This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
Why do some women have casual sex?
Let me re-phrase that. Why have I had casual sex?
The phenomenon of women who have sex for its own sake seems to baffle many people. It’s widely believed that women have sex for love, commitment, poor self-control, to manipulate men, to please men, to make babies, to sooth their low self-esteem, and just about any reason at all other than their own pleasure. (While men, of course, are rutting horndogs who just want to stick it in the nearest wet hole available.) Sex, according to this trope, is by its nature a commodity that women possess and men are trying to obtain… and the phenomenon of women who are “giving it away,” who are defying these assumptions and treating sex as a pleasurable interaction between equals, is making the punditocracy piss all over itself.
Mark Regnerus, Slate: “If women were more fully in charge of how their relationships transpired, we’d be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts, longer relationships, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on.” Rachel Simmons, relationship advice columnist for Teen Vogue: “These letters worry me. They signify a growing trend in girls’ sexual lives where they are giving themselves to guys on guys’ terms. They hook up first and ask later. ” Bill O’Reilly: “Many women who get pregnant are blasted out of their minds when they have sex.” Susan Walsh, Hooking Up Smart: “They cannot see that as she [self-proclaimed proud- and- happy slut Jaclyn Friedman] proclaims her detachment from sex, she gets emotionally wounded every single time. They take heart from her proclamation that sluthood is a healing thing. Ms. Friedman is a hot mess. Craiglist Casual Encounters was not a miracle, it was a disaster that broke her heart again. I hope she does find Love, the whole enchilada.” Laura Sessions Stepp, author of Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both… oh, just look at the title.
Then there’s the piece that got me staying up until four in the morning writing about this in the first place: Christian author Don Miller, who recently asked his female readers (and his male ones, in a separate post) if they’ve ever had casual sex… and if so, why. Of course, Miller doesn’t ask this in a neutral way, a way that expresses a genuine desire for an honest answer. He’s asking in a way that makes it obvious what he thinks the answer will be — whatever the reason is, it must be bad, bad, bad. In fact, he’s asking in a way that totally slants the answers he’s likely to get. He’s asking “why some girls give up sex easily” (as if sex for women is always a surrender), and “do you use sex for some kind of social power or to make yourself feel good?” It’s like a push-poll — a political poll designed to elicit a particular response, so you can shape people’s opinions and make your position seem more popular than it really is.
And this push-poll tendency is shared by many of these “Why on earth would women want casual hook-ups? pundits. They’re not asking the question, “Why do some women have casual sex?” They’re asking the question, “Why on earth would some women have casual sex, when it’s so clearly a bad idea that will do them and other women harm and is obviously not in their best interest?” And they’re doing this despite research showing that casual sex isn’t, in fact, psychologically harmful in young adults. They’re basing their questions on the common assumption that women’s natural state is to keep their legs closed unless they’ve got their hands on marriage or commitment… and that women who don’t are some sort of baffling phenomenon that needs to be explained.
So I thought I’d try to explain it.
I’ve had a lot of experience with casual sex. It’s been a while, and I’m not particularly interested in it anymore… but for many years, pretty much all the sex I had fell somewhere on the “casual” spectrum. Personal ad hookups; occasional sex with friends; sex clubs and sex parties; ongoing sexual friendships… that’s what my sex life looked like for a long time.
And needless to say — but I’m going to say it anyway — a lot of this casual sex was a good idea. A wonderful idea, in fact. A lot of it was done for excellent, healthy reasons. And the effect it’s had on my sex life and my love life has been overwhelmingly positive.
You want to know why I had it? Here’s why.
1: Fun. This is first and foremost. In fact, all the other answers I’m about to give ultimately boil down to this one: Sex is fun. Sex feels good. Sex is its own justification. And that was every bit as true when I was single as when I’ve been coupled. I had sex for the same reason billions of other people have sex: Pleasure. Period.
We evolved to enjoy sex. We are descended from thousands of generations of ancestors who really, really liked to fuck. Asking why people have sex casually is like asking why people eat food casually. Eating feels good. Food is fun. It’s often more fun when it’s meaningful and done with people we love… but that’s not always an option, and it can still be pretty darned fun when it’s grabbed on the fly with acquaintances and strangers. We evolved to want to eat food… and we evolved to want to have sex. Like, duh.
2: Experimentation. When I was having casual sex with a lot of different people, I was also having lots of different kinds of sex. There are lots of reasons for that: some obvious, some not so obvious. The most obvious one is that my partners liked different things, so I tried the things they liked, to see if I might like them too. Plus, at the time, I felt more comfortable asking for and trying some of my freakier desires with fuckbuddies and casual hookups than I did with long-term romantic partners. I do wish that hadn’t been true — I wish I’d been less shy about experimenting with my LTR partners in my younger days — but the whole stupid virgin/whore thing can get pretty deeply embedded, and it took many years of screwing around to get it (mostly) hacked out of my brain.
And that experimenting was awesome. I figured out an immense amount about my sexuality during my casual sex years. I learned a huge amount about which of my fantasies were really things I liked, and which were things I just liked thinking about. Among other things, I figured out that yes, I really was a dyke, and yes, I really was kinky. And I discovered things about my sexuality that I never would have imagined if I hadn’t tried them. My sex life is about a billion times more satisfying now that I know what I do and don’t like in bed… and now that I have the courage to ask for it. Like, duh.
I haven’t stopped learning and experimenting now that I’m married. And plenty of people do plenty of experimenting with just one partner, and do it entirely happily. But that’s not how it played out for me. And when I think about who I was in my twenties, I’m not sure it could have played out that way for me. When I think about who I was in my twenties, I think casual sex with a large-ish number of people was the only way I was going to get those experiments under my belt. As it were.
3: Pleasure without unwanted commitment. As you may have figured out from this piece, I was single for a long, long time. In fact, after my divorce and before I fell in love with Ingrid, I was single for twelve years. And they were good years. Most of them, anyway. Staying single for so long was a very conscious decision, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. After my divorce, I was pretty confused, with some seriously messed-up ideas about love and relationships, and a strong tendency to be attracted to needy, fucked-up drug addicts. Staying single for twelve years gave me a chance to get my head screwed on straight; to re-train myself to be attracted to people who had their act together; to wait for the right partner instead of jumping into commitment with whoever was available; to learn that I could be happy and fulfilled on my own. In fact, my relationship and marriage with Ingrid wouldn’t be nearly as strong if I hadn’t been single — and happily single — for so long.s
But if I’d tried to be celibate during all those years, I would have gone bananas. I never would have stuck it out.
Not everyone wants to be in a relationship. Not everyone should be in a relationship. Some people are better off single: temporarily, or indefinitely. I was one of them, for over a decade. And casual sex let me stay single… while still having the pleasure and confidence and connection and other yummy things that sex provides.
4: Independence and confidence. Catting around made me feel like a million bucks. And not just in the obvious way. It made me feel powerful, self-reliant, curious and playful, free and fun. It taught me the value of adventure. It taught me that awesome surprises can be around any corner if I’m open to them. It taught me that even crummy experiences can make for a really great story. It taught me strength and self-confidence. It taught me that saying “No” didn’t make me a selfish jerk. It taught me that being told “No” didn’t make me a pathetic loser.
I still feel that way. I haven’t forgotten those lessons. And I am deeply grateful for everything in my life that got me there. Including casual sex. Casual sex wasn’t the only thing that helped me feel powerful and self-reliant, adventurous and playful, independent and confident… but it was one of the things, one of the most crucial things, and I am profoundly thankful for it.
5: Intimacy and connection. “Casual” doesn’t necessarily mean “impersonal.” A lot of the casual sex I had was fairly nonchalant… but a lot of it wasn’t. A lot of it was very intimate indeed. It came out of a moment of feeling connected with another human being, and wanting to expand that connection. I didn’t want romance or marriage with these people… but I cared about them, and I felt close with them, and I wanted to experience that closeness in a sexual way.
Some of those people started out as casual hookups, and became good friends over weeks and months. Some of them started out as friends, and the sex — whether it happened semi-regularly or was just one many-splendored night — deepened those friendships, and gave them a little extra sparkle and tingle. But they all have one thing in common… which is that I still feel affection towards them, and still have fond memories of the sex we had, and don’t regret it for a minute.
I realize that this is a very atheist/ humanist philosophy of life, and one that a Christian writer like Don Miller is unlikely to respond to. But things don’t have to be permanent to be valuable. A fleeting moment can have as much value as a stone monument. And that includes moments of sexual intimacy and connection.
It Gets Better
I realize that I’m only one person, telling one person’s story. And I realize that the plural of anecdote is not data. My experiences are largely supported by the data — again research shows that casual sex isn’t psychologically harmful — but they aren’t universal. I had a lot of things going for me that loaded the “casual sex” dice in my favor — among other things, I was mostly having all this casual sex with other women, so the gender imbalances and weird sexual/ romantic power dynamics between women and men were a non-issue. And I realize that not everyone shares my experience. Some people go into casual sex for good, healthy reasons, and some people do it for bad, unhealthy reasons, and many people do it for a combination of the two. And some people have good outcomes from it, and some have crummy outcomes, and some have outcomes that are a deeply mixed bag.
You know. Just like people go into marriage and committed relationships for good reasons and bad reasons and combinations of the two… with good, and bad, and mixed results.
And I’m not going to pretend that my casual sex was always perfect and awesome. It wasn’t. Some of it was boring and pointless; a little of it was icky and sad. I’m not even going to pretend that my reasons for having it were always entirely healthy. I sometimes had casual sex, in part, to bolster my self-image as a non-conformist, or because that’s what everyone else in my social circle was doing (yes, those two things are contradictory — what’s your point?), or as a salve for feeling lonely and unattractive, or because I didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings by saying “No.” Especially in the earlier days. Like most things in life, I got better at it as I went along.
But you know what? That was true of sex in relationships, too. Especially in my younger days. I didn’t always have it for healthy reasons, and it wasn’t always that great. But it got better as I went along. Much, much better. Sex at 49 is so much better than sex at 23, I can’t even tell you.
And it got better, in large part, because of my years of casual sex. It’s better because of the independence and confidence I got from casual sex… independence and confidence that strengthens me to this day. It’s better because of the experiments I carried out during casual sex… experiments that helped me map out my sexuality and enjoy it to its fullest. It’s better because of the moments of genuine connection I had during casual sex… moments that taught me how to pursue intimacy and make myself open to it. It’s better because of all the sheer pleasure I got from casual sex… which helped me to value pleasure, and embrace it, and make it a priority in my marriage. It’s better because of the years of being happily single which casual sex made possible… years that enabled me to wait for the right person, and turn myself into the right person, to make our love and our marriage work.
Sex, and marriage, and life, are better because of casual sex.
For me, anyway.
And no stupid push-poll in the world is going to change that answer.