In my previous post, I made the argument that there is nothing inherently harmful about casual sex, and I linked to a scientific study that supported my claim. The other day, a friend responded to my post, and levelled two criticisms against what I’d written. The criticisms were, I think, based on misunderstanding. But – knowing that others may have similar criticisms – I’d like to share with you the response I wrote my friend. This will clarify a few details, and hopefully address some objections.
The study I cited in my last post found no differences in psychological well-being between young adults who engaged in casual sex and those who had sex with a committed partner. In alleged contradiction of that study (though not really, as I will explain), my friend cited another study, which found that women were more likely than men to have negative feelings following a one-night stand. For example, many women (though still a minority) reporting feeling “used” after a one-night stand, or felt that they had let themselves down.
Based on this, my friend argued it was false to claim that “casual sex isn’t harmful.” Rather, it is more accurate to say that casual sex can be harmful. Secondarily, my friend criticized me for having a “my way is the only way because it works for me” attitude toward this topic. Here is how I responded:
To understand what I’m saying about casual sex, you have to think a bit more carefully about causality.
Imagine two people who decide to have casual sex because they want to and they believe sex is generally a good thing, and they both are able to go about it in a mature, responsible, and safe way. Let’s say these two enjoy themselves and suffer no ill consequences.
Now imagine two people who decide to have sex because they want to and they believe sex is generally a good thing, but they aren’t open about what this sex means to each of them. Let’s say that to the man the sex is completely casual, and he wants it just because it’s pleasurable, meanwhile the woman wants that too but she’s under the impression that sex is leading toward a more sustained interest in the other person. To her it’s a little less than casual.
So imagine that the two have sex, and the sex itself is good enough, but afterwards the woman feels disappointed when she finds out that the man was just looking for a casual experience. She maybe feels a little used, even though that wasn’t the man’s intention. And let’s say the man is generally happy with the experience, but a little upset that the woman isn’t happy about it, as well as a little frustrated that she was expecting more when that wasn’t something they agreed to.
Now if one couple had casual sex that matched their expectations and was happy about it, and another couple had casual sex that didn’t match their expectations and wasn’t happy about it, exactly what caused the problem – the sex, or the lack of communication beforehand?
You can see that it was the latter.
Of course, these are hypothetical scenarios that I made up, but they jibe with reality. When something negative results from sex there is always a reason, a specific mechanism by which the negative thing happened. It may be a miscommunication, or a lack of trust, or religion-induced guilt, or a disease that was contracted, but you’ll never hear of people who have safe and responsible sex because they want to and who were communicative with each other about their expectations, and yet still didn’t enjoy it because the very act of genital contact is harmful.
That’s what it means to say that casual sex is harmful. It means that genital contact itself is harmful, regardless of your feelings about it. And that’s not true.
So I’m not telling anyone to “do things my way.” I’m telling everyone that the claim made by some that sex without a contract is inherently harmful is a lie. If I were to counsel the unhappy woman from the scenario above, I wouldn’t tell her to “have sex and enjoy it.” For pete’s sake! I would explore with her the possibility that her expectations about casual sex aren’t really realistic, and that if she’s looking for sex that exists on the road to a more serious relationship, then she needs to be more careful in choosing when and with whom she has it. (And none of this has anything to do with what I want; the point is that there are things she can do to get what she wants.)
On the other hand, the response of many clergy to this woman would be to say that what she did was wrong, period, and that she needs to stop doing it if she wants to earn the respect of others, or be a good person, or go to heaven, or protect herself from emotional harm.
How’s that for guidance?
Religious authorities will avoid looking this deeply into the specific causes of harm, because they are bound by their dogma to denounce premarital sex. No matter what the evidence shows, they cannot admit that it’s possible to enjoy “sex without a contract” in a completely healthy and fulfilling way, because to do so would mean that their religious teachings were wrong. And so they have focused their energies and admonitions on the act of sex itself – genital contact and orgasms – instead of on anything that actually matters, like respect for the person you have sex with, honesty about expectations, safety, and shared pleasure. To focus on anything other than this isn’t guidance, it’s ignorance – and we shouldn’t stand for it. Casual sex isn’t harmful. But there are safer and more fulfilling ways of going about it than others.
Let’s talk about that.