First, this may be old news to some of you, but Heather Corinna (founder and driving force behind the awesome sex ed site Scarleteen) is conducting a couple of surveys on people attitudes toward casual sex. She’s especially keen on people completing the second survey (which has fewer respondents so far) and particularly encourages LGBT people, people of color, people over 45, and social conservatives to pipe up. I’ll just add that the surveys are thought-provoking and definitely not just geared to people who’ve had lots of casual sex (however you might define “lots”!).
If you have any questions, you can contact Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org – but really, just go take the survey
I really appreciate that Heather’s trying to capture multigenerational attitudes toward casual sex, because it’s really not true that “those young kids today” invented hooking up! Hey, I thought we’d already done that in the Eighties! And the people a generation older than me … well, they came up with free love, did they not?
So no, I don’t think hooking up is especially new. The only real change is that ritual of dating is rather moribund, especially for college-aged people. But taking the long view, dating isn’t some sacred, ancient practice. It’s a historical blip on the radar. It emerged around the 1920s and began to decline in the 1960s, as Beth Bailey explains in From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America.
Judging from the moral panic around hooking up, though, you’d think young women, especially, indulging in casual sex was about to end civilization as we know it.
The problem with casual sex, in my view, is not that it’s fundamentally immoral. Nor have I ever felt especially constrained by what Jessica Grose at Slate calls “the shame cycle” – the recurrent backlash against casual sex that shames women for their sexual conduct. I see no scientific validity to the pseudo-theory (nicely dismantled by Lena Chen) that women with a history of casual sex will result in inability to commit later on because we become inured to the effects of the bonding hormone, oxytocin. Didn’t happen to her, didn’t happen to me. I guess you’d better worry about oxytocin burnout if you’re a prairie vole. Otherwise, not so much.
There are other potential complications in casual sex, mostly related to an imbalance of expectations, and that can tilt against women too – though men can bruise their hearts in not-quite-casual sex, too. That’s a topic for another day. Ditto for the possibility of pregnancy and disease, though they’re scarcely confined to casual sex.
Instead, I want to talk about a persistently gendered issue in casual sex, linked to what Fran Langum (aka Blue Gal) has called the “orgasm gap”:
I’ve talked with a large number of women about this topic over the years and asked lots and lots of girlfriends the following questions: How old were you when you first had sex, and how old were you when you had your first orgasm? The orgasm gap is pretty damn wide for a great many women. I have yet to meet an honest girlfriend who had their first good sex before the age of twenty-two. Lots and lots of women have had lots and lots of sex before they actually enjoyed it.
And sadly, some men and women never figure out which female erogenous buttons to push.
So that’s where I see a real girl-boy difference in casual sex. (Mind you, I’m only discussing heterosexual coupling here, and the rest of this post is pretty heterocentric.) Sex with a new partner has the thrill of the new, the fun of discovery. However! I’ve rarely known a very short-term partner who really knew how to ring my bells. The fun was all in the newness, really.
I’m not sure things have improved much in recent years, though. I mean, back in the 1980s I never heard about guys just demanding a blow job out of the blue. These days, my students tell me it happens regularly – sometimes not even preceded by flirtation, much less kissing.
At the new Ms. blog, Shira Tarrant worries – quite rightly – that women’s sexual behavior is increasingly linked to performing for men in ways that alienate women from their own actual desires and pleasure:
Hooking up also has a gendered hue when girls are taught that being sexy is about performing instead of about self-pleasure and expressing what feels good. It’s what philosophers call “illocutionary silencing”—when girls and young women fail to say what they want. As Heldman wrote in Ms. magazine, self-objectification has serious impacts on girls’ political efficacy and sexual pleasure. Getting off becomes tied to seeing oneself through the eyes of someone else, or through the lens of an imaginary porn camera.
Yes, and the ubiquity of porn seems to be progressively narrowing the focus of that lens. But even if we could wish away the porn and raunch culture and girls’ socialization to be pleasing? And if every man was suddenly, magically, an attentive and patient lover? We’d still likely see an orgasm gap, and it would still be larger, on average, in short-term casual sex than in longer-term relationships. My argument isn’t that love makes all the difference (though it can’t hurt). Rather, time and attentiveness matter. If you’ve got all that in a friendship-with-benefits, great! Most of us will find it – if we’re so lucky – in a partner who also loves us enough to stick around, in every sphere of life.
One way to respond to the orgasm gap would be to de-center orgasms as the paramount goal of sex. In fact, “goals” don’t have any place in sex. (I don’t even have much use for them in the rest of my life.) Certainly there are lots of routes to pleasure, and not all of them include orgasm. Sex can be wonderful without orgasm. Even with short-term partners, its rewards needn’t be purely physical.
I’m skeptical about taking de-centering orgasm too far, though, because we’ve only “discovered” female orgasm as a culture after thousands of years in which it either didn’t matter at all, or (during certain eras) was believed necessary only as a means to an end: promoting conception. Historically, women claiming the desire for orgasm is radically new – far newer than “hooking up.” And so I’d much rather see a world that honors all forms of sexual pleasure, for men and women, as long as there’s consent, enthusiasm, and (ideally) a mutual willingness to experiment, play, and have fun.