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Casual Sex


Casual Sex
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Chance encounters, one-night stands, hook ups, anonymous sex, meaningless sex, friends with benefits, booty call, the zipless fuck.  All of these are terms people have used to describe what researchers and an increasing number of media pop psychologists call casual sex.  The terminology has changed over time, but one might argue that our fascination with casual sex has never wavered. But with so many terms, what exactly do we mean when we talk about casual sex?

How Researcher's Define Casual Sex
Like so many other sex definitions, there isn't a single agreed upon definition for casual sex.  Which makes interpreting the wide range of research on the impact of casual sex somewhat daunting.  Researchers have defined casual sex in different ways, depending in part on the purpose of their research and in part on their approach (e.g. psychology versus sociology versus nursing, etc...).

Despite variations one consistent element to most definitions of casual sex is that it is sex with someone you don't consider to be a spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or partner, and that it is sex without any significant relationship commitments attached.   Some researchers attach a time period to casual sex;  labeling casual sex, for example, as sex with someone you have known for two weeks or less.  Again, there is no general agreement on what the term means, but here are some of the other ways that researchers have bracketed casual sex as separate and unique from other sexual encounters:

  • casual sex implies a particular kind of relationship devoid of emotional connection
  • casual sex implies a type of attraction, for example primarily physical rather than based on personality or shared values
  • casual sex refers to the intention of one or both partners, usually the intention that this not turn into a relationship
  • casual sex means only having sex once or twice, or only having certain kinds of sex
  • casual sex happens when you've spent more time together having sex than not having sex

Each of these points could be thought of as describing a continuum on which we all plant ourselves, determining where our line is between casual and non-casual sex.

How Other People Define of Casual Sex
One way to define casual sex is just to start asking people.  This can be a good way to collect information and get a sense of how others think about casual sex.  In talking to them you may develop your own definition.  But we always need to be wary of confusing information collected anecdotally (or, if you will, casually) with information that is collected in a systematic way.  It's not that people are more or less honest when talking to researchers, it's just that good research addresses things like individual bias and the bias of the person collecting the information.  So you could ask twelve of your real life friends or all 300 of your Facebook friends, but don't confuse what they say with what most people think.  Chances are, they aren't most people.

What's Casual About Casual Sex?
I would suggest that the casual in casual sex refers to the level of commitment that sex usually implies in traditional sexual and gender scripts.  So these traditional scripts tell us that having sex "means" something.  It might mean that we're getting serious, taking it to the next level.  It might mean that we only want one night of connection and we don't want more (and by having sex before we know each other we're saying we don't expect to know each other more).  It might mean a thousand other things.

Casual sex, on the other hand, is sex without a particular meaning or possible sex that has no meaning at all outside of the actual sexual encounter.

When sex is casual, I think the word is used to mean that the sex is detached from those traditional sexual and gender scripts.  This is, I would suggest, precisely what is so threatening about casual sex.  Casual sex isn't sex by the rules.  Casual sex thumbs it's nose (or other body parts) at convention by being something that is supposed to meaningful but may mean nothing at all.   This isn't to say that casual sex is inherently radical or even a good thing.  Rather that casual sex is threatening on a social level because it calls into question many of our foundational beliefs about sex.  That may also be what makes it so attractive for some.

A Modestly Proposed Definition of Casual Sex

My own working definition of casual sex is this:

Casual sex that takes place without any commitment beyond the sexual encounter.  It might be with strangers, friends, or even old lovers. But the defining characteristic of casual sex, what makes it casual, is the separation of the sexual encounter from a sexual or intimate relationship.

Casual sex might be considered a little Taoist; by not meaning any one thing, casual sex may mean any number of things.  Frustratingly for some, it may be that the defining feature of casual sex is that it evades any concrete definition.

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