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“Why we need to change the way we think about casual sex”

Posted by
Emily Reynolds
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A new study has shown that women do enjoy casual sex – as long as it’s done well. That’s not new information, argues Emily Reynolds – but we do need to change the way we think and talk about casual sex

In terms of “this seems like it might be stating the obvious”, the headline “young women regret casual sex less if the sex was good” is ticking pretty much every box.

But the study it’s referring to, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and the University of Texas, actually tells us a lot about casual sex and how we think and talk about it. 

Researchers interviewed 547 Norwegian students and 216 American students – all heterosexual – and found that the “clearest gender-differentiating factor” for regret after sex was who initiated it, and how good the experience was. 

It goes without saying that women enjoy sex more if it’s pleasurable for them and if their partner is skilled – two of the major factors in enjoyment, researchers found. And that’s the case whether sex is with a regular, monogamous partner, or with someone you’re never going to see again. 

But one of the things that’s preventing us from doing that is the misguided belief that women either don’t enjoy casual sex full stop – or that if they do, it means they’re somehow damaged. There’s still a pervasive stigma around promiscuity in women – we’re simply not afforded the same freedoms as men. Men are called players, Casanovas; women are just called sluts.

You only have to look at the cultural obsession with someone’s ‘number’ – how many people they’ve slept with – to see that. One website even published a ‘sex history calculator’ that showed you what percentile you were in compared to your peers, a weird obsession with ‘sluttiness’ that says absolutely nothing about our relationship to sex or, more importantly, to pleasure.  

It’s no surprise that women feel anxiety around casual sex – and that men, often, don’t treat casual sex partners with the thought or care that they probably should. 

Casual relationships are almost never treated with the same gravity or respect as ‘serious’ relationships; we believe that if an encounter is detached from a formal relationship, then it doesn’t matter at all.

This simply isn’t true. Acknowledging that a liaison is only going to last one month, one week or even one night doesn’t mean that it can’t be respectful, affectionate, loving or meaningful – no matter what society might say, the two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

Women’s pleasure – surely one of the more important parts of sex – can often be left by the wayside here, too, to the point that many of us simply don’t expect to feel sexually satisfied by casual encounters at all. Sometimes, we can be left feeling disempowered by it – not because the sex itself was a one-off encounter, but because we’re made to feel like we’re throwaway ourselves.

Social psychologist Justin Lehmiller, who works at the Kinsey Institute, has even said that there’s an “orgasm gap” when it comes to casual sex.

“Research shows that straight guys almost always have orgasms when they’re with casual partners, but for straight women, the story is very different,” he explained. “A 2012 study published in the American Sociological Review looked at the hookup experiences of thousands of heterosexual female college students, and just 11 percent of women reported having an orgasm during a hookup with a brand-new male partner.”

I believe that some, if not most, of this lack of care is directly related to the stories we tell as a society about women who enjoy casual sex. If ‘sleeping around’ makes a woman worthless, tainted, less pure, then why would someone treat her with respect? Why would he bother responding to her feelings, or concern himself with her pleasure? And why, at the end of it, would we not feel regret?

Researchers told the BBC that women who initiate sex are more likely to have a “healthy sexual psychology” – in other words, they are more likely to be comfortable with their own sexuality.  “It’s another reminder of the importance of women’s ability to make autonomous decisions regarding their sexual behaviours,” they said. 

This is at the heart of the issue. Women should not have to feel regret or shame after they have sex that they wanted to have – and they shouldn’t be left feeling as if they’re worthless just because, as a culture, we have no idea how to have a meaningful and respectful relationship to casual sex. 

More and more women are reporting their casual sexual experiences, and the 2013 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles found that the average number of male sexual partners a woman has over a lifetime has increased from 3.7 to 7.7 since the Nineties – so it’s obvious we’re becoming more comfortable with having a higher number of sexual partners.

And a study from the Archives of Sexual Behaviour also found an increase in casual sex; in the late Eighties, 44% of men and 19% of women said they’d have sex with a casual date, compared to 55% and 31% of millennial men and women respectively. 

What this means is that things really do need to change. Firstly, we need to centre female pleasure in every encounter we have, no matter how brief. Mutual pleasure shouldn’t be a fun, surprising bonus: it should be the norm.

Getting rid of our singular obsession with each others ‘numbers’ is also a step in the right direction – and so is treating every sexual partner, no matter how brief our relationship with them is, with the same respect, tenderness and care we would someone we thought we could spend the rest of our lives with. 

It’s not news that plenty of women are having casual sex and enjoying it. But it is about time we not only recognised that, but accepted and celebrated it, too.

Images: Pablo Heimplatz / Getty / Rex / Toa Heftiba / Unsplash