Sometimes it seems like everyone is having sex with lots of people they hardly know. That’s actually not the case; many people choose physical intimacy only when they feel emotionally intimate. Other people have sex casually and love it; others hook up and don’t really like it. One size does not fit all. The key is figuring out what’s right for you, despite what anyone else may do or think.
What’s Your Goal?
Before you have casual sex, it’s helpful to think about your goals and whether this particular hookup will help you meet them. Maybe you’re feeling frisky and would rather have sex with a partner than fly solo. Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve been held and you’re hungry for touch. Maybe you’ve been hesitant to express your sexuality and it feels empowering to put yourself out there. All of those might be met in a casual encounter (or might not, depending who it’s with and how it goes).
Clients I’ve talked with who’ve had casual sex in an unhealthy way tend to do it for reasons outside themselves. They may have mixed feelings, but they think they should hook up or they want to prove something. Maybe they want to show friends that they’re not uptight or prove to an ex that they’re attractive.
People may have casual sex when they’re hoping the relationship will become something more. This is a risky strategy. Sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t. Be honest with yourself about what you’re wishing for and how you’ll feel afterward if it doesn’t work out.
A big risk of casual sex that many women, especially, overlook is unconsciously wanting more. Young women often say things like “I know it was just a hookup and I didn’t really expect him to make me breakfast or text me the next day…but I really wish he did, and there’s something wrong with me for wishing that.” If that’s how you feel, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the wish.
It’s a myth that people should be able to separate feelings from sexuality. Some people can, but more can’t, and that’s not a flaw. There is nothing wrong with whatever you’re feeling. It’s perfectly fine to want sex only or primarily in a relationship, just as it’s fine to enjoy casual sex. We all have different sexual styles.
What Your Gut Tells You
Rather doing anything sexual because you think you “should,” turn inward. If no one else was involved in this decision—if your friends weren’t pushing you to “get out there,” if you didn’t have to debrief with anyone tomorrow, if you weren’t worried about what your potential partner wants—what would you do? What do you want?
Notice the energy in your body. Is it tense, or enthusiastic? Does the idea of hooking up trigger joy—or dread? Is your internal dialogue saying “Oh, yeah!” or “I should”? This is very important information about what you really want and need.
Also think about the role of alcohol in your hookups. If you need to be drunk to have casual sex, that’s a sign it might not be healthy for you. The more drinks you need, the more you’re numbing yourself. Beyond the safety risks of being impaired with someone you don’t know well, being drunk blocks out your true experience. It’s harder to pay attention to what you really want or don’t want.
If casual sex doesn’t work for you sober, either in general or in a specific situation, think about whether you really want to get drunk to do it. Why would you put yourself in that situation?
The Big Reveal
The most important way to tell whether casual sex is healthy for you is how you feel during and afterward. If you feel yucky or uncomfortable during a casual encounter, you can and should stop it. Even if the other person is disappointed, you’re allowed to change your mind and do what feels right to you. You have every right to change your Yes or Maybe into a No.
How do you feel the day after? If you feel happy and energized, great. But if you feel disappointed, dirty, used, or sad after casual encounters, that’s a sign hooking up isn’t right for you. If casual partners don’t seem to care much about your pleasure, that’s a problem. Even if the sex itself is fun but you feel lousy afterward, that’s information about what’s not working for you.
Sex is supposed to be fun and pleasurable; it should leave us feeling good, emotionally as well as physically. Choose the kinds of sex—casual or not—that leave you feeling good about yourself.