When Casual Sex Doesn't Live Up to the Fantasy
Why sexual freedom doesn't guarantee great sex.
Posted Aug 11, 2019
There is much discussion these days about the sexual frustrations of long-term monogamous relationships. The argument is usually along the lines that monogamy is not natural but socially imposed. Sexual fulfillment supposedly requires sexual variety and novelty with multiple partners throughout the lifespan.
Infidelity might not seem like such a bad thing if monogamous sex is ultimately boring sex. And if one is not comfortable with the deceit involved in infidelity, one can negotiate some form of consensual nonmonogamy in one’s long-term relationships.
What is rarely discussed is just how fulfilling it actually is to partake of lifelong casual sex with multiple partners. Does the reality of casual sex live up to the fantasy of casual sex?
Does Casual Sex Validate Our Romantic Desirability?
One motivation for casual sex is to boost our self-esteem. We imagine that if someone we think is really hot also thinks we are really hot, then the sex will be super-duper hot. There are a few problems with that fantasy.
Firstly, oftentimes the people we think are really hot don’t return the favor. Our sexual self-esteem is wounded if no one that we think is hot wants to have casual sex with us unless we have to pay them. It also wounds our self-esteem if the only people who want to have casual sex with us don’t seem all that desirable, and we have to have casual sex with the rejects.
Secondly, let’s say that on occasion someone we think is hot is amenable to casual sex with us. The sex might be pretty good, but there might still be a rub that wounds our pride. Why doesn’t this person view us as serious long-term relationship material? Are we good enough for a hop in the sack, but not suitable for marriage or parenthood, because despite being hot, we’re not attractive enough for a long-term commitment, our personality isn’t sufficiently compelling, or we’re not successful or smart enough?
On some level, it’s a blow to our egos if we are just someone’s “boy toy” or “one-night stand,” even though in fantasy we might enjoy being used as a vehicle for a hot person’s sexual pleasure.
Is Casual Sex Actually Good Sex?
By definition, casual sex doesn’t have the same sort of emotional intimacy or affectional bonds one could develop in a long-term, romantic relationship. The point of casual sex is to get off in a somewhat impersonal way with no strings attached.
To what extent can you fully let yourself go with someone you don’t really know, trust, or feel close to? Maybe that’s why so many people are only comfortable having casual sex when they are drunk. They need alcohol to lower their sexual inhibitions.
In a casual, sexual situation, to what extent is the erotic touching going to express affection and sensitivity? If you don’t love the person you’re having sex with, why would you bother to touch them in a way that expresses affection and sensitivity?
You’ll do what you need to do to get your partner off in a workman-like way if you’re not a selfish lover, but you’re probably not going fake affection or sensitivity you don’t really feel. Being touched in an impersonal way is not going to be as exciting as being touched in an affectionate and sensitive way.
Is Sex Without Intimacy as Satisfying as Sex With Intimacy?
Part of the idea of friends with benefits is that at least you are having casual sex with someone you feel some personal connection to, in contrast to a one-time drunken hook-up. The more you feel the person you’re having sex with likes you, cares about you, and understands you, the better it tends to be.
The more you feel that this person is just using you to get off, but might not care about you, might be indifferent to your feelings even if they’re perfectly polite, and don’t have a clue who you are as a person, the more your sexual satisfaction is diminished.
Perhaps if you possess a deep-seated fear of intimacy, as do individuals who are avoidantly attached, you might actually prefer casual, impersonal sex over sex with intimacy. But that doesn’t mean that intimacy-avoidant sex is great sex. It just means that sex with intimacy makes you so anxious that you avoid it like the plague, and you try to convince yourself that sex without intimacy is the best sex around, because that’s the best that you can do.
I’m not saying casual sex is “bad” in some moral way. Casual sex is usually better than no sex. If you’re lonely, depressed, and sexually frustrated because you’re single, and there are no suitable long-term prospects in sight, it can give you a temporary self-esteem boost, sexual pleasure, and some feeling of connection.
On occasion it might be super-hot if you get to have sex with a really attractive person with whom you feel some intimate connection, and it is clearly in no way a poor reflection on you as a person if you both go your separate ways with your fond memories of a wonderful encounter (i.e., like a summer romance before going your separate ways for college). What I am questioning is the idealization of casual sex as is commonly found in pornography.
We shouldn’t overly romanticize sexual intimacy in long-term, monogamous relationships, nor should we devalue it. We should appreciate its pros and cons. Similarly, we shouldn’t romanticize the pleasures of casual sex and sexual variety either but appreciate its pros and cons.
Because all sex is as much driven by escapist and idealistic fantasies that serve an anti-depressant function as it is by an incessant sex drive, all sex has some tendency to not live up to its advance billing. So, we should face the fact that many single people have crappy sex lives despite their sexual freedom to play the field to their hearts’ content and may wish they had the opportunity to work at having a better sex life in a long-term, romantic relationship.
From a purely quantitative perspective, coupled individuals even in middle age are still having sex at least weekly on average, despite the incremental decline in frequency over time. A weekly sexual encounter isn’t so easy to pull off for most single people.
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Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C.