Are You Having Casual Sex?
Our sex positivity columnist Anouszka Tate investigates casual sex and the misjudgements that are often made about what can be very valuable experiences.
Let me escort you back to a delicious pre-Covid era in which one would often find themselves at an after work event making small talk and thinking nothing of greeting people with a warm, if slightly forced, hug. Oh! The freedom! The ecstasy!
Anyway, I was at one such event and on hearing what I do for a living Random Man #1 began to offload, as often happens. “I’ve slept with about 60 women, obviously most of them casually,” he told me. “And new women always seem really put off, like I’m not serious boyfriend material. How can I stop them judging me on that – honestly, it seems to be a genuine obstacle to my having a committed relationship.”
Random Man #2 sniggers, but looks back at me almost immediately, equally invested in the answer. This, it would seem, is not an uncommon concern.
So, allow me to unpack the all-important body count. Firstly, wow what a competitive, combative phrase – lets ban that alongside the word foreplay. Secondly, I say ‘all-important’ with a sardonic sigh because I don’t believe the amount of sex, or the number of people you’ve had that sex with, has any impact on your moral character or worth.
Casual sex has got a bad rap. We tend to use it as shorthand for ‘sex with someone you’re not in a relationship with’. As a society we tend to imagine that the ultimate goal should be to have ‘meaningful’ sex with the same person ad infinitum. We demonise anything that doesn’t fit that description as a last resort, an inadvertent mistake, or a wilful decision to be a bit of a dick.
We’re getting two messages. One: casual sex and the people who engage in it have less value. And two: in order for sex to have meaning you have to be in, or be on your way to being in, a relationship.
However, I’d argue that ‘casual’ and ‘meaningful’ aren’t mutually exclusive descriptors. Sex can simultaneously be both. It’s not about how many times you do it with someone, but about what you shared with them in the moment. It can also, by the way, not be meaningful in any wider sense – it can exist as a purely physical pursuit. That’s an equally valid purpose.
I’ve always said I’m not a casual sex person. That I can’t do it. I’ve never judged those who do – in fact if anything I’ve always been a bit jealous of people who seem capable of bouncing from one fling to the next. These people no doubt get to have sex a lot, which is great. I, however, just don’t have it in me to have casual sex.
I’ve recently realised I’m both an idiot and a liar.
I’ve had a lot of casual sex.
There are the numerous times I’ve slept with men on the first date, knowing full well I had no intention of there being a second. And there was the time I had ‘casual sex’ with someone for three whole years, aware we’d never be in an official relationship but valuing his company deeply nonetheless.
There is, however, one thing all these men had in common. I trusted them. I hadn’t been calling these encounters ‘casual’ sex because they did mean something. I felt connected, I felt respected, I felt pleasure.
Essentially I think I’m admitting that – shock horror – she of the sex advice got sucked in by the socially accepted notion that casual sex is worthless sex, lacking in compassion.
Clearly on both a societal and a personal level we ascribe value to what we deem to be different kinds of sex.
For example, I was in a relationship for a long time. Newly single, I could only say I’d slept with a couple of people, while some of my peers were racking up the numbers. Most considered me lucky to have had fairytale, wholesome sex in a stable relationship. Others decided to judge me as far less experienced than them.
But riddle me this…
What’s the difference between me having sex with one person 100 times, and you having sex with 100 people once? We’ve both had sex literally the same number of times. Sure, our experiences will be very different, but neither is better or worse than the other. Why should the moral character of one person be judged more harshly than the other?
Crucially, when either of us next has sex with someone else for the first time, we’re both presented with a blank canvas. We’re both now having to learn a new body; we both have to go into that situation with humility.
So, if you often find yourself in the same position as Random Man #1 I’d be interested to know how you’re responding when you’re asked how many people you’ve slept with. Is there boastful pride in your voice, or is it something you sheepishly mutter under your breath? Neither is great.
Answer honestly, matter-of-factly, but follow up with context. I don’t think a raw number means enough in the first place to warrant lying or labouring the point; it’s the maturity with which you handle the ensuing conversation that’ll determine whether someone thinks you’re partner material or not.
Explain what sex means to you. I know I always bang on about it, but sincere communication is key. I’m not saying you need to divulge explicit details about each of those 60 odd encounters, but explaining what sex means to you is important going into a new relationship anyway. Is sex the way you switch off from the outside world? Is it your way of showing affection? Is it just one of many ways you seek physical pleasure alongside swimming and bungee jumping?
Understanding that will bring your potential new partner closer to you because you’ve offered vulnerability, and there’s thoughtful reason (hopefully) behind your number. On the other hand if they have a completely different perception of what sex is and what role they want it to play in their life, perhaps it’s better to know now rather than face bigger issues further down the line.
It might not be the number itself that new people are balking at, but the way you talk about those you’ve slept with. I understand it’s tempting to bad mouth them in an attempt to make the person in front of you feel you adore them far more than you ever did these ‘casual’ others, but that’ll reflect far worse on your character than your number will.
Talk about them with respect and kindness. Sure, acknowledge why they weren’t right for you – physically or emotionally – but present it with the wisdom of what you learnt from that experience and what you’d therefore like to bring to this new relationship.
Be the first to bring up your latest STI test. You’ll look responsible and caring – traits I personally value much more highly than number of partners. Again, showing maturity here should begin to allay any fears a new partner might have about the ‘type’ of person your sexual history makes you.
As I’ve alluded to already, assure them you always go into a new sexual experience with a blank slate. Their body is new to you, and yours to them. Regardless of the perceived level of experience – or lack thereof – either one of you is bringing to the table, you’re in this together from this moment onwards.
My final piece of advice is quite honestly just “back yourself, hun”. If someone wants to judge you for your sexual history it says more about the insecurities and beliefs they hold than it does about you.
This needs to be a mutually pleasurable experience; I want to help answer your questions too. What are you confused, curious, or concerned about? Ask me a question in the comments below or on my Instagram page, and I’ll do my best to answer in my next column!
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