Over the years I’ve asked questions, and heard numerous others ask questions like: “Can casual sex ever be wholesome?” or “Is casual sex bad?” or similar questions regarding casual relationships or “friends with benefits” situations. These questions seem rather important ones to ask, but it has proved tricky to answer them because of a lack of a clear definition of what exactly it means for sex or a relationship to be “casual”.
The term casual sex and the more informal term hooking up are often ambiguous and imprecise, as the phrases are used in radically different ways. Wikipedia’s page on Casual Sex (as of writing this post) expresses this eloquently:
Casual sex or hooking up refers to certain types of sexual activity outside the context of a romantic relationship. The term is not always used consistently: some use it to refer to any extramarital sex, some use it to refer to sex in a casual relationship, whereas others reserve its use for one-time encounters, promiscuity, or to refer to sex in the absence of emotional attachment or love.
The word wholesome is also loaded, especially when it comes to the topic of sex and relationships. Rather than relying on more subjective notions of wholesomeness which will vary based on a person’s individual beliefs, I think it is possible to reach a slightly more objective notion of wholesomeness by defining wholesome behavior as something that has a positive overall effect on all people involved. People will still quibble over what constitutes a positive effect, but at least we can be somewhat closer to agreement. One of the ways to get at the notion of “positive effect” in a slightly more objective fashion is to look at the effects of something on psychological health.
Casual Sex and Psychological Health:
“Casual sex” has been studied to some degree in a scholarly setting, with respect to its effects on psychology; however, the scholarly literature itself is guilty of failing to make the distinctions described above. As an example, a fairly recent and interesting study was published in an article titled Casual Sex and Psychological Health Among Young Adults: Is Having “Friends with Benefits” Emotionally Damaging? This study made only a single distinction, between sex with a close, exclusive partner, and “casual” ones, defined as being a “casual acquaintance or close but nonexclusive partner”. The study found that young adults who engage in casual sexual activities (as defined in the study) do not have any greater risk of harmful psychological outcomes than those who engage only in exclusive ones with a close partner.
I am not surprised by these results, as, in my opinion, they fail to capture the key aspects of sexual connections that determine whether these connections have a positive or negative impact on a person’s psychological health. For example, this study would not distinguish between an open relationship or people who practice polyamory, vs. people who have, for lack of better term, a “friends with benefits” sort of relationship, nor would it distinguish these sorts of connections from more anonymous one-time sexual encounters.
I would like to propose a new framework for thinking about sexual relationships, and for classifying sexual activity as wholesome or unwholesome. The key aspects which I will talk about are consent, caring, communication, and connection. These four factors are inextricably linked, and not just by the fact that they all begin with the letter C. I will argue that these four C’s, and not the exclusivity or label on a relationship, determine whether or not the sexual relationship is wholesome.
Most people would agree that consent is important in sexual relationships. Without consent, sex becomes rape and sexual activity becomes sexual assault. It goes without saying that these things are highly unwholesome (and psychologically damaging), and that consent is thus a prerequisite (but not a guarantee) for sex or sexual activity to be wholesome. What exactly constitutes consent? There is, unfortunately, a lot of grey area here, and questions that are tough to answer, such as when explicit verbal consent is necessary, and what happens when alcohol or other mind-altering drugs are involved. But the question of what exactly constitutes consent for sexual activity is beyond the scope of this post; I only want to talk about one key point:
Consent has nothing to do with being in an exclusive relationship. It is an unfortunate fact that a person’s spouse or close romantic partner is among the most likely people to rape them. It’s not a happy topic, but people interested in reading about it just to get convinced that it’s a real issue can visit Wikipedia’s page on Spousal Rape. The term “Date rape” is a bit troublesome as it is usually used in a way that encompasses both acquaintances and romantic partners. But if you type “boyfriend rape” into google and read the posts on forums and other interactive websites, you will quickly see that this is a real problem as well.
A lot of people talk about and debate about whether or not sex without love can be wholesome. This debate is clouded by the fact that the word love, in English, has many different uses, ranging from the intense feeling of being in love, to a strong bond of attachment (as with family, romantic partners, and close friends), to an intense liking (“I love that!”), to a more general feeling or state of caring and concern. I want to isolate the discussion on this last element.
Caring about other people is generally a good thing. It doesn’t matter who they are, or what relationship you have with them. Besides the fact that it can sometimes cause you to feel emotional pain when the person you care about is suffering, concern for other people’s well-being on its own rarely has any negative impacts on people, and can have numerous positive impacts. But is it necessary to care about people in a sexual relationship, in order for that relationship to be wholesome?
I would argue that it is necessary to care about someone in order for any sort of sexual connection with that person to be wholesome. Why? If you genuinely do not care about the person, it becomes so easy to harm the person. For one, lack of caring can completely bowl over consent, especially when the consent exists in that grey area we mentioned above. A person who truly does not care about the other person’s well-being is more likely to justify to themselves the idea that the sex is consensual, and is more likely to attempt to pressure or seduce the person in the cases where a clear “no” is given.
But even when consent is unambiguously given, a lack of caring can cause other problems. Depending on a variety of factors, sex can be more or less wholesome in terms of the effect it has on a person’s life. Sex is an intense and emotionally charged experience and a person’s psychological well-being is not only impacted by the sex itself but by what happens afterwards. It’s safe to assume that these factors are going to vary hugely from one person to the next, and based on different situations, but the core idea is this: a person who cares is going to ask the questions: “Is this sex going to be good for this person?” and is going to say no to the sex if the answer to that question is no, even if the person has given consent. A person who cares also is more likely to ask the question: “How can I conduct myself after this sexual activity so as to have the best effect on this person?” In short, a person who cares is going to change their behavior so as to be beneficial to the other person’s well-being, whereas a person who doesn’t care, simply doesn’t care.
Caring is not the same as an exclusive relationship. People enter into relationships and even marriages for all sorts of reasons. Most of us can probably mull over our stories and come up with at least a few examples of a husband or wife that did not seem to care at all about their spouse or about the health of their marriage. It’s sad, but it’s reality that these situations exist. Conversely, there are many people in our lives who care about us with whom we are not involved in an exclusive sexual relationship.
Communication is tricky; people study it in school, build whole careers out of it, and still don’t understand it. Communication in human relationships can be hindered by cultural and linguistic differences, strong emotions and biases, and different ways of looking at the world, among other factors. There is a lot of talk about different communication styles, how to communicate about difficult topics in relationships, and a whole bunch of relevant topics, and as with the grey area of consent, these topics are beyond the scope of this post. The key idea to think about however is that communication can be better in some relationships and interactions than others, and that poor communication can be highly damaging in sexual relationships.
Poor communication can confound the question of consent. The infamous “no means yes” debate, whether or not you dismiss it as misogynistic, gets at a particularly nasty form of miscommunication: if one person does not hear and accept the message of “no” clearly, consent goes out the window. But even when consent is unambiguous, poor communication can cause other things to go wrong. There’s the obvious problem that a lack of communication can lead to some very bad sex. But, returning to the issue above, of caring, all the caring in the world can’t help you respect another person’s needs and wants if you don’t understand what those needs or wants are. Communication is one of the necessary ingredients to allow consent to be clearly given, and to allow caring to translate into actual behaviors that help a person. It is thus necessary for wholesome sex.
As the pattern is obvious by now, you are probably expecting me to argue that good communication is something that can exist with or without an exclusive sexual relationship, and a typical exclusive relationship certainly does not guarantee good communication.
Any relationship or marriage counselor will testify to the second point, but in case you’re not convinced, think about how anyone can dive head first into an exclusive romantic or sexual relationship with someone they have only recently met. You probably can think of some examples of people close to you who have done this, and you may have done it yourself; I know I have on at least one occasion! But the less well you know someone, the less well you know how to interpret their verbal and non-verbal communication: learning to communicate with a given person (and even assessing how well you communicate with someone) takes time. Choosing to have an exclusive relationship does not do anything on its own to improve communication!
I think that consent, communication, and caring are not quite enough for sex to be wholesome. One needs to look also at the role the sex is playing in the relationship between the people having it. People can care about each other but still make decisions that are not necessarily good for each other or for themselves in the long-run. I often hear discussion of “sex for the sake of sex”. I don’t think this is a healthy or wholesome way of approaching sex. I think that in order for sex to be wholesome, it must be based on the idea of becoming more connected to someone, rather than just being an isolated or compartmentalized experience.
It’s a simple fact that when you share an experience with someone, it changes your relationship with that person. In general, if you share a positive experience with a person, it brings you together, and strengthens the connection you have with that person. Sexuality is a particularly intense part of the human experience, and, assuming you actually want to have good sex, sex is going to bring you together with a person, and the effect is likely to be strong and intense. In order to have sex with someone without having it change or develop or strengthen your connection with a person, you would need to close off a part of yourself.
Human connections are complex and cannot be easily described as an either-or thing or on a continuum. It is impossible to generalize about exactly what sort of connection is necessary for people to have sex play a healthy role in their relationship with each other, and this connection is likely to vary considerably from one person to the next. I think it’s easier to grasp, however, the unwholesomeness of sex when there’s a lack of connection. When a person wants to have sex with someone that they’re not comfortable feeling closer to, it’s often a sign of a lack of self-esteem. Perhaps they are afraid of intimacy, or perhaps they are so down on themselves that they don’t believe that they’d able to be find a willing partner they feel genuinely comfortable with, or perhaps they’re lacking the self-control or assertiveness necessary to define healthy boundaries in their relationships. Whatever the issues are, pushing them under the rug and avoiding dealing with them by having sex without any emotional bond is never a healthy or wholesome approach.
So, what constitutes wholesome sexual activity? It is consensual, and is accompanied by good communication and caring about each other, and it has the effect of strengthening the connection between people. If any of these four elements are not present, it’s not wholesome. And the wholesomeness or lack thereof is not determined by the exclusivity of the relationship.
According to this paradigm, anonymous sex (which describes some, but not all drunken hookups at college parties, as an example) is always unwholesome, whereas casual sex, hookups, “friends with benefits”, and sexual activity in a marriage or in an exclusive relationship may or may not be wholesome, with no guarantee of exclusivity being a sign that a particular sexual connection is more or less wholesome or healthy psychologically.
There is one caveat to this statement: exclusivity definitely interacts with the four C’s that are necessary for wholesome sex. A lot of people, either universally, or during some times in their life, only want to connect sexually with people while in an exclusive relationship, for emotional reasons, religious or spiritual reasons, or other personal reasons. People who desire monogamous relationships typically give consent with the implicit understanding that their partner is being faithful to them. A lack of faithfulness is thus, in some form, a violation of consent, and is always accompanied to some degree by a lack of caring (not necessarily universally, but at least in the moment in which the person chooses to be unfaithful). Also, when people are not exclusive sexually, safe sex becomes much more difficult and complicated because of the risk of STD’s–but it must be emphasized that what matters more for this purpose is whether or not people have multiple sexual partners, not whether or not they choose to define their relationship as exclusive.
How can you help?
- Avoid using ambiguous terms like casual sex or hookup unless you clarify or explain what you mean by them. Using the terms ambiguously facilitates people jumping to conclusions without information about the key factors that influence whether sex is wholesome or unwholesome.
- If you write about or conduct research on casual sex and psychological well-being, consider looking at the factors of caring, communication, and consent, rather than merely categorizing relationships based on exclusivity. Consider looking in more depth at the nature of people’s sexual relationships, rather than lumping everything into two categories of monogamous or non-monogamous.
- Be cautious of your own biases in attaching judgments to sexual situations. I have found that many people tend to be more likely to wrongfully label sexual activity outside of a committed relationship as unwholesome or unhealthy, whereas they tend to underestimate the amount of psychological damage caused by sexual activity (whether in an exclusive relationship or not) in the absence of clear consent, good communication, and caring.