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How to Have (Good) Casual Sex

In an age where there’s not only an app for everything, but a dating app for everything, it can seem as if the rules of casual sex have shifted from their already-murky-by-nature territory to a completely foreign realm. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors when it comes to so-called “hookup culture”: It’s easy to generalize, and people can be secretive about it, forthcoming but dishonest, or some combination of the two, adding to the confusion. Social psychologist Justin Lehmiller, a faculty affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, has built a career researching casual sex, sexual fantasy, and sexual health (all of which he tackles on his blog, Sex and Psychology). Here, he explores the research surrounding casual sex—its emotional stakes, the orgasm gap, and the viability of friends with benefits.

A Q&A with Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D.

Q

Are people having more casual sex now than before?

A

Compared to past generations, young adults today definitely have more casual sex. It’s interesting to note, though, that the overall amount of sex and the number of partners people report having hasn’t changed very much over the last few decades. The thing that has changed is the proportion of sex that’s casual in nature. In other words, while we aren’t having sex more frequently today, the circumstances under which we’re having sex is changing.

“Young adults today definitely have more casual sex.”

For some perspective on just how much things have changed, a 2014 study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that where 35 percent of adults aged eighteen to twenty-five reported having had casual sex in the late 80’s and early 90’s, that number jumped to 45 percent for eighteen to twenty-five-year-olds who were surveyed between 2004 and 2012.

Q

There’s a lot of talk about people not meeting at bars any more. To what extent is that true, and how does that change the rules/circumstances?

A

It’s just not the case that bars have ceased to exist as a meeting point. While online dating and hookup apps are being used more and more, the truth is most people are still meeting each other in person. Consider this: a 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that only about one-quarter of adults aged eighteen to twenty-four had ever used an online dating website or app—and they’re the demographic group that’s most likely to have used them, by far! So despite all we hear about people meeting their sex and relationship partners online, the vast majority of adults have never even tried it.

“The truth is most people are still meeting each other in person.”

Meeting someone online poses some unique challenges. For one thing, research finds that there’s a lot of deception in the world of online dating and hookups. In other words, what you see in a profile photo isn’t always what you get. But that’s hardly the only thing that can lead people to feel frustrated or jaded. Research has found that men and women have different strategies when it comes to using apps like Tinder: A study published last year found that men aren’t very selective at first on Tinder—they tend to cast a wide net with lots of right swipes. They only become selective later once they get their matches. By contrast, women are very selective at first and swipe right a lot less. So when they get their matches, they’re a lot more invested in the outcome. What this means is that by the time a match emerges, men and women aren’t necessarily on the same page—and that can make the experience frustrating for everyone.

Q

What do we know about orgasms and casual sex?

A

There’s a big “orgasm gap” when it comes to casual sex—at least among heterosexual men and women. Research shows that straight guys almost always have orgasms when they’re with casual partners, but for straight women, the story is very different: A 2012 study published in the American Sociological Review looked at the hookup experiences of thousands of heterosexual female college students, and just 11 percent of women reported having an orgasm during a hookup with a brand-new male partner. When women had casual sex with the same guy more than once, though, their odds of orgasm increased—for instance, 34 percent of women reported orgasms when they hooked up with the same partner three or more times. Of course, that’s still a pretty low number and evidence that we’re dealing with a big orgasm gap here!

“A big part of the reason for the orgasm gap is our sex education gap.”

A big part of the reason for the orgasm gap is our sex education gap. Fortunately, there are efforts underway to help change this. One that I’m most excited about is the development of websites and apps (such as OMGYes), designed to teach men and women more about female sexual anatomy and pleasure—a topic sorely lacking in American sex education. I hope these technologies will help make up for what people aren’t learning elsewhere—and that this increased knowledge can bring us closer to orgasm equality.

Q

Do men and women really experience casual sex differently? And how do you feel like society perpetuates that?

A

There’s a double standard surrounding casual sex—women tend to be judged more harshly than men for having it, and when a man has it, he’s more likely to get a pat on the back than to be shamed. This double standard leads men and women to think about casual sex very differently: Compared with men, women are more likely to regret past casual sex experiences. By contrast, men are more likely than women to regret lost opportunities for casual sex. In other words, when it comes to casual sex, women regret having had it, and men regret not having done it more.

“When it comes to casual sex, women regret having had it, and men regret not having done it more.”

Of course, plenty of women have positive attitudes toward casual sex and don’t regret having it. Likewise, there are a lot of men who look back on their casual sex experiences with regret and shame. There’s a lot of individual variability. It’s just that when you look at things at the overall group level, you see a difference on average in how men and women feel about casual sex.

Q

When does casual sex enter the realm of not-casual sex?

A

That’s a tough question, and I’m afraid there isn’t a precise answer for it. The issue here is that casual sex is something that means different things to different people. Some might say that casual sex becomes not-so-casual when it happens more than once. Others might say that frequency of sex doesn’t matter so much as whether the partners are also calling, texting, or seeing each other outside of the bedroom. Others might say the key factor is how the partners feel about each other or the emotional connection that exists between them. The line here is a very blurry one that’s not as easy to draw as you might think.

Q

And what are the right reasons to have casual sex versus the wrong reasons?

A

Instead of saying there are “right” or “wrong” reasons for casual sex, the way I’d frame this is that certain motivations are likely to lead to more enjoyment of casual sex than others. If you have casual sex because it’s something that you really want to do and it’s consistent with your values, if you think casual sex is fun, if it’s an experience you think is important to have, or if you simply want to explore your sexuality, chances are that you’ll be happy you did it. If it’s not something you really want to do or you have an ulterior motive in mind—if you’re having casual sex because you want to feel better about yourself, you’re hoping it will turn into an LTR, or you want to get back at someone or make an ex jealous—there’s a good chance you’ll end up wishing you hadn’t done it.

Q

How can you emotionally prepare yourself to have casual sex, i.e., the idea of intimacy without real intimacy, before going for it? Is it just a bad idea in general for certain personality types, or is it a necessary rite of passage?

A

Your comfort with casual sex depends to some extent on your personality: Some people have an easier time with casual sex than others. One of the most important traits to consider here is your sociosexual orientation—the ease with which you separate sex from emotion. In other words, are you comfortable with the idea of sex without love, or do you think the two need to go together? To the extent that you see sex and love as separable, you’re likely to not only have more casual sex, but also to enjoy those experiences more. If you see sex and love as intimately intertwined, though, odds are that you’ll find casual sex less enjoyable.

Q

Is it possible to have emotionally healthy casual sex with a friend, or does that usually change the tenor of the relationship/put it at risk?

A

I’ve conducted some longitudinal research on friends with benefits and have found that there’s a lot of diversity in people’s experiences. Some people remain good friends, others become lovers, and some just get really awkward and uncomfortable. Our research suggests that one of the keys to having things turn out well is strong communication: The more that people in our study communicated up front, the more likely they were to preserve their friendship in the end. Another important factor: Make sure both of you are going in on the same page. Often one person wants to be more than just friends and doesn’t tell the other—and that’s a recipe for trouble. So, yes, it’s possible for two friends to have sex and for things to turn out well; the odds of this happening depend on their motivations and how well they communicate about the rules and expectations.

Social psychologist Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., is the Director of the Social Psychology Graduate Program at Ball State University and a faculty affiliate of The Kinsey Institute. Dr. Lehmiller’s research focuses on casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. Formerly a sex educator and researcher in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, he has published more than thirty pieces of academic writing and authored two textbooks, The Psychology of Human Sexuality and A Social Psychology Research Experience. He is the author of the blog Sex and Psychology.

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