Is casual sex healthy?

Hookup culture, or the normalization of casual sex, is all around us but is it truly healthy to pursue? Before we answer this question, lets…

by 

Hookup culture, or the normalization of casual sex, is all around us but is it truly healthy to pursue? Before we answer this question, lets look a little at why hookup culture exists in part. The normalization of casual sex has roots in the sex positivity movement. Advocates for sex positivity argued, amongst other things, that women’s sexual desire and sexual pleasure should be celebrated. For women who were denied their own pleasure or the right to their own desire, this was an important movement.

Historically, women’s sexuality historically has been denied, repressed, and policed. This repression occurred, in part, due to religious influences and the emphasis on a woman’s “purity” to be an “acceptable” candidate for marriage. Unlike today, thankfully, marriage was necessary for women to enter into to have access to basic needs like money. This isn’t that long ago either! For example, women couldn’t get a loan or credit card without a husband or male co-signer at a bank in the United States until 1974!

Privileging the male sexual experience

Psychology hasn’t been kinder to women’s sexuality than religion. Hysteria, which only “affected” women, was removed from the DSM (which is the book of all mental health diagnoses) in 1980. Hysteria was a catch-all for things including depression and anxiety experienced by women. The antidote? Having sexual intercourse with a man because apparently all this hysteria was caused by a back-up of sexual fluid in women.

Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, argued that women who couldn’t orgasm through intercourse (with a penis) alone were “immature” and mentally unhealthy. This, of course, privileged the male experience of heterosexual sex. He didn’t need to worry about stimulating a woman’s clitoris because she “should” be able to have an orgasm just through intercourse.

Denying the “validity” of a woman’s orgasm through clitoral stimulation goes against the very design of the female anatomy. In fact, the sole purpose for the clitoris is for female pleasure. Of course, as most women know, clitoral stimulation is necessary, or preferred, to lead to orgasm. A study in 2017 found that 7 out of 10 women who had heterosexual sex either need their clitoris stimulated to orgasm or prefer it. There is nothing pathological about this preference – it’s part of the human design.

Casual sex and female pleasure

Sex positivity helped highlight women’s sexuality exists outside of the male experience or his desire. However, unfortunately, the male experience is still often privileged in hookup culture. Casual sex has been promoted as a means for female empowerment but how often is female pleasure really celebrated in a random hookup? If you’re a woman who sometimes has casual sex with men, when is the last time you had an orgasm let alone multiple orgasms with your casual sex partner?

Throughout much of my dating life, I bought into the hookup culture myth that I needed to be ok with casual sex. I wanted to be like Samantha from Sex and the City. I wanted to be the ultimate “cool girl” who was unapologetic in her sexual desires and conquests. This version of the “cool girl” still bought into the patriarchal narrative that the most important thing about me, as a woman, was my sexual desirability. If a man wanted to hookup with me, I thought that meant something about my worth, sadly.

Hookup culture has also created an expectation that not only “should” a woman be “liberated” enough to have casual sex, she “should” be so liberated she acts as if she’s a porn actress. Of course, trying to be the cool girl like Samantha or an OnlyFans creator, is a performative version of female sexuality. This is a version of female sexuality that prioritizes being desired (by a man) over a woman’s authentic sexual desire or pleasure for many women.

Casual sex and commitment

The cool girl narrative was incredibly disempowering. It was about being desired more than it was about my own desire. When I did have casual sex, it was never about my pursuit of an orgasm. Instead, as many women know, it was an “easy” way to get attention. When I was lonely, and insecure, it was easy to mistake sex for true connection or sometimes use sex to barter for commitment.

Ironically, I thought that if I didn’t pressure a guy for commitment, and I had enough sexual prowess, then he’d eventually “pick” me to have a serious relationship with. This was misguided of course. The sad truth is that in buying into the “cool girl” myth related to casual sex I was denying what I desired most of all: a meaningful commitment with a true partner. Furthermore, it was a fool’s errand trying to find commitment through casual sex. After all, there are men who want sexual intimacy in a committed, loving relationship but by choosing to give my time, and sexual energy to the men who only wanted to hookup, I wasn’t open to finding a true partner.

Finding out if casual sex is healthy

It’s important to find the middle ground when discussing casual sex. As human beings, it’s easy for us to get stuck in black and white (or all or nothing) thinking. This is one thinking mistake identified in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

In all or nothing thinking, you may feel like you have to pick a side when it comes to sex positivity. Either you are pro-any sexual activity or you are super uptight or rigid. Of course, this isn’t the truth to how we authentically are as human beings. It’s important to look at the nuance in this discussion.

The most important question then isn’t “is casual sex healthy?” – it’s “is casual sex healthy for me?”

Asking if casual sex is healthy is too general of a question. Instead, I encourage you to ask yourself “Is casual sex healthy for me?” If not, wonderful. You identified a sexual boundary you have! Knowing our sexual limits is an important part of honoring our authentic self and living with integrity.

If you do find casual sex to be healthy for you, great! Now, ask yourself to go further into identifying your personal boundaries and limits. For example, some questions to ask yourself are:

  • When are you ok with having casual sex? With whom?
  • How and when do you need to talk about sexual health before having casual sex?
  • What are your limits around condom use and casual sex?
  • What are your boundaries around alcohol and casual sex?
  • How important is it to me that I have an orgasm with a casual sex partner?
  • How can you assert yourself to honor your right to an orgasm with a casual sex partner?

Whatever your answer to the question, wonderful. Sex positivity, truly is about honoring what you truly desire and your authentic pleasure.

Gratitude for sex positivity

Empowering women around their authentic sexuality is an important part of female empowerment in general. To all the people who have advocated for women’s sexual pleasure and desire to be honored and celebrated, I’m appreciative. At the same time, it’s important to connect with authentic sexuality rather than the misguided, often patriarchal version of female sexuality promoted by hookup culture.

You can honor your authentic desire, and pleasure, by getting clear on your sexual needs and boundaries. Part of empowerment is ensuring you are honoring your right to self-protection. When it comes to casual sex, you may self-protect by not having it if this is what feels right for you. Or maybe you self-protect by expecting your sexual health is respected through safer sex practices. Self-protection may also look like ending a casual sex relationship if you discover you, or they, want something more committed and this feeling isn’t reciprocated. Whatever feels right for you, I celebrate!

About The Author, Krystal

Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. She has focused her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She teaches the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.

This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.

Her course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself, provides the skills necessary to have a healthy relationship. This course features over a year of relationship skills you would learn in therapy. Students share this course has been “life changing.”

Each week, she answers your relationship questions from a place of expertise and compassion. To submit your relationship questions, please DM us @confidentlyauthentic.com