Your Guide To Drama-Free Casual Sex
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POV: You just had the kind of raunchy, orgasmic, 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 is casual sex all it’s cracked up to be? According to sex and relationship experts, for some people it is; while for others, it’s a fast track to heart palpitations and pain. Yep, if you've ever caught the feels after sleeping with someone regularly, you know what I mean.
And it's not rare for that to happen, says psychologist 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."
Meet the Experts:
Chloe Carmichael, PhD, is a psychologist and the author of Dr. Chloe's 10 Commandments of Dating: How To Stop Getting Hurt, Put Yourself Out There, And Find A Relationship That Lasts.
Megan Fleming, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and relationship therapist based in New York.
Laura Berman, PhD, is a relationship therapist, host of the Language of Love podcast, and author of Quantum Love.
Rachel Wright, MA, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and sex therapist based in New York.
Which camp you fall into ultimately depends on a lot, including your motives for 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 for your partner in romping.
What is casual sex, exactly?
Let’s start by defining sex, no qualifier attached. More than just a trip to pound town with a partner, 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 Megan Fleming, PhD, a psychologist and sex therapist. 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 rom-coms like No Strings Attached might have you believing casual sex is bad. But that’s false advertising.
Casual sex is a wonderful way for people to get their physical touch wants (er, 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 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, relationship therapist, 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 all partners achieve orgasm during sex, that 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 feelings 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 you feel more emotionally tied to the other person(s). 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 feeling 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. But 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.
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 STI 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 before your bone.
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."
"While I heal from my recent breakup, I’m looking for someone to spend low-pressure time and sexy time with… would you be interested in a friends with benefits situation?"
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. Seeing someone often (and sleeping with them) pumps out all kinds of chemical hormones that can make you feel "addicted" to them.
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."
"For the sake of transparency: I can feel myself starting to develop more-than-friends feelings for you, and so I want to press pause on this dynamic for a bit."
Both approaches let 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 you do.
4. Your sexual health comes first—especially if you have multiple partners.
Chances are, even if you don’t have several casual sex partners at once, the person you’re sleeping with might—and you need to have some best sexual practices in place to keep both of you safe. It might not sound like a sexy conversation, but Rachel Wright, MA, LMFT, a psychotherapist and sex therapist based in New York, has a few tips to help you navigate the murky sexual waters of casual coitus.
"Essentially, there are two things you’re looking to prevent when you’re having casual sex: STIs and pregnancy," she says. "Condoms and oral contraceptives are 99.9 percent effective when used correctly, but you also have to make sure that the person you’re sleeping with doesn’t have any other issues or infections that you may need to know about to protect your sexual health."
Ideally, Wright recommends having that conversation before your first sexual encounter, to make sure you're on the same page. "You need to talk about your history and your future sexual partner’s history," she says. "Let them know if you have any managed STIs like herpes (HSV-1 or HSV-2) and if you’re on PrEP. Ask them when their most recent STI screening was and what the results were." Even though this conversation might make you feel uncomfortable, you’re positioning it in a way that shows you want to keep the both of you safe, which will be appreciated on all sides.
And then, of course, you need to keep up your end of the bargain and get tested yourself. "I’d recommend anywhere from two to eight weeks, depending on how many new folks you’re interacting with in that time period," says Wright. "You can go to local clinics that are free, hit up urgent care or your primary care doctor’s office, or even use an at-home STI testing kit."
Check in with your partner each time you get tested, too: This will encourage them to remember to do it, and you can trust one another to keep each other updated on any new test results.
Can casual sex ever turn into a relationship?
While it's certainly possible, casual sex can often lead to disappointment if one partner agrees to the dynamic in hopes the sex will "persuade" the other person to be in a committed relationship with them. 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."
Honesty—both with your partner(s) and yourself—is also crucial, says Wright. "The biggest issue with turning casual sex into a relationship is when people tell someone they want a casual relationship when they know for a fact that they don’t, but actually want a long-term romantic relationship," she says.
But what if you think you want a casual relationship, and then you catch feelings? "It’s the deception that’s the problem. You may earnestly want a casual relationship and then find yourself falling for someone and wanting something more 'serious,' and that’s okay," says Wright. In this case, she stresses that communication is key when trying to see if your casual sex partner feels the same (and you can always use those scripts above if you need any help with that, too!).
But also, consider whether you really want to transition your friends-with-benefits sitch into a bona fide relationship—after all, there are pros and cons to both sides. You may find out you’re completely incompatible, in which case, it could be hard to go back to a casual situation. On the other hand, you could transition into something incredibly seamlessly, because you already know each other’s bodies, sexual preferences, and love languages.
"You should really look at where you want the relationship to go, and if you see a future with this person," adds Wright. "From there, you can communicate those needs, and hopefully find that they meet you where you’re at."
Ultimately, casual sex can be a form of low-pressure pleasure, but things may become tricky over time. As long as you stay true to yourself and your heart along the way, you'll be just fine. Promise!
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