Sex & Relationships

What I Learned About Romance from Having Casual Sex

After spending most of my 20s hooking up, I'm shocked to find that traditional courtship is pretty great.

There’s little that could shock me on a first date (or “date,” heavy on the air quotes). Not dirty talk, not sex — not even non-verbal attempts at anal. One gent announced within a couple hours of meeting me that he really wanted to stick a candle in my butt.

But being given flowers? Whoa.

When my recent date showed up at my door, minimalist bouquet in hand, I imagine I looked like I’d seen a ghost — of courtship past. He took me out to a restaurant with actual reservations, not to a taqueria or dive bar. He planned it nearly a week, not minutes, in advance. He picked me up in a cab rather than having me meet him there and, on his way over, he called instead of texting to give me a heads up.

Sure, we could be found post-midnight pressed up against a storefront on a street populated by intoxicated 20-somethings, the minty taste of Fernet fresh on our lips — but we didn’t have sex that night. We got back to my house and managed to unintentionally push all the decorative pillows off my living room couch, wedge my shoe under a cushion and knock over the fresh vase of flowers, before he announced, “As hard as this is going to be, I think the perfect end to this date would be for me to call a cab.”

What a revelation.

Even my serious relationships have started as seeming one-night stands. A couple of drinks as friends, some kissing and then a bed. This is what so many women of my generation do: We claim the same freedom to pursue our desires as men. We embrace the fun of exploration, the thrill of abandon. Sex doesn’t threaten to brand or disgrace us — at least not in any way that we recognize or respect. We aren’t defined by our “number” — we might not even keep track of it.

Hallelujah for that. As I wrote four years ago in my essay “In defense of casual sex,” hookups can be a legitimate way of getting to know other people, as well as ourselves. And even when they aren’t, who cares: Women are just as entitled to meaningless flings as men. But, yes, as I’ve gotten older, casual sex has lost some of the luster of freedom. It isn’t that I’ve forsaken the delights of no-strings flings, but rather that I’ve tired of hookup culture’s dictatorial reign over modern courtship. It doesn’t feel so free when it doesn’t feel like an intentional choice.

This isn’t about blaming men. I’ve jumped in bed with guys and then dropped off the face of the earth, or at least the other end of our text message conversations. I’ve treated some dudes as stock characters, always evidenced by nicknames in conversations with my girlfriends: The Pilot, The Lawyer, The Frat Boy, etc. (Believe me, it’s often mutual: I recently ran into a previous hookup at a bar, tapped him on the shoulder, asked if he remembered me, and he responded, “Oh yeah, you’re the writer. What’s your name?”) I’ve often had no one but myself to blame — especially when going after boys literally wearing warning signs in the form of tattoos reading things like, “I am what I am” or “forgive me.”

Hanna Rosin recently suggested that career-minded young women are actually the ones driving hookup culture, which allows them sexual entertainment without derailing their ladder climb. Personally, I think it’s less men vs. women than it is a genderless now vs. later. People hook up until they tire of hooking up (and some never do). This model is great in many respects — but it can also become a limiting default. I’m an outspoken defender of casual sexual culture, but there are times — like when encountering more traditional courtship — that it seems less about a pursuit of pleasure than an avoidance of actual intimacy.

As I approached my official date-date, I found myself panicking. I wrote one of my best friends a flurry of insane Gchat messages:

“How do I be normal and have fun? Take an Ativan?”
“Oh my God, are we going to touch?”
“I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
“How have I ever had sex before?!”

The idea of spending time with an available man who unambiguously liked me — not just as a potential sex partner — had sent me into a tailspin of anxiety. I’ve done serious, meaningful, long-term relationships, but they’ve all developed alongside or after sex. There’s a degree of certainty with sex — even if you never sleep together again, at least you’ve consummated something. But waiting, lingering in the stomach-flipping in-between, that exposes you to an entirely different type of vulnerability.

Sometimes, tearing off your clothes is just a pathetic attempt at taking control of the uncontrollable: love. It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t always getting what I wanted from hookups. As a friend recently told me, “It’s a terror to put your heart on the line and ask for what you want. You don’t have to be naked to feel naked.” My M.O. has often been getting naked to not feel naked.

I’m conflicted about all this. I don’t believe that one’s sexuality can be broken like fine china, but I do think it’s special. I don’t believe that you should have to withhold sex in order to get what you want from a partner, but sometimes you really do get what you want when you wait, sometimes for entirely unexpected reasons. I don’t think sex on the first date dooms a relationship, and yet there’s a specialness in waiting until you’re comfortable enough with someone to get naked together while totally sober. I would never advocate a return to traditional gender roles, but courtship, actual effort, is refreshing — no matter the sex of the courter.

And you know what? I’m a feminist, but I really like flowers. Next time, I’m getting him some.


Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.