No-Strings Sex, Disappointing Love, and Asking the Wrong Questions

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here, for reasons that now escape me. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.

Casual sex
If you’ve given up on romantic love, is no-strings sex a viable option?

I don’t usually write this column as an advice column. But I make occasional exceptions. And last week, someone wrote a comment in this blog asking for advice… a comment that I (a) felt compelled to answer, and (b) couldn’t answer in just a few words. (Link to original comment no longer available, since the Blowfish Blog archives have gone missing.)

The commenter had responded to a call for sexually-themed New Year’s resolutions by saying that she’d had a terrible experience with someone she met on the Internet, someone she’d traveled across the world to be worth who turned out to be, shall we say, unworthy of her affections. She had vowed to never get emotionally attached to a man again. And she asked this:

So this puts me in a quandary: how “palatable” to a potential male partner would I be if I told him I just wanted some awesome sex without a relationship or any bullshit “I love you’s” that we both know he probably doesn’t mean anyway, and if he does, he only means it when it’s convenient for him to truly love me?

For the moment, I’m going to set aside the question of whether it was wise for this commenter to uproot her life for the sake of an Internet romance with someone in another country thousands of miles away. (Actually… no, I’m not. I’m going to address that question right now; it’s a moot point for this particular questioner, but it may not be for someone else reading this. No, this is not a wise move. Internet romances can be great and do sometimes lead to successful physical-world romances; but they have to be treated with great skepticism, serious caution, and very careful timing. And the farther you have to travel for them, the more true that is. As Dan Savage has said: If you fly across the country or across the world to meet the virtual love of your life, don’t treat it as romantic destiny — treat it as an adventure, and frame it so you’ll have a good time on your trip even if your lover turns out to be a loser. If you uproot your entire life for someone in another country you’ve never met… well, it sucks if they turn out to be a jerk, but you’re the one who uprooted your life for someone you didn’t really know, so yes, you do bear some responsibility. Also, play it every bit as safely as you would if you were meeting an Internet date in your home town: meet in public for the first time, and make sure someone you know knows where you are and how to reach you.)

No strings attached
Anyway. Back to the question at hand. If the question were simply, “Are there men who want casual, non-romantic sex with no strings attached?” the answer would have to be a vigorous, “Yes! Of course! What planet have you been living on that you even have to ask that question? The world is loaded with men who would treat this offer as a gift from every god they’d ever imagined. And while some of these men are selfish game-players, others are decent, ethical men who’ll be as honest with you as they can about what they do and don’t have to give. Be careful — but go for it.”

But I don’t think that’s the right question here.

I don’t think that’s the question I should be answering.

The question I think I should be answering is one that this commenter didn’t ask. It’s one that she assumed she knew the answer to. And I think the answer she’s come up with is wrong — seriously wrong.

The question I think I should be answering is, “Since I got my heart broken by a lying jerk, should I assume that love is always a lie, give up on romantic love forever, and just get my sexual needs met with no-strings sex?”

The answer to that question is a vigorous “No.”

Liar liar
First of all, this assumption is just flatly not true. Not every man who says “I love you” is lying, and not every man pursues love purely for their own convenience. Not even most men do that. It sucks that this happened to you; but as they say in the sciences, you can’t draw a general conclusion from just one data point. It probably makes sense for you to hold off on an LTR right now, while you’re still feeling raw and demoralized — but vowing to never again get emotionally attached to a man because of one crummy experience is a recipe for unhappiness. (If nothing else, you’ll get hosed by confirmation bias — your assumptions will lead you to ignore decent men who treat women well, and focus your attention on selfish, deceitful schmucks.)

But more pertinently to the question at hand:

This assumption is going to seriously interfere with a satisfying no-strings sex life.

For no-strings sex to work, you need to feel happy about sex. You need to feel happy — at least potentially happy, willing and able to be happy — about the people you’re having sex with. And you need to feel happy about yourself. You need to see no-strings sex as something positive you’re pursuing for its own benefits, and for your own reasons. You can’t treat no-strings sex as second-rate, something you’re settling for because you’ve given up on what you really want. Not if you want to have a good time doing it.

Let me put it this way. Back in my late twenties and early thirties, I did some serious catting around. I was happily single, and I made it clear to everyone I dated that, while I was interested in sex and even friendship, a serious romantic relationship was out of the question. I wasn’t just happy to meet women who wanted no-strings sex — I only wanted women who wanted no-strings sex.

And yet, if I’d dated a woman who was looking for no-strings sex because she’d been so badly burned by love that she’d vowed never to try that again? If I’d dated a woman who only wanted no-strings sex because she knew that love was bullshit, and that if I said “I love you” I’d only be lying anyway, so she didn’t want to hear it?

Every single one of my red flags would have gone up.

That doesn’t sound like any fun at all.

I am entirely in favor of no-strings sex for people who genuinely want it. I think there are lots of excellent reasons to want no-strings sex. I even think that “I recently got out of a relationship, and I want sex but I’m not ready for another big commitment right now” is a pretty okay reason. And while I am a great lover of love, I don’t think serious romantic relationships are right for everybody all the time. I think there are people who would be happier being single — some temporarily, some permanently. We don’t all have to do relationships the same way.

But if you’re pursuing no-strings sex out of bitterness, cynicism, anger, hurt feelings, and a generally bleak view of romance, sex, and the gender(s) you’re attracted to… the chances of it resulting in “awesome sex” are very slim indeed.

At best, you’re going to have some sad, disconnected, unsatisfying sex. You’ll probably get a lot of rejection, too: from guys who are insulted at the assumption that they’re probably liars, and/or who find the prospect of sex with disappointed, pessimistic women to be less than alluring. And at worst, you’re going to make yourself vulnerable to some serious assholes. (Think of the kind of guy who’ll meet you and think, “Hey, she’s bitter and unhappy about men and has given up on love — I bet she’ll put out.” Is that the kind of guy you want to be sleeping with? Forget whether they’d be safe or trustworthy — do you think they’re going to be any fun in the sack?)

In a lot of ways, no-strings sex can be emotionally harder than long-term relationship sex. At least, it’s a different kind of hard. You have to date more people, put yourself out into the world more. You have to date a lot of frogs… and you have to date a lot of people who are going to think you’re a frog. You have to be willing to suffer a lot of rejection — and to do a lot of rejecting yourself. You have to be in a pretty strong, self-confident place for that to work.

And it doesn’t sound like you’re in that place right now.

I don’t think you need no-strings sex.

I think you need a therapist, a vibrator, and time.

Not necessarily in that order.

No-Strings Sex, Disappointing Love, and Asking the Wrong Questions
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7 thoughts on “No-Strings Sex, Disappointing Love, and Asking the Wrong Questions

  1. 5

    As a straight male who is still getting over the last failed romance attempt, my friends keep telling me that all I have to do is take “my little guy” out for a swim (especially in a pond where I don’t care about anything other than how pretty the scenery is)and everything will be OK again and all that emotion and feelings bull will just go away.

  2. 6

    First of all, this assumption is just flatly not true. Not every man who says “I love you” is lying, and not every man pursues love purely for their own convenience. Not even most men do that. It sucks that this happened to you; but as they say in the sciences, you can’t draw a general conclusion from just one data point.

    I am literally dumbfounded by the neurotypical tendency to do this. Can someone explain it to me?

  3. 7

    Great advice, Greta. I feel like I should add some commentary about the male side of this, especially since teammarty brought it up.
    There’s a common meme around guy circles. If you’re hung up on an ex, or bitter about women, or in any way NOT in a place where you want a LTR, you should FTOW. (Fuck Ten Other Women.) The idea being that if you just get the wienie wet a few times, you’ll realize the ex, or a LTR, or whatever, isn’t as wonderful and perfect as you were thinking. It’s designed to give you a more confident perspective that you can be happy and get laid without a LTR.
    Unfortunately, this is a minefield. It’s not that a casual romp in the hay wouldn’t be good for a guy’s confidence… It usually is. But guys have emotions too, and we get stung by love just like women. And when we’re bitter, we don’t treat our casual sex partners as equal humans. They’re grudge fucks, or band-aids. And sure… there are girls out there who just want a lay, and are ok with that. But most of them are not.
    Unfortunately, there is a distinct difference between guys and girls. If a girl takes your advice and gets therapy, a vibrator, and takes some time, she’s STILL going to be approached by guys regularly. Her recipe for taking time is: Say No. Rinse, Wash, Repeat.
    For a guy, if he is taking time, it means he’s not approaching women. Which means he’s not getting any positive reinforcement that he’s attractive and desirable — which the woman taking time is still getting, whether she wants it or not.
    So there’s a catch-22 for men. Stay in a funk and hung up on the ex, or use women to get over the ex. I suppose the best advice for guys is to take some time, but to try to continue making connections with women. Keep flirting, and keep going out to places where you can meet women. Get phone numbers. Steal a kiss or three. Just hold off on the sex for the moment. When the sex feels good again, you’ll know. And THEN a casual fling would be a great idea.

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