By Ian Kerner, Ph.D., LMFT
To do it, or not to do it: that is the question of casual sex, at least as depicted on film. In both Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached, casual sex is anything but casual. It's carefully weighed, hotly debated, methodically scrutinized and of course, comically miscalculated. As in most romantic comedies, the casual sex turns out to be quite committed and just a part of falling in love and living happily ever after.
In the movies, blind lust and romantic love often intersect seamlessly, but in reality, casual sex is often an emotional dead-end rather than an on-ramp to relationship bliss.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher describes love as a three-phase system:
1) Lust: in which we can attach to anyone
2) Attraction: in which lust finds its focus and blossoms into romantic love
3) Attachment: in which romantic love matures into a long-term relationship
Casual sex is often an expression of Phase 1 (lust at its most unfocused), but, unfortunately, many people go into it with the false hope that it will lead to romantic love. And that's where life does not imitate the movies.
That's not to say that casual sex is a bad thing. It can be loads of fun, as well as a way of trying out new things and practicing your sex skills for that future special person. But casual sex isn't always so simple.
As my colleague Emily Nagoski, author of the Good in Bed Guide to Female Orgasms, writes, "Especially when it comes to having sex with someone for the first time, the question of what it is you actually want when you want sex is very complicated indeed. Because what do you want, when you want sex? Do you want to get laid? Do you want a relationship? Do you want love? Do you want revenge? Do you want to rebel? Do you want to get pregnant? Then there's the question of whether or not (and what kind of) sex will get you what you want. Sex will get you laid. Whether or not it gets you a relationship or love or revenge or rebellion or a baby is less certain and so the decision becomes complicated."
Casual sex has its risks and rewards, although the movies tend to focus more on the risk of falling in love than, say, the very real consequence of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.
As the authors of Sex in America write of their interviews with more than 3,000 people, "Although we find that large numbers of Americans have had a sexually transmitted disease at least once in their lives, there is nothing random about where the diseases strike [...] the people who are most likely to be infected share one key characteristic: They have many sex partners."
As it turns out, if a man has two to four sexual partners in his lifetime, his chances of ever having contracted a sexually transmitted infection are about 3%.
As the number of partners increases, so does the risk. With more than 20 partners, his risk is about 28%, almost a 1,000% increase. The same rough pattern is true of women, with the spectrum of percentages increasing from 5% to 35%.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the more partners a person has had, the more likely it is that he or she has engaged with those partners outside of a monogamous relationship, and that his or her partner falls into a similar pattern of casual sex, thereby greatly increasing the risk of having come into contact with a sexually transmitted infection.
Casual sex could also trigger a domino effect of risky behaviors. "The more partners an individual has," according to "Sex in America," "the more likely he or she is to have sex with people who themselves have many partners, the more likely he or she is to have sex with virtual strangers, the more likely she or he is to have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol during some sexual encounters, and while it is more likely that a condom was used, the rate of increased use of a condom does not seem great enough to offset the higher risks of infection."
I'm not trying to scare anyone out of casual sex. As Dr. Alex Comfort had to say in his book The Joy of Sex, "There is no occasion for panic, or for losing out on the joy of sex: simply informed caution."