Over the last couple of years there has been a lot of talk about "hook-up culture." This culture is defined as a culture that "accepts and encourages casual sexual encounters focused on physical pleasure without necessarily including emotional bonding"¹ There have been countless articles decrying the death of courtship and studies of the emotional ramifications of no-strings-attached sex. Most resemble this conclusion from a 2013 SUNY Binghampton study: "College students who recently engaged in casual sex reported lower levels of self-esteem, life-satisfaction, and happiness compared to those students who did not have casual sex in the past month."² They seem to point to hook ups being detrimental to everyone involved.
Hook Ups Without Hang Ups: How to Keep Casual Sex Ethical, Drama-Free, and Fun
Are There Hang Ups in Hooking Up?
Is it true, though? Is casual sex, by its nature, harmful? We’ve already said that studies say it is harmful. So...that must be that, right? Because, science. Right? Well, not so fast. What about studies like this 2009 University of Minnesota Medical School study which "found no differences in the mental well-being of participants who had a casual partner or a committed partner"?
I think the answer lies in the work of Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D. who looks beyond the simple act of engaging in casual sex to the more complex motivation behind it. Why? It draws on extensive research indicating that engagement in just about any behavior for the "right" reasons, ones that fall in line with one’s values, causes an upswing in feelings of well-being. Engaging in the same behavior for "wrong" reasons, ones that are influenced by punishment, reward or no motivation at all, is detrimental. Her study of 530 college students indicated that those who engaged in "hook ups" or casual sex for "wrong" (or what the study called nonautonomous) reasons indicated "lower self-esteem, higher depression and anxiety, and more physical health symptoms" 3 than those who had either engaged for "right" (or autonomous) reasons or not at all. Looking at this information we can conclude that when it comes to casual sex, as with many things, context matters. (For more from Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D, check out Is Casual Sex Right for You? 9 Questions That'll Help You Figure It Out)
Creating the Right Casual Sex Context
So, how can we create the right context to create drama-free casual sex? Can we really have hook ups without the hang-ups? Can we have the FWBs without the WTFs? Well, I’ve got some ideas that can help us stay clear about our motivations, be considerate to our partners, and allow us to be as casual as we want.
Be Honest with Everyone — Especially Yourself
Be honest about yourself and what you want. Make sure a hook up is really what you’re looking for before you engage in one. This is where that motivation piece can go wrong. If what you really want is a significant other or to dodge some bad feelings, you may end up sorely disappointed. You must truly examine what you want in order to keep your hook up drama free for yourself.
Be honest about what you are willing to give. Make sure your partner doesn’t want more than you are offering. If you and your partner aren’t on the same page, you may end up inadvertently hurting their feelings. Truth and honesty are the keys to any form of relationship...even for FWB.
Make Safety a Priority
For some of us, "casual" feels like throwing caution to the wind. However, we still need to be safe out there! I know, I know...approaching the topics of STI and barriers with new partners can feel scary and awkward. It feels like that for almost everyone. That’s why I love sex educator Reid Mihalko’s "Safer Sex Elevator Speech". It’s a quick, to-the-point way to introduce the topic. By volunteering your information and opening the door for your partner to share, you normalize the conversation and diffuse the awkward. Yay for you!
Remember That "Casual" Doesn’t Mean Non-communicative
Talk to each other! Communicate your boundaries. Navigate consent (go for the "hell yes!") and check in with each other to make sure everyone is still having fun. Isn’t it better to know everyone is having a happy, healthy, fun time than to guess?
Sometimes in an attempt to avoid "strings" or emotional connections, folks end up being rude to hook up partners. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but don’t do that! Be kind to each other. Say please and thank you. Find a polite way to disengage at the end of the night or the next morning. Respect your partner even if it is just for one night. You, too, were just for one night. If you want respect, you should give respect. You made the same choice that they made.
Be Friends - Even if it’s Just for the Hour
Why should you act like your hook up is your friend? Because it’s super-fun! Sure, you can go in as autonomous units each working for your own pleasure. How much more fun would it be to work together as a mutual-pleasure-seeking team?! Best part? At the end of your successful mission, you can share a post-coital fist bump. It doesn’t matter if you never plan on seeing this person again, being cool for the time you are together gives everyone a much better chance of having a smile on their face the next day!
JoEllen is a writer, speaker, researcher and mental health advocate whose work explores the impact of depression on sex and relationships. Since 2012 she has written about sex, mental health, and how none of us are broken on her award-winning site The Redhead Bedhead.
JoEllen's book The Monster Under the Bed: Sex, Depression & The Conversation We Aren’t Having is now available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.