Around 2011, casual sex once again hit the headlines. From sex-friend flicks like No Strings Attached (the Ashton Kutcher/Natalie Portman one) and Friends With Benefits, (Mila Kunis/Justin Timberlake) to vaguely censorious journalistic deep dives and scholarly analyses, pop culture was obsessed with no-strings-attached sex. NSA (the acronym, not the abbreviation for National Security Agency) was trending online. Millennials were, the breathless reports detailed, having more sex without romantic commitment—and some of us were even liking it.
2011 also happened to be my freshman year of college. I arrived on campus armed with a pair of high-waisted khakis that made my ass look sacred, some great lipstick, and a newly minted birth control prescription. I was young, I was horny, and I was not going to let antiquated things like relationships get between me and the liberated feminist orgasms I was sure characterized college.
If you’ve had the dubious honor of erotically cavorting with college-aged men, you can guess that I was in for a rude awakening. Sure, the hookup and FWB culture at college brought plenty of no-strings-attached sex. But it also brought the pervasive feeling that those same strings were snaking back around to strangle me and the young women I was friends with. We may have been liberated enough to have sex without a commitment relationship, but we weren’t liberated from slut-shaming, orgasm inequality, and sexual violence.
The Casual Sex Conundrum
Ten years and several reckonings later, our public conversation about sex and modern dating has, thankfully, evolved beyond campus-hookup think pieces. Yet for many, the concept of “no strings attached” remains a conundrum. On one hand, many of us do want sex without necessarily wanting a romantic relationship; as a one-time sexual encounter or in casual dating, for periods of time, or as a longer-term choice. But we are, first and foremost, human—with all the power imbalances, messy feelings, and bungled boundaries that entails.
So what does it mean to respect one another in interactions that aren’t defined by the expectations and boundaries of a conventional romantic relationship? How can we enjoy mutual pleasure, when sex itself is characterized by deep inequalities, like the prevalence of sexual assault and a gaping pleasure gap?
To make these encounters respectful, we have an obligation to be conscious of our partners’ social vulnerabilities, and of the power we may hold.
In truth, having genuinely respectful casual sex does involve some deep emotional engagement: it requires us to be real with ourselves, to articulate what we want, and to communicate clearly and respectfully with our partners.
There Are Always Strings
Allow me to rain on your parade: Sex always comes with strings. None of us is a perfectly autonomous sexual being free of obligations to others. We are interconnected. We are formed by the contexts we live in, and by the racial, socioeconomic, and gender inequalities that shape our societies and ourselves.
Respectful NSA sex isn’t absent any obligation to our sex partners. It is, instead, an interaction where you are both giving and receiving sexual pleasure in an egalitarian way, without necessarily having to commit to each other in the context of an emotionally deep or long-term relationship. To make these encounters truly respectful, we have an obligation to be conscious of our partners’ social vulnerabilities, and of the power and vulnerability we may hold.
That means that men who sleep with women have a particular obligation to consider how their behavior may affect their partners by, for example, educating themselves about sexism, consent, and sexual trauma, and being proactive about contraception. Similarly, white people have a responsibility to respect partners of color by educating ourselves about race and racism, and not treating partners’ ethnicity or culture as a fetish object. The same introspection applies across different kinds of power.
Be Real With Yourself
The Spice Girls weren’t lying: If you want to be someone’s lover, you have to know what you really, really want. NSA sex requires healthy boundaries, and those start with a deep understanding of your sexual desires, what you’re actually looking for, and how much you can invest.
An NSA relationship is a mutual experience of pleasure; it’s not free sexual and emotional labor.
It’s totally okay to have romantic and sexual baggage; we all do! It’s also totally okay to not be able to or not want to engage in an intimate relationship. But there’s a difference between setting clear boundaries, and acting out your intimacy issues by sending mixed messages. So before heading into an NSA situation, do some soul searching: What are you really trying to get out of this?
Are you looking for someone to love, support, and pleasure you, without you having to put the energy into reciprocating? That’s not NSA sex, that’s being an ass, and it’s not a good look. Similarly, if you’re looking for someone who will listen to you process your feelings without you hearing them out in turn, pay a therapist, don’t unload on a partner during a one-night stand. An NSA relationship is a mutual experience of pleasure; it’s not free sexual and emotional labor.
Set Boundaries With Clarity And Kindness
In some ways, it can be more difficult to set boundaries in NSA dating than in more emotionally intimate partnerships, since we walk a delicate tightrope between being kind and present, yet keeping parts of our emotional selves removed.
Establishing these boundaries in a respectful way takes communication, and especially clarity about intention. Being upfront about the type of relationship you want (or don’t want) from the beginning can help prevent any hurt feelings. If you’re on dating sites or a dating app like Tinder, specify that you’re looking for something NSA in your bio, and have a quick conversation with matches about what that means for you. Are any kinks important to you? Be sure to mention those, too.
If you go on a date with someone, be real with them about what you’re looking for and what your limitations are. Accept if they are looking for something different, and don’t lie about your desire or capacity for a relationship just to bed them—that is exploitative.
It can take courage to be real when what we want ends up being different than we initially expected.
Finally, remember that in the grand “who can be more chill?” contest that sometimes defines casual relationships, the person who wants less often has more power. If you sense that you both want different things—especially if you sense the other person wants a relationship you’re not interested in— that’s your cue to bow out and find someone with more aligned desires.
It’s also important to remember that, sometimes, all the communication in the world is no match for the hot rush of love. You may begin wanting something casual, have a great NSA interaction, and end satisfied. But you may catch feelings, or what you want may change. It can take courage to be real with ourselves and our partners when what we want ends up being different than we initially expected. Yet being real with yourself about your own feelings, even when they’re uncomfortable, is the only way to create truly healthy relationships, even casual ones.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Ghost
When it comes to making our partners feel respected, seen, and heard, what happens after sex is often as important as what happens during. NSA means no strings, so you might not even exchange contact info after an NSA encounter, and that’s fine.
But if you do, and they reach out, for the love of all that is sacred: Do not ghost. If someone you’ve slept with is expressing more interest—in hanging out, going out, or growing an NSA encounter into a relationship—than you feel, it’s good form to at least decline kindly.
Yes, turning people down can feel uncomfortable. Yes, it requires emotional energy. But you are a grownup. And that is what grownups do: We put on our adult pants, break out our emotional intelligence, and send politely worded text messages telling casual sexual partners we no longer want to touch their genitals.
The exception to this, of course, is if that person has harmed you, or has in any way overstepped your boundaries. Your well-being always comes first, and you never have to engage with someone who has violated your safety and comfort.
Safer Sex Is Everyone’s Responsibility
Since NSA sex is often non-monogamous, it’s best to be extra-conscientious of safe sex practices. Have a conversation with new partners about your STI status and whether you’re sleeping with other people, and use barrier methods like condoms accordingly. If you’re doing anything that can potentially result in a pregnancy, have a conversation about contraception.
The lack of a romantic connection doesn’t mean the lack of connection, period.
People with vaginas spend far more money on contraception than those without, and more often bear the responsibility for safer sex in relationships. If you’re a cis man interacting with someone who could get pregnant, you have a particular responsibility to be proactive about contraception. Buy the condoms. If your partner needs emergency contraception, split the bill—or foot it entirely, as compensation for the cramps that the person with a uterus is likely going to feel. If your partner becomes pregnant as a result of your interaction and tells you about the pregnancy, support their decision; if they choose to have an abortion, offer to help pay.
In these days of Coronavirus and social distancing, joyful, casual IRL sex—the sweat! the spit! the semen!—feels like a distant memory. But for many who are quarantined, social media flirting, online dating, sexting and video chat have come to the rescue. If you’re feeling frisky, casual sexting may be just what the (role-play) doctor ordered, if you follow some basic etiquette.
When it comes to sexy time online, consent is, as always, key. It can for sure be tricky to figure out a smooth transition from texting about your sourdough starter to texting about where exactly you want to put your flour-coated hands. But it’s okay to embrace the awkward. If you already have a sexy rapport, but haven’t sexted or had video chat sex, a simple, sassy check-in should do the trick: “I’m feeling so horny. Can I tell you what I’d do if you were here?” When in doubt about whether they’d be open to sexting, ask! “Do you want to sext?” is a totally fine, direct, and respectful way to broach the topic.
And remember: Nobody wants an unsolicited picture of your junk. If you want to admire an image of your genitals, print one out and hang it on your own wall, don’t foist it upon a non-consenting crush. If you want to admire a crush’s genitals, and you’ve already established a sexy rapport, ask if you can exchange pictures! The worst thing that can happen is they say no, you feel a little embarrassed, and the sun rises again tomorrow.
A Big, Sexy Community
NSA sex is, at best, the concept that we can enjoy pleasure for pleasure’s sake, without the trappings of traditional romantic relationships. But the lack of a romantic connection doesn’t mean the lack of connection, period. We are already in community with one another. We are neighbors and lovers and acquaintances and friends. And just like we can take care of our neighbors without moving in with them, we can take care of our dates without committing to a relationship.
Every time we sleep with someone, we have a shared experience. In that sense, the trick to having respectful no-strings-attached sex is to remember all of the ways in which we are already connected.