It’s not hard to find people who will answer this question with a resounding, authoritative YES. Casual sex, or in the current language of panic, “hook up culture” is blamed for everything from low self-esteem to bad grades to divorce rates. Usually by people who can’t quite define what it means.
I’m not saying they are all wrong, but I will point out that the claim that casual sex is always a bad idea isn’t a scientific statement, it’s a value statement.
It tells you more about the person saying it than your own experience with what people call casual sex.
Even though social scientists do like to claim that they can “prove” that casual sex is bad for you, they all have to admit, when pressed, that such a claim is impossible.
So, if the scientists, your parents, your spiritual leaders, or favorite pop stars can’t guide you in this question, how can you tell if casual sex is something to embrace or avoid?
What Does Casual Sex Mean to You?
When we talk about sexual activities we can generalize. Oral sex is oral sex regardless of who is involved. Same for intercourse. But the term “casual sex” doesn’t actually describe any sexual behaviors, it describes the nature of the sexual relationship, whether that relationship involves making out or anal sex.
So to know if casual sex is right for you, start by thinking about what casual sex even means to you.
A first step is to think about the different kinds of sexual relationships you’ve had and evaluate them based on the level of commitment. Have you had sexual relationships that you’d consider more casual than others? What separates a casual sexual relationship from a potential dating one, from a one night stand?
If casual sex for you only means sex where you aren’t committing to a relationship, then that can be perfectly fine and healthy, if that’s where you are at, and as long as you are communicating that to the people you’re having sex with.
What Do You Want, Right Now?
One reason people give for saying casual sex is bad is that it somehow gets in the way of you finding true love in a committed relationship down the road.
Setting aside the fact that not all of us are looking for a committed relationship, it’s also unfair to say that all your choices and actions today must be in the service of something you want 5 or 10 years from now.
It may be hard to reach your destination if you aren’t paying attention to the road you’re on now, but life is full of detours, and if the goal is to be sexually happy and fulfilled, the one destination we’re all told we should be headed toward, compulsory monogamy and marriage, simply isn’t the answer for all of us.
So if you don’t know where you want to end up, think about what you want right now. If you’re okay with a sexual relationship that has no commitment which may also mean less communication, then that is your choice, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
What Can You Give, Right Now?
if you aren’t fit for a meaningful reciprocal adult relationship right now, then casual may be the answer. In fact, those people who are looking for a more serious committed relationship would probably appreciate it if you stayed away from them or at least were up front that you can’t give them what they want right now.
The idea that we are all capable of contributing to a long term romantic and sexual relationship is unrealistic. We can’t always give a partner what they need: emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Being realistic about your boundaries (or what others would call your limits) doesn’t make you shallow. And saying you can’t do commitment now doesn’t mean you’re foregoing commitment forever.
Do Some Emotional Math
Casual sex, however you define it, comes with a different set of rules than sex in a committed relationship. You need to assess whether you have the emotional fortitude for what casual sex gives and what it takes. For example, casual sex may not go well. You may not leave feeling fulfilled and you may in fact leave with more questions than answers about your own desirability.
If you are in a place in your life where you feeling very confident and good about yourself, your bodies, your desirability, you may be able to handle the bumps and bruises of sexual interactions that don’t include much processing or communication.
But if you’re in a place where you are feeling particularly vulnerable, or where you crave acknowledgement and emotional support, it may not be a good time to get out there and mix it up in a casual way.
How Does It Leave You?
It’s not realistic to expect fireworks at every sexual encounter and nothing but fond memories afterward. Sex is unpredictable, even with someone you’ve had sex with a hundred times before.
But one thing you need if you want to be able to have casual sex in a healthy way, is the ability to check in honestly with yourself about how it leaves you feeling afterward. The occasional regret is probably part of good enough sex. But if you are consistently feeling lonely or used, or sad or regretful, then it’s probably a good sign that you should stop having casual sex, at least for now.
Allow for Trial and Error
It would be nice if all our sexual decisions were perfect. If we somehow had the foresight to know the outcome of every encounter and relationship. But that’s not how life works. If you try to have a casual sexual relationship and it doesn’t work out, the most important thing you can do is not give yourself a hard time about it.
Chalk it up to an experiment. By all means talk with friends about it, think through why it didn’t work (which will hopefully reduce the chances that you’ll make the same mistake twice) but don’t buy into the idea that sexual mistakes are somehow worse than other kinds of mistakes, or that permanent harm will come to you for trying something new. While you can’t always protect yourself from the emotional ramifications of sex, there are plenty of things you can do to protect yourself from the physical ones.