagree with a group norm, but they go along with it because of the perception that everyone else is on board. It’s what the crowd was doing in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Each person disbelieved their own perceptions because they didn’t want to speak up and risk looking foolish. I’ve read quite a few stories by women who were having casual sex because of the peer pressure they felt, rather than because they actually wanted to. That sounds like pluralistic ignorance to me.
I’ve also talked with lots of people about their alcohol and drug use when they hook up. I’ve always thought that if you need to be wasted in order to do something, that’s probably a sign that you don’t really want to be doing it. If you feel guilty, embarrassed, or ashamed afterward, that’s another signal that you did something that at least part of you didn’t want to be doing and perhaps that’s something to think about for the future.
At the same time, some women are very clear that the problems that they face are because of slut-shaming, not their sexual practices. Even the concept of the “walk of shame” more commonly centers on women, as if they should be shamed for their sexual choices when men aren’t. We have a long history of controlling women’s sexuality through shame, sexual assault, ignorance and sex-negativity and for many women, this is the problem, not casual sex.
As far as I’ve seen, none of the research on the topic of the effects of casual sex on self-esteem has tried to tease out the effects of sex versus the effects of slut-shaming. Until we can differentiate between the two, any information we have on the subject will be limited and flawed. If there’s anything like this out there, I’d love to hear about it.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to have sex with someone you just met, or on a casual basis, or without feeling love for someone, as long as that feels right to both of you and you can do it with respect and care. Yes, it’s quite possible to act with respect and care when having casual sex. If you have difficulty imagining that, that’s fine. But don’t judge people who do it. It’s not something that works for everyone, but I personally know a lot of people who manage it without negative effects.
Part of why I think the recent articles on changing sexual patterns get it wrong is that they lack a nuanced understanding of what abstinence means. There’s a difference between stepping back and taking a break from sex when that’s what you need and holding yourself back because you think that having sex is bad. There’s a difference between deciding that casual sex doesn’t work for you and believing that nobody should have sex unless they’re in a committed relationship. Doing something because it’s right for you is never the same thing as doing it because of external rules. It’s the difference between authenticity and faking it, between choice and force.
I’d much rather create a world in which people can discover what works for them and then make it happen. Each person will have a different path and a different outcome, and that’s just fine. Some people will have casual sex and some people will only have sex with a committed partner. As long as each person can be honest about what they want and have their desires respected, everything else will work out.
So what does sex-positivity say about abstinence? The same things it says about sex: If it works for you, if it supports your well-being, go for it. If it’s not what you genuinely desire, don’t do it. Respect other people’s needs, take care of yourself and other people. Don’t judge people who are different from you. Don’t take it personally if your needs and the person you’re interested in differ.
Is that so hard to understand?