You just had the kind of mind-blowing sex that would make Anastasia Steele blush. And now you're walking your suitor to the door before star-fishing straight onto the mattress. Bliss, bliss, bliss!
This is the kind of best of both worlds—satisfying romp! no morning breath!—casual sex promises. But, while some people are pros at decoupling sex and feelings, for others, starting to feel attached is an occupational hazard.
And it's not rare for that to happen, says Chloe Carmichael, PhD. 'Women release oxytocin, a bonding hormone, when they have sex (and particularly when they orgasm), so in many cases it's hard not to feel at least a little attached,' she explains. 'And of course, the more you spend any kind of physical time with someone, the more you're likely to learn about them and get to know them on a more personal level.'
Which camp you fall into ultimately depends on your ability to separate sex from love, as well as why you’re having casual sex.
Read on for a casual sex crib sheet, featuring intel on the pros and cons of casual coitus, as well as tips on what to do if you start catching feels.
What is casual sex, exactly?
Let’s start by defining sex, no qualifier attached. Sex can be any meaningful act of pleasure. Hand stuff, mouth play, sex toy use, and kissing can all fall into the sex 'bucket.'
Typically, casual sex refers to any act of pleasure with one (or more!) other people that are free from any 'strings,' expectation of commitment, and/or exclusivity.
'But what casual sex means and how it plays out can vary,' says psychologist and sex therapist Megan Fleming, PhD. For some, casual sex specifically refers to sex that happens with someone they met at a bar or on an app. For others, casual sex feels like an accurate descriptor of their friends with benefits dynamic.
'How you meet and how often you do it is less important to the definition than the fact that you are genuinely not expecting the dynamic to evolve into something more," Fleming says. Understood!
There's obvious benefits to casual sex, right...?
The plot lines of romcoms like No Strings Attached might have you believin' casual sex is bad. But that’s false advertising.
Casual sex is a wonderful way for people to get their physical touch wants (err, needs?) and sexual fix, according to Fleming. In particular, casual sex appeals to those who aren’t interested in committed monogamous relationships, or who haven’t yet met someone they’re interested in entering a committed monogamous relationship with, she explains.
After all, committed relationships can be time consuming, she says: 'Some people don’t have the availability to commit to a relationship, but still want to feel pleasure.' (And there's no shame in that!)
Casual sex can also lend itself to a particular thrill, excitement, or endorphin-rush that some pleasure-seekers lust after, says Laura Berman, PhD, host of the Language of Love Podcast and author of Quantum Love.
And of course, casual sex offers many of the similar benefits of other kinds of sex, including increased confidence, boosted libido, and improved sleep quality.
Should the sex end in—or better yet: travel through—the O-zone, it can also ease menstrual cramps, decrease headache pain, reduce stress and anxiety, and boost immune system.
Sooo, what are the downsides of casual sex?
The biggie, according to Berman, is that the odds of catching feels for the person you intended to keep around for some good ole fashioned casual boning are high.
Reminder: Sex, including casual sex, causes the brain to release oxytocin, which makes us feel more emotionally tied to a person. Basically, you're biologically wired to attach to any sexual partners, so it's not only common, it's natural.
Plus, during all that physical time spent with your casual sex buddy, you'll likely start to learn about them and get to know them on a more personal level. If you like what you learn, odds are you're going to start to feel the feels. (More on how to handle this below.)
Another potential drawback of casual sex? It’s often less pleasurable than the sex that takes place in an ongoing partnership, according to Berman.
In one survey, data showed that amongst cis-het couples, only 10% of women reach orgasm during one-night stands, while men reach orgasm 64% of the time during one-night stands. (The survey did not speak to non-binary folks.)
Of course, context is everything. 'Friends with benefits situations and ongoing casual sex allows your partners to learn your body and desires better, and therefore be more likely to help you achieve orgasm or pleasure,' Berman adds.
Casual sex can also lead to disappointment if one of the partners agrees to the dynamic in hopes the sex is going to 'persuade' the other person to be in committed relationship. Unfortunately, it's common for people to think (read: hope) that having sex with them will grow their feelings. 'This is highly unlikely,' Berman says. 'If one person doesn’t want a commitment, having casual sex with them isn’t likely to change their mind.'
And, not to be a downer, but there is some safety concern if your sexy time is with a stranger. 'You [should be] very cautious about who you’re bringing home,' says Berman. If you're meeting up with someone new, make sure a trusted friend or family member knows where you are at all times.
Also keep safe sex in mind in order to avoid risks of STD transmission. It's totally up to you how you handle your romping sesh, but trust your gut, if something feels off.
Is having casual sex right for me?
To determine if casual nookie is for you, you’re going to have to do a little self-reflection. Berman and Fleming recommend asking yourself the following:
Do I really want to have no-strings-attached sex?
Do I have a particular someone in mind for a casual sex encounter? What is it about this person that draws me to them?
Why do I want to have casual sex?
What are the boundaries I would need to put into place in order to make this encounter as pleasurable as possible?
What is my confidence level in regularly talking about current STI status and safer sex practices?
Here's the truth: If your answers reveal a pattern where you consistently develop feelings for the person you’re having sex with, casual sex is likely not for you.
It’s also likely not for you if you don’t feel comfortable (regularly!) navigating safer sex conversations. 'Casual sex can be riskier than sex in a monogamous partnership if you don’t know you partner’s current STI status and recent sexual behaviors,' says Berman.
After all, it’s quite possible you’re not the only person your late-night-bang is banging. It’s best to use barriers for all types of sex, but just remember that even with barriers, certain STIs can still spread.
What should I keep in mind if I decide to have casual sex?
1. Discuss boundaries
Laying out expectations about your bond (or lack thereof) before getting down to business can save you a world of indigestion down the line. 'Going in with shared expectations about why you’re doing this, as well as what this is, is crucial,' says Fleming.
You might say:
'Before we get physical, I just want to be transparent about the fact that I don’t have the emotional capacity for anything serious.'
2. Figure out a text, sext, and sex frequency that works for you
Your relationship before you start getting naked together will likely play a role here. But frequency and duration of contact is how humans build trust and grow closer. So generally, it’s best to talk only for the purpose of meeting up for your rendezvous.
You might also choose to space out encounters or keep them to long-distance situations.
3. Be honest if you do develop feelings
You have absolutely nothing to gain by keeping your feelings to yourself or pretending they don't exist. In most cases, feelings only grow with time, so you're doing yourself no favors by getting in deeper with someone who doesn't want what you want.
So, tell them! Yes, it can be scary, but it's worth it for the peace of mind you'll gain after.
You could try saying:
'I thought you should know that I've started to like you in a romantic way. I think I need to step back, because when I got into this, I didn’t plan for these feelings.'
This lets them know how you feel, but don't put any pressure on them to reciprocate—which you only want them to do if they truly feel the same way as you do.
The Bottom Line: At the end of the day, casual sex can be pleasurable, but it's tricky. As long as you stay true to yourself and your heart along the way, you'll be just fine.
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