In my last column, I responded to a question about nonmonogamy and casual sex. Access to casual sex has changed dramatically with the increase of dating apps. Because I haven’t had the app-based dating/sex experience (although I’ve definitely connected to lovers through social media) and that felt important for a deeper exploration of the topic, I called in backup. Two friends reached out to me after reading the nonmonogamy column, and then I reached out to two other friends who I know have extensive experience with using dating and sex apps to find sexual partners.
Here is our round table.
(Also, if you have a question about pleasure—or anything really, let us know!)
adrienne: What do you count as casual sex?
Gary, 38, Black, gay cis man (name changed): One night stands. Random hookups. Sex with a “fuck buddy.” Essentially, any sexual activity with a stranger or someone with whom I’m not romantically involved.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, 42, nonbinary disabled queer femme mixed Sri Lankan: Sex that happens outside of an ongoing relationship or a desire for ongoing relationship. Certain kinds of emotional intimacy or commitment. Sex where the connection is mostly about the sex.
Holiday Simmons, 39, Black Cherokee transmasculine two spirit person: I define casual sex as sex that is either no strings attached—there’s no expectation of continued contact afterwards—or that there aren’t necessarily feelings involved at the time, or later. Or there might be appreciation/love feelings but not necessarily romance, so like friends with benefits can have casual sex because it’s not romantic sex.
Mai’a Williams, 37, Black, queer, cis woman, mama: Really, for me, casual sex is sex I have that doesn’t require other emotional labor. Like, I don’t have to care about your hard day at work, or your relationship with your mom, or a nightmare you had last week. I might care, I might not care, but I don’t have to care.
Samhita Mukhopadhyay, 39, cis woman, straight, South Asian, author of Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life: I don’t really like the term “casual” next to sex because sex is not casual—it’s sex! Sex should be an intimate experience that relies on trust, communication, care and honesty, which are not casual things, per se. I wish we could just call it, I don’t know, something that might denote both the lack of traditional relationship structures paired with being a sexually responsible adult (not an asshole). Maybe we just call it SEX.
adrienne: I love that reframe. So, why do you have casual sex?
Samhita: Sex is good and nice—that’s why! I wish I was having more of it though…
Gary: The word ‘ephemeral’ comes to mind, as does the acronym NSA (no strings attached). Casual sex is uncomplicated. Its singular focus is the here and now, indulging in the moment. It demands no commitment beyond the encounter itself.
Mai’a: I have a natural and crafted talent for giving and receiving pleasure. I like having sex without having all the emotional labor involved. I like practicing my craft. It feels like writing a good poem or dancing to a song you know by heart. It feels good to be good at something.
Holiday: I engage in it because I love pleasure and exploring different types and ways to please myself, be pleased, please others, and learn others. And having many different types of sexual partners and different situations that lead to those sexual partnerships is a huge learning opportunity for me as it relates to my identities, to my sense of safety, to being validated. Having casual sex is like a human experiment of desire.
Leah: I grew up in a family with two parents who had an utterly miserable, abusive relationship that both of them felt they couldn’t leave. Part of my resistance was to be like, fuck that, I’m never doing that. Marriage is a prison of death. I wanted to have sex with lots of people and be in different kinds of loverships with some of them. I also am a neurodiverse hermit warrior queen who loves and needs lots of time to myself, and “TOTAL SEXUAL AUTONOMY.” After a childhood and young adulthood filled with parental, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, a ton of bullying, and sexual assault at school and very little permitted autonomy (I wasn’t allowed to shut the door to my room or take a shower by myself for years), having casual sex was incredibly healing because I needed some huge built-in boundaries after not being allowed any. It was a place to have intense, contained intimacy and magic.
adrienne: What is the best thing about casual sex?
Leah: I’m happily and radically sexual with one person I share a deep life commitment and a ton of intimacy with right now. But I loved the adventure of having a lot of casual sex for the past 26 years. The feeling of autonomy and control. The ability to explore and learn about myself. Being sexual and getting up and leaving afterwards. How it was liberating to me as a brown femme survivor to be like, I get to have wildly uncontained sexuality. Casual sex makes me feel connected to a lineage of queer sex radicalism, public sex and non-married/committed sex, which I feel is getting lost. It felt radical to articulate that sex can just be about pleasure, it doesn’t have to be about Commitment, Marriage, and The Family. I loved my rituals of getting ready, adornment, going out, and walking and feeling sensual in my body. Also, small talk bores me and I think you can learn a lot about someone by fucking them!
Samhita: With the right person it’s a sexual experience purely focused on pleasure. I know we’d like to say all sex should be focused on pleasure—it should be, but sometimes it’s not and relationship dynamics are being worked out or you are like mad about the dishes so it’s interrupting your flow. Casual sex is a space where you don’t confuse emotional intimacy with the desire to get off. Sometimes, it gives you the freedom to really get wild, maybe experiment with things you haven’t tried before.
Gary: Exploring a new body and discovering how to please it and, in turn, having it please mine.
Holiday: The best thing about casual sex is identifying a want or desire and it being finite. I want to do this with this person—and that being it. Or you can do again. It’s nice to have a finite thing that you have the power to acknowledge and go for, and it doesn’t have to be tied to a larger connection, a larger dynamic. It can still be super intimate, important, spiritual.
Mai’a: Orgasms. Getting to play with another person. Getting to feel how your body fits against another. Something new and different. Getting to try on new personas, to be different types of lovers. Getting to be awkward and having to figure things out. More than once I have met someone who was at first shy and demure. And then in bed, they are a completely different kind of person. Sex for me is about getting to see that transformation. It’s about loving yourself enough to be willing to share that with another person. It’s about finding out who you are when you are wild and in pleasure. It’s about getting to celebrate that you have a body and that body can move and relate with another body. It’s a reminder of how good it is to be human. I like getting to experience new bodies and new types of people and new styles of sex and relating.
Adrienne: What’s the worst thing about casual sex?
Mai’a: The worst thing is the social shame and stigma around it. You feel like you can’t be honest about not wanting to have a deep emotional relationship with someone. A lot of times the sex is better, especially for women, when there isn’t this whole committed relationship wrapped around it. I feel like men are allowed to have one night stands, but women aren’t because we’re supposed to take care of people all the time. So of course we want this continuous relationship where we are emotionally invested in the other person’s life. And honestly, for a lot of women that I know, casual sex is a place where we get to be served and cared for physically. Like with a one night stand, I get to say what I want and how I want it. In some ways, I get to be more in control, and if the other person doesn’t want to do that then we can just end it—right there, and I can just walk away. There is no long discussion about the emotional fall out the next morning or all this pleading for me to perform more emotional labor.
Holiday: The worst thing is, because there is an element of not knowing each other, it leaves one open to vulnerability and to being harmed, at worst. Or not being seen, validated—all the things good casual sex, bad casual sex can do the opposite.
Gary: The anonymity promotes a lack of accountability. Casual sex, in my experience, is most frequently with strangers. The hope or assumption is that with each encounter there is mutual respect and regard for the other person involved. Sadly, this isn’t always true. So, when someone is looking to ‘maximize’ their pleasure, it may be to the detriment of their anonymous partner, such as secretly removing the condom during intercourse. Or, for example, I once had someone grab my face tightly with both hands and shout “good nigger” as he orgasmed. These violations would most likely not occur with a known partner, but are always a possibility with a stranger.
adrienne: Holy crap.
Samhita: When men are terrible. Just because it’s casual doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole about it! If I text you after we have sex or want to make plans for the next time, I’m not actually proposing marriage—don’t flatter yourself, honey. Also, sometimes I have casual sex for the wrong reasons—because I am craving closeness and I really need someone to talk to. I will have sex and realize it wasn’t what I wanted or I wasn’t in the right headspace for it.
Leah: I had all my casual sex before Tinder and the like (I hooked up with someone from a Craigslist ad once). While I know Tinder and other sites work for some people, for me it also really upped the traditional desirability politics in a bad way. The thing I liked about casual sex in the 90s and 2000s was that it often really felt like a place where you could get some as a non-traditionally attractive weirdo. Now, it feels like a contest where traditionally pretty people get more ass and others don’t. As I’ve gotten more out about being disabled, I’ve gotten less interested in casual sex because I only want to have sex with other people with non-normative bodyminds, and much of mainstream casual sex space (including able bodied QTPOC) just ignores and “forgets” about disability and ableism. In most places I’ve encountered, there’s not enough room or awareness to talk about and engage with bodyminds the way I want to. However, I believe this could change.
adrienne: Thank you for raising that, I think that’s also some of what holds me back. How can an app capture the needs I have related to size and ability, and even to post-gender desire?
So, what do Bitch readers need to know to get the best casual sex experiences?
Leah: Well, not everything is going to be the best sex of your life—there are going to be plenty of weird, mediocre experiences. You need to know yourself, or engage with knowing yourself as an ongoing project. Ask yourself, what are your desires? What’s your motivation for doing this? What are the rituals you want to incorporate into it? What do you need to feel safe/r? It’s really hard to be honest about all the things you want, and in what context, but it’s crucial to enjoyment. Also, there are some kinds of sex you just might not want to have casually and that’s okay. The biggest thing is figuring out what yes, no, and maybe are for you, and how they feel in your body, and knowing you can stop, leave, or change direction at any time.
adrienne: Repeat: Any Time. What else?
Samhita: Communication! Be honest about how you really feel and what you want. Don’t try to be the “cool girl”—fuck chill. It’s your body, demand what you want for it (or ask, I mean, whatever floats your boat). You deserve to be treated exactly how you want, so be honest about what you are bringing to the table and what you hope to get out of the experience. Also, use protection ;)
1. Trust your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right, act on that feeling. If you’re worried or feel uncomfortable, then you’re not enjoying the moment.
2. Be self aware. Know your intentions and motivations. Know what you want from the encounter.
3. Communicate. Set boundaries if you need to. Ask the questions that you need to. Say ‘no’ if you need to.
4. Be safe. For some, this means condom use, for others, it might be letting someone know where you are.
5. Indulge yourself, but not at the risk of your partner(s).
6. Don’t be reckless. Never compromise yourself or lose control of a situation.
Leah: Oh, and practice saying no. Practice getting up and leaving. Practice saying, hey, I’m not feeling it, I gotta go. These are skills we’re not taught and they are crucial.
adrienne: Anything I didn’t ask that feels important?
Leah: You can have casual sex through meeting someone at a cafe, chance meetings through friends, grinding at a party, using online modes of connection, or going to a play party. Research play parties and be aware many of them can be very white, abled, etc. If you don’t like the sexual spaces out there, make your own! People always have, from the kind of queer male public sex Samuel Delany writes about to when queer women into BDSM started going to The Catacombs, a queer male sex club focused on fisting in San Francisco in the 80s, and created a pansexual queer fisting paradise.
Gary: Get tested, regularly. Be honest with your doctor about your sexual activity. Learn your limits.