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Casual Sex Has a Bad Rap — but Does It Deserve It?

For my 19th birthday, my University of Delaware dorm mates whisked me to New York City for a taping of the Phil Donahue Show. The topic that day was “My Mother Is a Slut.” Of course, it titillated the audience and the guest’s family members, who expressed clear disdain for the women’s lifestyles. So, when Donahue handed me the mic and asked for my opinion, I didn’t hesitate to share.

“As long as these women are safe and no one is getting hurt, I don’t see how or why it matters how many people they sleep with,” I chirped in all my you-go-girl glory.

Studio 8-G at 30 Rockefeller Plaza fell silent. I paused to wonder how the comment would’ve been received if the focus was on promiscuous fathers. Although it was 1992, the audience’s mob mentality felt much like today’s social media users that turn so-called sluts into immediate online hate figures. Sadly, the same stigmas that surrounded casual sex then are still very much present today.

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Gigi Engle, a sex educator and writer, doesn’t think casual sex deserves its bad rap. “Every negative side-effect of casual sex has deep puritanical roots born from slut-shaming,” she says. “If we had comprehensive, pleasure-based sex education in this country, people would have the resources they needed to make empowered choices. We demonize casual sex because we demonize having sex outside of marriage. Of course it has a bad rap with these notions shrouding it.”

Sure, there are risks associated with any sexual situation, but casual sex seems to bear the brunt of it. “We live in a society that has conditioned us to think sex has to have emotional meaning to be good,” says Engle. “When you’ve been told having casual sex makes you a slut or if he (or she) doesn’t call you after, you’re worthless — well, this can sting.”

Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist, reminds clients there are times when a handshake is just a handshake, and there are times when just touching someone’s hand can be electrifying and emotionally gratifying. “The same is true of sex,” she says.

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It’s perfectly OK to want to explore casual sex — there are plenty of benefits for those who care to partake. “You can discover a lot about yourself; what you like and don’t like, what works for you,” says Engle. “It’s a great way to meet interesting people and explore different sexual tastes you might not otherwise.”

Sex boosts endorphins and feel-good hormones. Engle advises going about it in a healthy, empowered way — meaning not as a way to make yourself feel better or as a way to derive self-worth.

Beyond the emotional risks, there are some physical ones to consider when making healthy sexual choices. It should go without saying, but always use protection for safer sex. “Condoms (both male and female, whichever is preferred) during penetration is not up for negotiation,” says Engle. This means oral sex as well. “Yes, I do mean condoms during blow jobs and dental dams during oral sex,” she says. “The fact of the matter is that 85 percent of people have some form of HPV (not to mention all the other STIs).“

Although STIs are “a risk we cannot completely eliminate, and it’s also a risk that exists if you are engaging in a monogamous sexual relationship,” says Lurie.

The bottom line is that casual sex may not be for everyone. Just like every other type of sex, from pegging to role-play. “What works for some may not work for others, and that’s true for most things,” says Lurie.

“In reality, hookups are fun,” says Engle. “When done safely, they rock.” So, you go on and do you. “Having sex in a way that makes you feel good about yourself is the most important.” 

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