Can casual sex ever really be casual?
Maturing is realising that as a woman, casual sex (especially when you have sex with men), does absolutely nothing for women,” wrote one woman in a recent viral tweet. Her reasoning? Well, most men, she argues, don’t care enough about a woman’s wellbeing, nor do they behave well enough to deserve to be sleeping with them in the first place. There are no taxis home. No thoughtful phone calls. And, more often than not, no orgasms. With this in mind, the woman went on to ask: “What does casual sex, on the whole, do for women?”
It’s a good question – and if you ask it on TikTok, many will tell you about uneven power dynamics between men and women, and how it prevents them from enjoying heterosexual sex outside of romantic relationships. “It’s now more in women’s interest to imitate masculine sexuality and to have sex like a man and, moreover, to present that as being feminist,” explains the author Louise Perry in one video. She goes on to agree with the person interviewing her that, generally speaking, casual sex is making women unhappy. “This will sometimes be chalked up to particular men behaving badly or will be ascribed to s***-shaming.”
This illustrates one of the greatest moral and sociological dilemmas facing single straight women. And it’s backed up by science. According to one study from 2022 published in the journal Sex Cult, women generally have more “negative emotional outcomes” from casual sex than men. The findings supported similar results from 2013, when a large-scale study found that 46 per cent of women experienced regret after casual sex compared to 23 per cent of men.
To quote Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw: “In an age where women enjoy the same money and successes as men, why shouldn’t women be able to enjoy sex like a man?” How is it that today, nearly 20 years since the cult HBO series came to an end, many of us are still asking that exact question?
One of the sources of tension seems to be that there is a dichotomy between the messaging women receive about their sexuality and the reality of what happens when they put that messaging into practice. Everywhere you look, women are told to embrace their sexual autonomy. It’s rehashed in the advertising for any female-focused brand. It’s on T-shirts, sex toys, wall art. It’s practically an entire subculture on Instagram. And yet, who is actually giving us the tools to become our liberated, sexual selves? Who is changing centuries of social conditioning that have told women sex isn’t really for them unless they’re reproducing? And what happens when we go into these casual sex experiences, feeling as empowered as we’ve been told we should, only to be met with a lingering sense of emptiness and sexual shame?
Ask anyone who’s single right now if they’re having casual sex and chances are you’ll be met with a deep, aggravated sigh. Either they are, and the person they’re sleeping with hasn’t texted them back for a week, or they aren’t, and they’re considering moving to a far away land because they’ve “completed” Hinge and every other mainstream dating app. If it’s neither of those two scenarios, perhaps the person they’re hooking up with wants more than they’re able to give, or vice versa. Very few of us, it seems, are having positive experiences of casual sex.
According to the author and sexual historian Barry Reay, casual sex is “ephemeral, transitory, outside or supplemental to the context of a longer-term sexual relationship”. As sociologist Eva Illouz posits in her hugely popular book, The End of Love: A Sociology of Negative Relations, it’s a commodity in contemporary society that, thanks to dating apps, can be ordered online just as easily as a Chinese takeaway.
Often people’s sexual connection thrives when everyone involved feels a degree of safety and trust – without these basics, sex often isn’t as satisfying as it could be
Clearly, though, the experience itself is not quite as easy as it sounds. One of the well-documented sociological consequences of Covid is that we became worse at communicating, but after spending too much time in isolation, many of us have also lost a sense of who we are and what we want from life and love. All of that is going to make the matter of having – and enjoying – casual sex much murkier.
“Ultimately some people are better equipped than others to enjoy sex without needing conventional monogamy attached to it,” says dating coach Hayley Quinn. “For some, crossing a physical line quickly becomes emotionally confusing when it doesn’t lead into a relationship. Simply recognising where you stand on this spectrum and honouring your feelings around sex can be helpful.”
It can also help to be absolutely certain both you and your partner are clear about what you’re getting out of the experience beforehand. “Happy sex will occur when, broadly speaking, both people have the same aim,” explains clinical psychologist Sally Austen. For example, if one person contacts their ex because they’ve had a hard day at work and find themselves craving sexual contact, this is fine – so long as the ex is fully aware of the dynamic and intention at play. “If there’s a chance the ex thinks this is the rekindling of their long-term relationship, then tears will follow,” Austen adds.
Quinn believes that Sex and the City “glamourised” casual sex for women and that this ideology is more heavily perpetuated today than ever before. While this seems positive, what it does is fundamentally widen the gap between expectation and reality. “Even now there’s ‘hot girl summers’, a prevalent porn culture, and the idea that abundant casual sex is an important life stage,” she says. “While for some people this may be true, others will find casual sexual experiences mechanical or disappointing. Often people’s sexual connection thrives when everyone involved feels a degree of safety and trust – without these basics, sex often isn’t as satisfying as it could be.”
There can be, however, enormous benefits to casual sex if you go into it with the right frame of mind. Take Jessica*, 31, who started having casual sex after coming out of a long-term relationship at the end of her twenties. “One man I started seeing was brilliant company, insightful, caring and incredible in the bedroom,” she says. “But he had quite a complicated life, with three children, and each with different mothers. It made me realise that even if they tick all the boxes in every other way, if I can meet someone without children it would be much better for me.”
Despite the encounter being short-lived, Jessica reflects on it positively. “Because we both knew it was always casual, I came away having learned elements of what I would like in someone and what I wouldn’t.”
With this in mind, casual sex can be great for women and everyone else. The key is to go into it with the same exact intentions as the other person, and having enough self-awareness to handle the outcome; this can also help to level the playing field between men and women.
“There’s no doubt power dynamics can affect casual sex relationships, but stereotypes do not define society,” says Tamara Hoyton, sex therapist at the charity Relate. “If you’re having casual sex for the wrong reasons, such as wanting to be liked or giving into peer pressure, anyone can end up having a negative experience. If you’re wanting to have sex to connect emotionally or because you think it will result in a committed relationship, you may end up feeling empty if the other person isn’t on the same page.”
Perhaps, then, instead of constantly being told about how we need to be “sexually liberated”, the key is to be sexually aware. Good sex, casual or otherwise, is only going to happen when you and your partner are fully cognisant of the circumstances under which it’s occurring. When this happens, the outcomes can be both healing and enlightening.
“I feel like I have more control now,” says Jessica, of her approach to casual sex. “Now that I’m comfortable with it, I’m less afraid to put myself out there and while I know there will be more knocks and people that aren’t right, I wouldn’t be learning what I do and don’t need and want [if I was] in a relationship. It’s the best for me and a potential partner.”
*Names have been changed.