"Casual Sex" You Say?

Why do experts use the term so promiscuously?

Posted Jan 31, 2012

Whenever you read about "casual sex," promise me you will do so with these words on your lips: Meaning what, exactly?

Before I picked up the man who is now my husband and whisked him home from a dance club nearly thirty years ago, I'd had a lot of what most people would call casual sex, although I can't honestly say I ever felt casual about all that much of it. Whether it was thrilling, horrendous, joyful, guilt-ridden, nondescript or anything in between, sex has always seemed capital-I Important to me---an act of significance or dramatic consequence---no matter if the person, (or on a few occasions persons) I was having it with mattered deeply to me or not. But it's clear to me that my experiences are hardly universal: there are those for whom sex can be simple fun; others can't enjoy sex unless it involves a sense of connection or commitment; still others need the approval of a god if they are to flush sexual pleasure of its devilish toxins. So when people write about "casual sex," no matter how objective we hope to be, we tend to be biased towards our personal ideal of sexual experience.

Discussions of the topic are not only derailed by contradictory value systems. Because human sexual behavior is so various, the phrase "casual sex" turns out to be a most treacherously roomy category. Casual sex" applies indiscriminately to one-night stands, playful sex with a friend-with-benefits, exploratory sex with an acquaintance or roommate. It describes some sex between long-married couples, some open marriage encounters and masturbation (with or without porn or phone sex). It can be accurately applied to sex-junkets in colonized countries, adventures arranged on Web dating sites or swingers clubs, and even the kind of seriously casual sex I sought. (Feel free to pile on with more examples of casual sex in the comments section.) At first glance it seems as if "casual sex" will go home with anybody.

You would think that any professional approaching this overpopulated watering hole of meanings would not hesitate to cull his or her targeted topic from the herd, rather than applying the phrase to every doe and buck and beetle and baobab in sight. But this seldom happens. Many who discuss "casual sex" will slap the term carelessly onto just one of its subcategories or a fractional sample of its practitioners, so that whatever they want to say about casual sex---that teen sex is fraught with dangers, for example---spills over inappropriately onto other forms, like sex between seniors--or aerialists.

Over-generalizing about casual sex leaves a blogger open to correction by other experts---who proceed to do the exact same thing.  Stanley Siegel's blog entry "In Defense of Casual Sex," is a case in point. Siegel LCSW is promoting a kind of therapeutic sex---a series of experimental sexual experiences designed to tap into, and hopefully resolve, early conflicts and traumas. As far as I can tell he calls his sex therapy "casual" because he wants people to act out some of their secret sex fantasies free of shame and inhibition and optionally without long-term involvement. By his account he has had some success with this approach. But, if what you mean to describe is self-exploratory sexual healing, even if you're talking about a couple of strangers dressed up as bunnies, you're stretching the adjective "casual" beyond what most of your fellow therapists will tolerate.

And sure enough, Ravi Chandra M.D., riposted:

...Siegel's definition of casual sex is hardly casual. It's complicated, ripe with meaning and requires both parties to learn and grow from the encounter. Perhaps Siegel could pick a better term?  Perhaps "contemplative sex"?

For precision's sake I'd go for "Jungian sex" myself, but the point is, Dr. Chandra no sooner rebukes Dr. Siegel for fudging the category when he does it himself. He equates "casual sex" first with sex between therapist and patient then, second, with sex addiction. Strange, this, because sex with a patient probably warrants the noun "malpractice" rather than the adjective, "casual," and sexual addiction, however high-scoring  its obsessive, self-loathing victim, is not exactly comparable to wearing slacks on Friday.

Other blogging professionals are so keen to warn people about risks they associate with the word "casual" that they go a little crazy. Ethicist Michael W. Austin offers up a strangely incoherent argument by another blogger, (1) the gist of which is that sex cannot be a "merely recreational activity" because children can't consent to it as they would to a game of tag.

It's "huh?" time here. It goes without saying---or should---that sex WITH children isn't an option at all, let alone a casual one; but what relevance have children's games to the ethics of sexual intercourse between consenting, birth control-using, adult partners who've had a couple of drinks (or whatever) and want to party? Sex shouldn't be recreational, Austin is arguing, "because I feel so strongly it shouldn't."

Caroline J. Simon Ph.D., in her haste to avert disaster for inexperienced teens, conflates "casual sex" with "sex with strangers." "In casual sexual encounters," she writes confidently,"the parties know too little about one another to avoid shallowness and exploitation." But casual sex, as noted, can take place between friends who are closer than many spouses. It has been known to take place between ex-husbands and their ex-wives. Besides which, on more occasions than anyone is apt to admit "shallowness and exploitation" are exactly what both parties are tacitly signing up for...not an ideal diet to be sure, but a particular flavor that can be quite gratifying as long as you don't make a habit of it---the sexual equivalent of a Cinnabon

Anyway, there seem to be two things happening to the therapeutic mind when faced with the proposition of "casual sex." One of these things is silly and the other is profound. 

Silly first.  Doctors have a reflexive tendency to regard casual sex as a drug---either a cure or a consort of the doctor's warning label, that dire list of known side-effects including headache, nausea, blood clots, addiction and blindness. Please join me in labeling this reaction as well-intentioned but excessive.Casual sex has been proven to feel genuinely casual---pleasurable, easy, exciting, satisfying--- at least for some people some of the time. If your interest in casual sex is more than academic, what you need is advice that helps you figure out---with a lower margin of error---if you happen to be one of those people and if tonight may perhaps be one of those times.

There are, however, less risible reasons for a well-educated doctor to get flustered by the phrase "casual sex," because, from a scientific point of view, all sex comes with strings. Even the most playful and carefree sex is tethered to a complex of systems: biological imperatives, genetically encoded evolutionary schema, cultural and spiritual frameworks, political and economic ideologies, social structures, and psychological substrates---from neurological to experiential. All of these forces are blindly conspiring to make us behave in ways that will perpetuate them, whether they succeed in any one instance or not. So the more you think about sex the less casual it is apt to appear, and the more wondrous strange.

Lastly, of course, people get nervous about casual sex because it doesn't reliably remain simple. But that's my point. When casual sex becomes most consequential it ceases to be casual---and that's when the trouble, or in my case the remarkably happy life-long relationship, starts.

In my next blog post I want to take a closer look at how biases about gender affect professional researchers and therapists' discussions of "casual sex." In part I am wondering whether calling such ideologies "addictive" might be playing too fast and loose with the concept of addiction.



(1)  the blogger Austin quotes http://www.mandm.org.nz/2010/12/what-sex-is-not.html

  1. Children cannot, either by themselves or by proxy, give valid consent to sexual intercourse.
  2. Children can give consent, by themselves or by proxy, to casual recreational activities.
  3. Therefore, sex is not merely a casual recreational activity.



About the Author

Lynn Phillips

Lynn Phillips is the author of Self-Loathing for Beginners. She has written (sometimes as "Maggie Cutler") for a variety of publications, from The Nation to T Magazine.

More Posts