Sex & Relationships

6 Reasons to Have Casual Sex

Casual sex is often presented as damaging. But it could be a good path to discovering important things about your sexuality.

Casual sex and one-night stands are almost always framed as damaging to women, particularly young women. In recent years, writers like Laura Sessions Stepp and Wendy Shalit have issued dire warnings about the alleged dangers of sex outside of committed relationships.

Let's call this rhetoric what it is: a tired repeat of the sexist double standards that have haunted women for centuries. (The subtitle of Shalit’s second book, “It’s Not Bad To Be Good,” clearly articulates the regressive notion that chastity and sexual restraint renders one “good.”)

The idea that women are so fragile that a bad one night stand leaves them scarred —or “in turmoil” as Laura Sessions Stepp puts it—is destructive. (So is the common belief that men are incapable of feeling empty or sad after a similar encounter; Sessions Stepp absurdly claims that when it comes to being in turmoil, “boys are not.”)

With consensual, no-strings-attached sex so regularly under fire, the positive aspects of “hooking up” rarely come to light. Here are six ways that having (safe) sex outside of a monogamous relationship might actually be good for you.

1. Asserting your desires can create a tremendous sense of power.

The word “empowerment” is so fraught as to be nearly useless. But for girls who are constantly bombarded with the message that they need commitment before enjoying sex, there’s real strength in freeing their sex drive from conservative norms.

Some women don’t need a deep spiritual connection in order to enjoy carnal pursuits and some men do; the old stereotypes aren’t useful in navigating your own needs, and breaking anachronistic expectations through experience could lead you to a better understanding of your own sexuality. Sex educator Heather Corinna's ongoing, massive survey of sexual experience and attitudes—8,553 respondents so far (4,990 women, 81% casual sex participants)—shows many women have sex outside of relationships for that very reason: 80% of her respondents chose "to find out more about my sexuality" as a motivation for having casual sex.

Similarly, almost 80% cited their desire "to feel free/uninhibited," which leads us to the next point.

2. It might help you transcend your inhibitions.

When most of us embark on a new relationship, we’re inundated with anxieties. We usually want to please the other person and we want them to think well of us, because we think highly of them and we want to make the connection last. Above all, we definitely don’t want to weird them out with our strange fantasies and turn-ons. We save that type of honesty for much later, when we feel safer. Many couples never share at all: lack of disclosure is the norm for married couples in a variety of ways, whether the issue is finances or hopes and dreams.In a 2001 poll, only 52% of male respondents and 62% of female respondents told their spouses about their sexual history.

There’s less at stake emotionally with a casual partner. This is the very target at which critics aim their arrows—how can women enjoy sex without an emotional connection?!—but this lack of investment can be freeing. It’s the same relative anonymity that causes some people to blurt out their deepest secrets to their hairdresser or a taxi driver. When we’re with someone who isn’t a fixture of our daily life, our egos relax enough to let a little authenticity come through. Rather than worrying about impressing the other person, you can be more assertive about what satisfies them in bed. And in doing so…

3. You’ll learn more about your sexuality

Through encountering new techniques and tastes, through subduing the urge to self-censor, you’ll start to recognize what brings you the greatest amount of pleasure as well as what completely turns you off. In a perfect world, this type of exploration can take place with someone you’re in love with. But many men and women have had the sad experience of falling in love with someone who refuses to indulge in playful sex or whose preferences are entirely at odds with their partner’s.

The heart and the libido are by no means guaranteed to be compatible. (The New York Timesrecently reported that 15% of marriages were sexless, meaning the couple had not had sex in six months to a year. Casual sex bypasses this by concerning itself primarily with the libido, which is typically regarded as a source of shame and fear, but can yield its own profound and revelatory moments.

4. You might learn about yourself emotionally

The fear and propaganda around one-night stands isn’t just sexist, it’s illogical. Bad long-term relationships involving miscommunication, unmet expectations, and lies are just as likely to damage participants as any sexual disappointment on a short-term scale. Both men and women are only as vulnerable as they allow themselves to be, and provided they’re with someone who won’t exploit it, vulnerability can be a beautiful thing whether in the confines of a traditional relationship or not.

A series of hook ups might lead you to the conclusion that you’re enjoying single life and not ready for anything longer-term, or may prove to you that you feel the best sexually and emotionally when you’re serious about someone. Either way, it will be a truth about yourself that you’ve tested out, not something you assumed out of fear. As Laura Sessions Stepp says dismissively, “everyone’s had some sort of sexual experience and they all think they’re experts on it.” But no one other than yourself can be the expert on your sexual experience.

5. You might be a better partner in a committed sexual relationship

In Corinna's results on reasons for engaging in committed sex, almost 90% cited motivation due to “feelings of obligation” and 86% listed “to earn something from my partner.” Surely this can’t be the utopian sexual experience we’re supposed to hold out for?

Should a monogamous commitment appeal to you, your knowledge about yourself and sexuality in general will be an invaluable tool to bring to the table. If you’ve experienced sex as a vehicle for relatively emotionally uncomplicated pleasure, you may even be less likely to go along with sex you don’t want, or to seize upon sex as a tool for manipulation.

You might get more than you bargained for. Contrary to conservative insistence that sex before emotions renders an emotional connection impossible, sexual intimacy so powerfully fosters emotional intimacy that partners sometimes end up dating the person they thought would be a one night stand. In Corinna’s survey, an impressive 82.5% said that one or more of their casual sex relationships became long-term and/or serious.

If you need even more convincing that casual sex won’t ruin you, consider this. Another recent study, one conducted on 1,311 Minnesotans between the ages of 18 and 24, found that there was no correlation between emotional or mental distress and casual sex. The professors were “surprised,” said Marla Eisenberg, lead researcher. “The conventional wisdom is that casual sex […] is harmful. That’s what we’ve been teaching kids for a decade.”

6. You’ll learn more about sex

We’ve all heard the stories about undereducated, traditionalist marriages in which the partners never realized that sex is possible in a position other than missionary, or that a woman can orgasm. With public school programs throughout the country refusing to provide young people with accurate, useful information, Americans are often left to educate themselves through the oldest and arguably best form of learning: experience.

If women's mags like Cosmo are to be believed, sex is a pretty predictable phenomenon, more like operating a basic machine than learning the unique tastes of an individual. Given our culture’s obsessive promotion of narrow beauty aesthetics and even narrower sexual practices, one might never suspect that people have wildly divergent preferences, arousal triggers, and responses to touch. Variety in partners makes it nearly impossible to maintain the “one size fits all” mentality, while never experiencing more than one partner might actually reinforce it.

Heather Corinna’s survery, which is part of a broader examination of the history of casual sex and cultural messaging about casual sex in America over the last 100 years, can be accessed here or here.