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In defence of casual sex

In a fast-burning world where we have so little time for ourselves, hook-up culture is dying a death. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely devoid of value

It must have been around midnight when, in the middle of a Parisian bar that boasted over 50 types of gin and a bust of Michael Jackson, I was rubbing my arse on a guy I’d met several hours prior. I have to say it’s one of the finer establishments I’ve acted up in. Lots of moulded frescoes, thick ceiling-to-floor drapes and neoclassical columns ceremoniously placed in the middle of the room, making the whole venue feel like an opera set that had been invaded by the audience. In the corner, flanked by decorative lamps, there was a DJ playing Migos.

Interested parties will have to buy me dinner to hear the rest of that story, but the point is: some of the most thrilling and memorable experiences I’ve ever had can be attributed to casual sex. It’s been a key to a part of the country I wouldn’t ordinarily find myself in, a reason to leave it in many cases, and it’s how I’ve met some of the people I now call close friends. It’s also how I found a hatchet axe under someone’s pillow in the middle of the night (for “self-defence”, allegedly, in case of burglars). The nonsense of hook-up culture means that every now and then you’ll discover a way of life (sleeping upon a hatchet, for instance) that would never have crossed your path previously. It’s a world of doors constantly opening and closing. A passport to the far reaches of human behaviour, or a new, undiscovered corner of yourself. It can be a lens through which to see the world, if you’re willing to look.

The topic of hook-up culture has been doing the rounds again online recently. A version of the same discussion has been a part of public conversation since the dawn of social media, and long before, as people in the US and UK seem hell-bent on deciding for certain whether it’s objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (or the more modern dilemma: ‘healthy’ or ‘toxic’). The most recent wave of discourse revolved partly around an article in The Cut, which highlighted a TikTok trend of people (mainly women) talking about their reasons for being voluntarily celibate: to “reclaim sexual energy”, because “guys only want to use you for your body”, or that casual sex is only beneficial to men. Many of the same points were echoed on Twitter – suggesting this isn’t just a fringe argument, but part of an ongoing recalibration of casual sex against a backdrop of socio-political turmoil. 

It should go without saying that there are infinite combinations of reasons why someone might choose to sleep around or not. On an individual level, there are previous experiences and personal beliefs. And on a wider level, there are the “gender wars” of a post-#MeToo landscape, as well as technological and economic changes that make casual sex less of an inherent part of people’s everyday lives. All of this has an impact on how casual sex is framed. When there’s so much to contend with and we have so little time for ourselves in a fast-burning world, it’s easy to see why someone would, literally, stop giving a fuck. But that doesn’t mean casual sex is completely devoid of value. 

Anything experienced through a sexual lens is changed. Your impression of a place will be different depending on whether you’re there with a friend or someone you’re sleeping with. Wherever you are – running around Manchester all summer or holed up in a Brooklyn apartment in a snowstorm – things are charged with a certain kind of energy, which to me feels like an extra layer of colour and possibility. Eating pizza in bed alone feels a lot different to eating pizza in bed with someone you’re fucking, doesn’t it? Not better, but it has its own distinct aura of mystery and closeness particular between people who perhaps haven’t shared their hopes and dreams but have seen each other’s arseholes. Harrowing to think of someone you spent 18 hours with now going about their business somewhere, giving PowerPoint presentations and eating dinner with their parents, when they have seen you sneeze with no clothes on. Alas, that’s a part of the negotiation. For some? Not worth it. For lots of women it is – but for some reason, that’s still not something we’re comfortable accepting.

“One of the greatest realisations I have had as an adult is that straight men don’t really care about sex... They like the idea of it, but they’d much rather stay home and respond to all your Instagram stories with an emoji instead”

The story of heterosexuality in the dating app era is usually women in their 20s and 30s feeling disappointed at best and violated at worst, and men who are entitled, resentful and manipulative. This is of course one story, and men like that do exist, but there is also another story in which casual sex is enjoyable or even just benign. There are plenty of hookups that end in iced coffee the next day, rather than regret. There’s an enduring assumption that casual sex is something pursued mostly by men. Something that, in a heterosexual context, women simply go along with when it’s presented to them. This is obviously very patronising, but it’s also wrong. One of the greatest realisations I have had as an adult is that straight men don’t really care about sex. Like, by and large, they would much rather be doing something else. Playing Elden Ring, setting up a fake North Face account on Depop to trick their mate into taking a photo of a glove on a toilet. They like the idea of sex, but when it comes down to it they’d much rather stay home and respond to all your Instagram stories with an emoji instead. 

More importantly, though, the way we talk about sex in relation to dating apps especially feels backwards. The language of what your ‘expectations’ are, versus what you ‘get’ in return. It’s very transactional, a bargain that – without clear communication – can only ever lead to disappointment. Casual sex shouldn’t feel like something you’re giving up or, conversely, getting in reward for buying a few drinks or whatever. It’s not a formula to be completed. At its best it’s just a moment in time between people, respectfully, having a laugh.

At the end of the day, its detractors are true – most casual sex is meaningless. But isn’t that the whole point? For me, sex in general can be a form of time theft. Not first and foremost, but that is a part of the appeal. In the punishing grind of deadlines and obligations and unread messages, sex is a location where you simply cannot be reached by anyone else. How many times have you had a random one night stand, or seen a Tinder date through to its logical conclusion, and ended up thinking less about work or whatever it is you need to do the next day? Pasted against the sheets afterwards, how many times has your head been emptied of thoughts like: I need to buy limescale remover or What time is it? There’s a kind of calm there; a physical exhaustion that passes for peace. It’s honestly the closest I have ever come to understanding why men take so long on the toilet

On paper, it’s an absolutely pointless thing to do... Even the act of sex itself is highly embarrassing. All that bouncing and slapping around for what?”

Much like life itself, most casual sex is either unremarkable or embarrassing, and mainly ends up being fodder for the group chat. It’s a lot of necking on public transport and stuffing your pants into a bin in the Pryzm toilets (or, yes, grinding in a gin-filled living room). It’s an intense, often pathetic craving for attention that compels you to get out of your pyjamas at 10PM to meet a stranger in a pub or text someone you definitely shouldn’t. On paper, it’s an absolutely pointless thing to do and you have to change your sheets afterwards as well, which is no small feat when you’re 5”3. Even the act of sex itself is highly embarrassing. All that bouncing and slapping around for what? 

But does it have less inherent value than spending three hours skulling an Ice Blast and watching The Batman, or playing Carcassonne, or threading about the current Tory party scandal on Twitter, or anything else we do for pleasure? In my eyes, no. At one point or another, we will all make the big mistake of thinking we want one thing, when in fact we want another. We enter the field of casual sex, or online dating, thinking we want a certain experience or a person who looks a certain type of way when what we actually want is a real, loving relationship. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’s a sad and necessary part of being a person. We don’t always find what we want in the places we expect, but let’s not belittle our agency to look.

Sex can be just as miserable and crap as anything else in life, but it can also be uniquely rewarding. It can reinforce feelings of freedom and satisfaction. It can also fulfil a desire for the new and unpredictable that is often absent from the many ways in which our lives are restricted. It feels like an antidote to a lot of things, simply running through the streets at 2AM with someone you’ve just met, a little tipsy, every inch of you buzzing with curiosity for what may or may not happen. Mainly, though, it can just be fun. There is no relationship as intimate and as disposable as a one night stand, and there’s something quite freeing about that.