The dictionary definition of casual sex according to the online Oxford languages dictionary is: “sexual activity between people who are not established sexual partners or do not know each other well.” While this definition is not technically wrong, I would like to expand the definition of casual sex to low commitment sexual activity that is not in an established relationship (hookups, one-night stands, friends with benefits, etc).
For myself, instead of following present dictionary definitions, I think it’s really important for folks to have their own definition of what casual sex means to them before, or while engaging in it! As everything around sex, relationships, and sexuality is constructed around traditional heteronormative relationship models, I encourage everyone to self-define what sex and casual mean to you. Because sexuality is a lifelong journey, not a set destination, this definition may shift and change across time, or with different sexual partners, and that's okay!
Casual Sex - Why?
There are plenty of reasons to want to have casual sex. Whether you’re into one-night stands or a longer-term casual “situationship,” casual sex can be fun and fulfilling. In my opinion, casual sex gets a bad rap. Of course, a one-night stand might not be the best sex of your life as it can take time to adjust and sexually align with a new partner, but it can also be fun and exciting and could maybe lead to a fun sexual space beyond that one night, or not!
I won’t go too deep into my sexual history in this article, but I will say, I’ve had a lot of casual sex of all kinds. When I was younger I was doing it for what I would classify as the “wrong” reasons based on my needs, wants, and desires surrounding sex. I was having a fair amount of casual sex because I wanted sexual attention and intimacy, which led me to have a lot of, well, "meh" sex, one-night stands, and ghosting. I didn’t feel like I had the time or emotional energy to sustain real romantic, or even deep emotional sexual relationships. However, as a person who enjoys sex, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my sex life, so casual sex was the perfect solution for me. The problem was the way I was going about it left me feeling unsatisfied and often confused.
I shifted my attitude towards casual sex by asking myself the simple question: “Why am I seeking sexual partners and what are my “goals”? Once I realized that maybe I would prefer having better sex, with more folks that were more aligned with me sexually (mainly not straight cismen, sorry straight cismen), and were willing to have conversations about what we were doing and why the quality of my casual sex skyrocketed. This process of having better, more fulfilling casual sex was rooted in this question of “why” and coming to a point where I felt confident about what I wanted from my casual sexual relationships. My “why” or my goal of engaging in this was just that I wanted enjoyable sex and fun exploration without the time and emotional commitment of a relationship or dating. Simple enough, then the next step was explaining this to sexual partners.
If you’re intentionally seeking out a casual partner it’s important to ask yourself what you’re looking for, and then seek sexual partners who are looking for the same thing. If you want something casual, and someone else is looking for head over heels romance, you may not be emotionally compatible at this moment even if the sex is awesome. Being upfront and honest about your feelings, wants, and needs is key. This is a negotiation, a conversation, not a rule-setting match. So you also need to be ready to listen to a response from the other person too, hear their needs, wants, and feelings, and then make a decision together from there.
If you’ve started having sex with someone already, for example, an after-party hookup that you’d like to be more than a one-night stand, but also want to keep it casual you can have this same conversation. Everyone has a different definition of casual. This is why it is so important to have conversations with casual partners about what casual means. If you’re moving past the one-night-stand point, it’s a good idea to talk about what that will look like. By establishing boundaries and definitions early, people can opt in or out based on whether or not the established boundaries work for them.
Tips on how to keep a casual hook-up relationship sustainable and healthy!
It’s a good idea to reexamine whether you’re happy in your casual sexual relationships on an individual level. Are you enjoying the sex you’re having? Are you feeling emotionally safe and good having casual sex? How do you feel about your casual sex partners? All relationships, regardless of the level of commitment, are evolving in nature and the same goes for your sexual preferences, so it’s prudent to get ahead of sneaky feelings and anxieties and have regular self-check-in moments. A personal tip- I’ve found keeping a sexual journal helpful to track how I feel about different partners/sexual experiences!
On top of self-check-ins, interpersonal check-ins are key if you're having regular casual sex with a partner. I wish we lived in a world where everyone was comfortable being radically open and honest about how they’re feeling. However, some people, myself included, benefit from prompting and creating an open space that is designated for sharing feelings/checking in. This can relieve some of the “when do I tell them” pressure if new feelings come up or you want a shift in dynamics.
It is possible that if you’re seeing someone you enjoy regularly, and having good sex with this person, you will at least have some kind of fondness towards them. When people are having casual sex and these feelings come up, a lot of folks’ first impulse is to end the relationship. Whilst this choice is totally up to personal preferences, I would recommend taking a moment and examining these feelings. Where are they coming from? Are they romantic, platonic, or sexual? Or something else altogether? Regardless of where the feelings come from, rather than cutting all ties and ghosting, I’d suggest being open and honest about them (once you figure out what they are) and addressing them with this person. Ultimately, you have the choice over what you’d like to be doing, but I’m a big proponent of honesty.
Avoiding the dreaded ghost
Honestly, y'all, let’s stop ghosting people. I'll admit, I've done it, and regret it and I'm sure many readers have too. It's okay if things don't work out or you're not feeling it, but leaving someone waiting and wondering also isn't an honest approach. Don’t tell people you’ll text or call if you don’t intend on doing that. There’s no reason to lie and “shield” the feelings of others if they’ll end up more hurt afterward expecting a call that never came.
A final note on sexual safety!
This should be a given, but please practice safe sex especially if you’re sexually active with multiple partners, or that partner is sexually active with multiple partners. The idea that utilizing various sexual health tools like barrier methods (condoms, dental dams, gloves/finger tips) isn’t hot is just silly. Nothing is hotter and more empowering than being safe sexually. Take your sexual health into your own hands! If you’re going to hook up for a night, bring your safe sex materials with you. If you’re going to regularly be having sex with someone, even if it’s casual have a check-in about sexual health and safety. In a non-judgmental way ask your sexual partner about their STI status or even ask to see their testing results and share yours. Know what precautions to take, and the level of risk you’re consenting to before engaging sexually. If someone discloses an STI diagnosis with you, remember to take it in non-judgmentally, most STIs are manageable, and you can still have loads of fun sex with the right protection! Check out Scarleteen.com, or Planned Parenthood’s website for more info on STIs.
Other great questions to ask: Are you and your sexual partners using protection with other people? Getting tested regularly? If not, maybe discuss that being integral to your sexual dynamic and set your boundaries around sexual health to keep yourself and future partners safe.
About the Author
Aly (they/them) is a pleasure-based sexuality educator, researcher, and activist based in Amsterdam. Co-founder and co-director of the queer-focused online sexuality and relationship education website Queer Sex Ed Community Curriculum (@queersexedcc // queersexedcc.com), Aly holds a Master of Science in Sociology: Gender, Sexuality, and Society, and a B.A. focused on sexuality education, gender and identity studies, and sexual health. They have worked at several international nongovernmental organizations as a researcher on pleasure-focused sexual and reproductive health and rights initiatives. Their work focuses on intersections of power, health, knowledge, identity, pleasure, and educational pedagogy. Personally, Aly is a major pleasure enthusiast who loves talking and writing about all things sex, identity, politics, and pleasure!