Sex & Relationships

Casual Sex Rules

As a society, we’re beginning to explore our definition of relationships beyond the traditional be-all-and-end-all of marriage and monogamy and opening the doors for new kinds of coupling.

The following article first appeared

It’s 3 a.m. and the phone rings. 

Actually it’s probably a little earlier - and the phone doesn’t ring, it buzzes, because does anyone make phone calls for these purposes anymore? 

If it’s around 11 p.m., the text might read: 

"Hey. What are you up to tonight?" 

If it’s a little bit later … say, 1 or 2 a.m. it might say,

"Wanna come over?" 

Or, if you’re really going to get lucky:

"I’m in your neighborhood. Do you want a visitor?" 

Oh, the modern day booty call. It is not just sloppy dorm room hook ups on the lawless terrain of college campuses anymore; it’s equally prevalent among recent grads dabbling in casual sex while figuring out their lives, young professionals looking for a little spark to change up an otherwise hectic work schedule, divorcées realizing the world outside of marriage, senior citizens enjoying the unapologetic benefits of old age, not to mention anyone carrying on an extra-marital affair. As a society, we’re beginning to explore our definition of relationships beyond the traditional be-all-and-end-all of marriage and monogamy and opening the doors for new kinds of coupling. 

For many, casual sex and "booty calls" have become a preferred option for semi-consistent sex - without the commitment or expectations of a more traditional relationship. 

But is a casual sex relationship ever really completely casual? 

The Delicate Balance of "No Strings Attached"

Even in a "no strings attached" relationship, the inevitable rules of engagement still exist, along with gendered double standards and unexpected deal breakers that can make negotiating and engaging in a "casual" relationship just as complicated as dating and traditional courtship. Do you need to establish boundaries? What is your relationship like outside of sex? How do you make sure that sex doesn’t change the other qualities that made you attracted to each other in the first place? Is it really inevitable that someone will get attached - or hurt? 

In other words, how do you preserve the casual, low-maintenance nature of the booty call while making sure that it is still respectful, consensual and fun for both parties? Whew. Now there's a tough question. So let's examine a few angles, shall we?

The Hook-Up Myth: Don’t Have Casual Sex. You Will Get Attached … and Die

If you keep having sex, and you don’t fall in love and start a relationship, isn’t someone eventually going to become more attached and get hurt?

There appears to be a bit of a war on casual sex, and it's adding fuel to the gendered idea that women are inherently fragile and men are sexually voracious animals. According to this scenario, women are supposed to protect their fragility by abstaining from casual sex. (Not to mention the "fact" that the only way to keep a man around is by dangling ultimately unattainable sex in front of him as he is trained to be a boyfriend, and eventually, a husband.) 

According to this philosophy, homosexuals - or anyone who doesn’t conform to gender norms and heterosexual relationships for that matter - are inhuman, abnormal, salacious sexual deviants. 

Unfortunately these frustratingly outdated philosophies are shamelessly on display in popular culture produced long after the 1950s. Laura Sessions Stepp, author of "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both" claims that a bad one-night stand can leave a woman in "turmoil." Renowned anti-hook-up author Wendy Shalit’s latest book, "The Good Girl Revolution: Young Rebels with Self-Esteem and High Standards" crisply draws the line between the good girls who abstain and bad girls who partake, all while policing sexuality with what are, frankly, puritanical definitions of morality. Both Stepp and Shalit’s writings revolve around a gendered and outdated idea that men are universally sex-driven animals while the women who succumb to them - by engaging in casual sex - have been tragically morally derailed. 

Or ... Not

What do you think, ladies? Is that just the way it is? In response to these ideas, the University of Minnesota conducted a research study that found that young adults engaging in casual sexual encounters are no more at risk of harmful psychological outcomes than sexually active young adults in more committed relationships. Using this study and similar studies as evidence, many began to argue that women are biologically wired no differently than men and can have casual sex with abandon - and perhaps also without emotional consequences. (Think you know everything about the female form? Test yourself by reading 10 Things You Don't Know About Vaginas.)

In reality, neither of these conclusions tells the whole story. Each reduces complicated individual sexuality into paradigms based on perceived trends and tendencies. In the first paradigm, women are complicated and emotional while men are simple, sex driven and carnal. In the second, the varied and complicated intersections of sexuality, relationships and emotional connections are simplified to only a few sentences. 

Negotiating the Non-Relationship

So here's what the real world looks like: People are complicated, and sexuality and sexual expression are personalized preferences that can’t be boiled down to one or two adjectives. Individuals are outliers, not averages, and many of them have vastly different sexual and emotional boundaries from one another. 

That means sex - no matter how casual - is always within the context of some kind of relationship. Is your partner an ex? A friend? A friend of a friend? A casual acquaintance? A coworker? An old flame? A perfect stranger? Instead of applying outdated paradigms to our sexual desires or blindly groping our way through unquestioned sexual empowerment, couldn’t we just ... talk to our partners? If sex and sexual consent are a negotiation, shouldn’t the parameters of the sexual relationship also be a sort of negotiation? 

The Future of Booty Calls?

I was recounting the details of my latest fling to a close friend. I had no idea where it was going - or even where I wanted it to go. I just knew that it was new, exciting, fun, sexy and felt amazing. 

"That’s great," my friend said. "Do you think this could turn into something real?" 

Our culture places enormous privilege on heterosexual monogamy over other types of relationships. But really, what is a real relationship? Gay marriage is still largely illegal in the United States. Polygamy and polyamory - especially in the context of marriage - are frequently frowned upon or hidden away from view. Any relationship that isn’t on an express trajectory toward monogamy followed shortly by marriage is often dismissed as an insignificant phase. But it isn't like those flings didn't happen. For a moment, they were real people, and even if only for a moment, there was a connection.

Where does that leave those of us who aren’t ready for monogamy or marriage, and might never be? Maybe it's because we haven’t met that person. Or we can’t decide on one. Or we're consumed with jobs, lives, non-traditional families and desires that are far more realistic when imagined without familial responsibilities. 

Still, we crave sex. And no matter how tired we are, there will text messages at one in the morning. 

Are you awake?

Can you come over?

We’ll be happy to see them - won't be able to wait to touch them and fuck them - because in addition to sexual satisfaction, we want to feel the intimacy, confidence, adventure and rush of excitement that comes with sex. 

So, even if all this is over before before the sun comes up, is there anything that isn’t "real" about that? 

Anna Lekas Miller is an independent journalist covering a variety of topics ranging from the politics of the Middle East to social movements in the United States. Read her work or follow her on Twitter @agoodcuppa