Are Casual Encounters Good for You?

Research on Hook Ups

Personal Stories and Scientific Research on Hook Ups

You may recall the copious handwringing of the early aughts about the threats of hookup culture. There were op-eds, advice books, research articles, and blogs- oh jeez there were blogs- about the pernicious threats of casual sex among young people. Girls were being devalued and abused, and the very future of love and marriage was endangered by the wanton depravity of college kids. I’m not linking to many of those pieces because they don’t deserve the clicks— and you probably remember anyway. Though you can read what I thought about it!

The truth though, is that girls and women have always been sexually devalued and abused – that’s been an issue. The other -ironic- truth was that statistically, Millennials were having less sex than their parents’ generation had. ‘Kids these days’ actually keep having less and less sex in general.

People have always had casual sex- but how we do it and whether we talk about it- is extremely impacted by culture. Throughout history, sex has sometimes been reserved for committed relationships- or at least that was expected for women of a certain social status. Meanwhile, sex work and the sexual abuse of those of a lower status were often normalized parts of society. Free love movements began in the 19th century, first advocating to break the legal shackles around sex and eventually arguing for a general social liberation. The innovation of sexual consent is intrinsically tied to civil rights for women and many other disempowered folks.

So what was up with the hook up alarmism? It was perhaps about the order of operations. The biggest behavioral shift was that young people started to have more casual encounters which held the potential of turning into something committed. Instead of dating first, Millennials grew accustomed to hooking up casually, and then deciding whether to turn it into dating.

“Hooking up” as a phrase is intentionally vague- it covers everything from a heavy make out sesh to a weekend-long fuck fest. It allows for adaptability and plausible deniability when describing to your friends what is happening with a new partner, making space for the relationship to intensify or disappear without too much drama.

So, was there anything to the pearl-clutching about the risks of hook up culture? Is casual sex dangerous? Physically speaking: kinda. A greater number of sexual partners mathematically increases the odds of sexually transmitted infections and other communicable illness, though there are many ways to mitigate those risks. Though the greatest threat of assault still comes from partners and people who are known to the victim, meeting up alone with strangers also comes with some potential for theft or violence.

One of the most likely negative consequence of casual encounters is the danger of bad sex- especially for women attracted to men. Women are far less likely to have an orgasm while hooking up with a random man than a regular partner (although the best bet for a climax is actually sex with another woman, since lesbians are way less likely to experience the orgasm gap, even in one night stands). This- along with the gendered double standards on slut shaming- may provide some explanation for why women who have casual sex experience depression at a higher rate than similarly promiscuous men.

Researchers are also concerned that the ambiguity of hookup culture- that flexibility it provides for remaining unattached or turning sex into something more- is not great on our mental health. Some argue that in trying to remain cool and not seem clingy, young people are “hooking up only when drunk, refraining from tenderness, being unfriendly afterward, and avoiding “repeat” hookups.”

While most people rate their unattached sex positively, if you feel emotionally conflicted about hookups, find yourself with mismatched levels of romantic interest, aren’t being sexually satisfied, or hold more conservative attitudes towards sex – you might well feel distress about it.

These emotional dangers can all be mollified, however, by clear expectations, open communication, and some general social awareness. If everyone involves recognizes and openly acknowledges whether a situation is a “One Night Stand, Booty Call, Fuck Buddy [or] Friend with Benefits,” then it can impact how much vulnerability and investment is involved. Having realistic expectations and getting them met goes a long way.

To find out what y’all think about temporary entanglements, I put out a call on social media and got some great replies.

“When outside of committed relationships I found casual encounters to be very fun. I enjoyed the thrill of the chase and brief interactions that were meant to be just a quick interpersonal connection with a physical boost. I liked to be very clear upfront that I wasn’t looking for something serious and most of the time that worked. I especially enjoyed “one night stands” while traveling for work or pleasure. Of course, safety was a big concern so used protection and tested regularly. I’m not someone people would necessarily assume would have many of these encounters but I’m not ashamed of it at all.”- Leah

“I have anxiety, and so I’m constantly afraid…As it relates to casual encounters, my biggest fear is telling someone that I’m attracted to them and that person being uncomfortable with the knowledge. It’s happened enough in my life that I tend to become paralyzed with fear when I try to tell someone if I am attracted to them, and so I tend to keep that information to myself. I also fear someone being put off so much by me that they call law enforcement – read my blog post “Polyamory and Race” for more context on that.

I think that casual encounters can be enjoyable, and that it depends entirely on the people who are involved. Be safe, be sane, be courteous, and be consensual. And be certain to communicate your feelings on casual encounters with your partner(s). I, for one, have had a marvelous time with FWBs, and sometimes the time together has strengthened friendships. It’s something that I would totally do again, because for me sex is fun and is to be shared. As for with a stranger, I probably wouldn’t because my anxiety would be too great. Then again, the future is not written in stone.” – Justin

“I had my first one night stand in Costa Rica last year!! I was very intentional about having the experience, so I downloaded Tinder when I landed. I matched with a handsome Frenchman. We met up both understanding what the hookup meant for us, just a fun night between adults! While I am proud of myself for pushing myself past my comfort zone it isn’t something i see myself doing again. Mostly because I’ve come to realize I’m a bit of a demisexual.”- Christina

“In some cases, I think there’s a lot to a one night stand that is freeing: you don’t have to worry about what they think, you can administer a wild abandon you might not feel as free about with someone you’re interested in. But the other side to that is that THEY might not really have the same amount of passion as you do, as I’m pretty sure a lot of men are taught that it’s “cool” to not care about the women you sleep with (toxic masculinity), so that “reckless abandon/opportunity to worship at your own altar” for you might be more of a disconnected irreverence for them.” -Eris

“When I got divorced 6 years ago, I had been married for a long time – in a pretty much sexless marriage. I didn’t know what I wanted or liked, sexually, anymore. So, as a scientist, I approached it like I was data gathering. I threw myself out there, slept with many men and kept a spreadsheet on it. I did it for about a year. It really worked. I had a deep understanding of what was good for me… and what was very wrong with divorced men. It was a fascinating and effective experiment.” – Lori

What is my advice for those seeking no-strings attached sex?

Be clear with your wants, needs and expectations. 

This requires knowing what you want and need, of course. So be honest with yourself and engage in behavior that is consistent with the kind of outcome you’re looking to find. Don’t promise more than you can give, don’t ask for less than you require to feel good.

Find a partner who is suitably matched

Sometimes friends are a great option for a passionate, mutually enjoyable boink. You already know, like and trust each other, hopefully. Other times, especially if there are uneven levels of interest, a FWB situation is a social nightmare waiting to happen. Consider using an app designed for fellow seekers, there are a glut of options depending on your interests. When chatting online, consider whether their online persona gives the impression of being a curious, satisfying lover— not just a willing one.

Be a good partner, even if briefly

Just because you might not see this person again doesn’t mean it’s time to be careless. Contribute positively to the culture of casual sex by being kind and concerned with their pleasure. Be honest about sexual health status, respect their boundaries and wishes for safer sex, and do your best to make sure everyone leaves feeling positive about the experience.  It’s impossible to overstate the ripple effects of good and bad behavior.

    • Timaree Schmit Headshot

      Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.

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