Is Casual Sex Intrinsically Demeaning?

Many well-intentioned people decry casual sex (or hooking up, or what have you) and argue that there’s something inherently demeaning about it–that you’re just letting the other person use your body and then toss it aside, that you’re letting them disrespect you.

It’s worth noting that, to these people, it’s only the woman in the (always heterosexual) pairing who gets used, abused, demeaned, and disrespected. But that sexist double standard is a separate conversation from the one I want to have, which is this: is casual sex intrinsically disrespectful? And is committed sex, then, intrinsically respectful?

My views on this issue have been evolving a lot recently. Overall, I’ve had a very negative experience with casual sex. The times that I haven’t been outright pressured and/or forced into it, I’ve been manipulated, insulted, and lied to.

I’m not saying that to get advice or sympathy, by the way. I’m saying it to explain why I can never really view casual sex as an Intrinsically Good Thing–my experiences with it have mostly been awful, whereas my experiences with committed sex have mostly been pretty great.

And that’s not to say that I see it as morally wrong or inadvisable, or that I think it’s too “dangerous” for people to do (that would be victim-blaming!). I do criticize it. But I also criticize people who moralize about it.

tl;dr my views on it are complicated and I can’t boil them down into a convenient soundbite.

But anyway, as I’ve gotten involved with organizations and people outside of Northwestern, I’ve started to realize that my views may be skewed somewhat because I live in a bubble. The Northwestern bubble. I live in it, I work in it, and, well, I have sex in it, too.

I know I should be careful about criticizing Northwestern’s campus culture. It’s not a homogenous thing, first of all, and it shares a lot of similarities with other campus cultures. However, now that I’ve met so many folks who are going (or went) to school elsewhere, I’ve become more confident in the fact that there are some things about this school that are relatively unique.

All of us at Northwestern are very intelligent. Many of us were picked on in elementary and middle school and self-identified as nerds in high school. Everyone I’ve met here has plenty of stories about that.

Many of us didn’t have much sexual experience before college (and many still don’t–a survey done here shows that almost half of the students have not had sex within the past year). However, we are all, to some extent, products of a culture that values sexual experience and “coolness.” We are a Big Ten school located near a huge city, and, to a greater degree than many other elite universities, ours is full of students who are on a pre-professional track–not here just for knowledge and intellectual growth, but to prepare for a career. And we know that in the workplace, we will be judged not only by our abilities, but by our appearance and our level of social aptitude.

Combine that appearance-focused, results-oriented mindset with pressure–both internal and external–to have sex, and you will have our campus’ hookup culture. It can be a lot of fun if you find the right people, but it can also be alienating, dehumanizing, and painful. I know, because I’ve been there.

And until recently, I thought that that’s just the nature of the beast. I thought that most people who like to hook up have stories like mine–if not only stories like mine. But as I’ve been meeting more people who don’t go here, I’ve heard more and more stories of casual sex done right–with respect, enthusiasm, honesty, and consent.

Although I’d long suspected that you don’t have to treat someone like an object just because you’re only hooking up with them for one night, I had yet to hear of any actual evidence for that. I had yet to meet people who could tell me that they’d had a casual thing with someone and it was not only consensual and physically enjoyable, but respectful and affirming, too. But now I have.

I’ve also realized that there are so many situations in which committed sex can be just as demeaning and disrespectful as my experience with casual sex has been. For starters, people can rape each other even within relationships–something that conservatives who wring their hands over casual sex don’t seem to understand (in many countries, marital rape was not criminalized until the late 20th century). In some ways, rape within committed relationships can be even more difficult to address because of expectations that your partner be available to you sexually whenever you want, and/or that you should be sexually available to your partner whenever they want.

Even if consent is actually given, sex within relationships can still be disrespectful (as I’d perceive it, at least). People can still be focused on their own pleasure without regard for their partner’s. People can still take their partners for granted. People can still objectify their partners. A serious relationship–including marriage–does not automatically imply that people are enjoying a healthy, mutually respectful sex life.

Ultimately, I think that any sexual relationship–whether it lasts for an hour or a lifetime–can only be as respectful as the people involved in it. The partners I had were not respectful, and they would not have been any more respectful if I’d been in a serious relationship with them. I felt disrespected and demeaned not because I chose to have casual sex with them, but because I chose to interact with them, period.

I believe that sex is ultimately value-free, as long as it is consensual. No “type” of sex–casual, committed, kinky, vanilla, straight, gay, solo–is intrinsically anything. Sex of any kind with someone who respects you and treats you well can be wonderful, and sex of any kind with someone who does not will probably be terrible.

Unfortunately, fixing the latter problem is much more difficult than shaming and scaring young people out of hooking up. We’d first have to create a culture in which people don’t view each other as a means to an end.

And, I’ll be honest, I have no idea how to do that.

Is Casual Sex Intrinsically Demeaning?

4 thoughts on “Is Casual Sex Intrinsically Demeaning?

  1. 1

    I wrote out a really really long response, but I decided I’m going to convert that to my own blog post (I’m in the process of developing my own blog, but it’s waaaay in it’s infancy… I’d love to have your feedback when I get it ready for feedback…)

    The tl;dr version: I’m older than you are (31), and in my time, I’ve come to the conclusion that truly casual sex requires an equal playing field. The culture at college campuses (rape culture, a bunch of 18-22 year-olds in undergrad programs who still don’t know which way is up) is not even remotely level. As such, it’s not an ideal place to pursue casual sex – you’re not likely to find many who are interested in a casual event that will also treat you like a human being.

    In my older years, I was able to find several good friends with whom I was able to pursue some sexual gratification outside the framework of a relationship. This required in-depth knowledge of ourselves, our friendship, where we were in our lives, and what we wanted from each other, both sexually and as friends. All of that is really really really hard to handle when you’re already drowning in figuring out life as a college kid. Disclaimer: this is all from the perspective of someone who went to a boring state university and never pursued grad school, so it may be different in your corner of the world…

    1. 1.1

      Yeah, what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. Although as I said, I’ve met people who have had great experiences with this in college, it definitely requires that you belong to some really special social circles or something, because the majority of college undergrads just aren’t like that. I read many great sex-positive bloggers who talk about casual sex, and they’re generally older than I am, and out in the Real World.

      I think a lot of this is also connected to alcohol, since in college hookups rarely happen without it and it’s not really known for making people act their best.

      Anyways, I’d love to see your post when it’s done! You should also feel free to post it on Brute Reason’s Facebook page if you’d like other people to see it. You can mention it was partially inspired by this post. 🙂

  2. 2

    Hahaha this post made me laugh a little. A lot of my girlfriends and guy friends have mainly casual sex. They hook up on websites such as Fetlife, craig’st list, okcupid…(a large number of them are part of the kink community) etc. And some of my friends actually just are turned on by having a lot of different partners. It seems though, for a woman, one of the ways casual sex works without getting.hurt is to have casual sex with men that are actually interested in more, I have found. As long as a girl feels she has some power of him it’s not like he is using her. This sounds really bad but it’s how some girls make it work, sort of.Also like with my one friend she usually doesn’t want to have sex with the same man again so it doesn’t bother her to never see them again and avoids them after too. I also have friends who are very serious about have sex with long term partners but their Friday night stories are never as entertaining! haha As for me, well my sex drive is pretty dead so I don’t really have much desire for sex in general but I am ok with casual sex if it makes sense and is with someone I really know well and probably would potentially date.

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