Waiting until marriage to have sex is often considered an old-fashioned idea, but lately experts are wondering if the idea of “free love” or “casual sex” needs to fall out of fashion too. If you find yourself questioning the idea that sex is never wrong, as long as it’s between two consenting adults, you’re not alone.
The past couple of decades have seen a major fight to make consent a required element of sexual encounters, but it’s important to remember that mere consent was never supposed to be the entire conversation. Sure, at minimum, you should have the consent of and be equally consenting to a potential sexual partner. But so much goes into our individual ideas of sex and intimacy that can’t be communicated with a simple “yes” or “no,” which is why studies are showing that more and more young people are waiting to have sex, despite the casual hookup culture portrayed in porn and on TV.
Consent Is the Bare Minimum
So if you’ve been feeling weird about the hookup expectations in your friend group or school, you’re not the only one. In her essay called “Consent is not enough. We need a new sexual ethic,” Christine Emba shares conversations she’s had with young people who have grown tired of casual sex culture. It’s not that they feel judged–the stigma against casual sex has largely dissipated outside of religious circles–it’s that they don’t feel satisfied. Though they’re consenting to everything they’ve done, something just doesn’t feel “right.”
How could that be? Hookup and casual sex culture are the norm, due to the sexual revolution. Society fought for years to be freed of a more rigid sexual ethic, but is it working? As long as there are two consenting adults, what’s wrong with casual sex? Emba says, “This is the problem with consent: It leaves so much out. Nonconsensual sex is always wrong, full stop. But that doesn’t mean consensual sex is always right. Even sex that is agreed to can be harmful to an individual, their partner or to society at large.”
The Myth of Meaningless Sex
If the young adults out there engaging in consensual, casual sex grow tired of it, why are we still so obsessed with hookup culture as the ultimate expression of sexual liberation? Emba thinks it’s because we’ve been fooled by a fantasy: “It’s a depressing state of affairs — turbocharged by pornography, which has mainstreamed ever more extreme sexual acts, and the proliferation of dating apps, which can make it seem as though new options are around every corner.”
Basically, porn and the abundance of dating/hookup apps have tricked us into thinking that hookup culture is way more common than it really is, which misleads young adults into “engaging in sexual encounters they don’t really want for reasons they don’t fully agree with,” just because it seems like the “normal” thing to do. On top of that, studies are showing that watching porn can result in increased aggression during sex, an unhealthy body image, and a decrease in sexual satisfaction.
It’s important to remember that societal norms are not necessarily based in reality, and our perceptions are often skewed by the entertainment we consume. The fact is that sex does mean something to us, whether or not hookup culture says it’s meaningless. Otherwise, we wouldn’t universally acknowledge the amount of harm it can do when it’s misused. It is not meaningless, nor is it truly casual, and the ways you choose to go about it matter.
When You Don’t Want to Have Sex
Suddenly, saving sex for marriage or other commited relationship isn’t the old-fashioned path anymore. Instead of accepting the idea that sex is always okay, unless it’s a crime, let’s consider if sex could sometimes actually be the wrong thing to do. When would it actively cause harm?
- When any participant in the act has not given or cannot give enthusiastic consent. Consent can be amended at any point before, during, or after the sexual encounter.
- When you don’t feel like it’s in your best interest, even if you’re tempted to consent because of peer pressure, politeness, fear, embarrassment, etc. Even if you’re kind of willing to consent, is sex with this person or at this time really what you want?
- When you don’t feel like it’s in your potential partner’s best interest, due to an imbalance of power, sobriety, emotional involvement, etc. Yes, that means it’s wrong to have sex when you know you’re misleading someone who has feelings for you. Even if they’re consenting, is proceeding with a sexual encounter the kindest choice you can make for this person’s well-being?
- When you know that committing this act will be an act of betrayal that could cause emotional trauma or heartbreak with someone who trusts you or your potential partner. Yes, that means that cheating is wrong.
Other Drawbacks to Casual Sex
What about when it’s not blatantly wrong? Emba remarks that we now live in “a world in which young people are both liberated and miserable.” Studies are showing that engaging in casual sex when it doesn’t truly align with your values can have a seriously negative impact on your life. You might feel:
Continuously participating in hookup culture when you really want meaningful intimacy, or when you have different expectations of each encounter than your partners do, can take a toll on your mental health, chipping away at your self-esteem, and increasing your chances of stress, anxiety, and even depression. In a world where “casual” sex is the societal norm, it can be difficult to wait or to tell your partner that you want to wait, but ultimately waiting may be better for your mental health.
A New Way of Looking at Sex
In the casual sex world, you’re encouraged to “do what feels good for you,” which is a decent sentiment in some ways. In the “no means no” world, you’re instructed to get consent, above all else–as long as there’s consent, you’re covered. But we’ve just covered how the concepts of casual sex and consent still leave something out when it comes to a sexual ethic.
What if it’s time for a framework that isn’t as… well… Selfish? Instead of only thinking about whether you’re satisfied, you’re liberated, or you’re doing anything “wrong,” consider that your sex life is not just about you. What about your potential partners?
What if we started genuinely caring about the well-being of our sex partners, whether you’re romantically involved with them or not. Ask yourself if initiating or participating in a sexual encounter with them is truly, in good faith and to the best of your ability, the best way you can care for this human being at the moment.
Christ calls us to treat others with the same kind of deep love and respect that He gives to us. In fact, “love one another” is considered one of His most imperative instructions. He’s not the only one who encourages this approach to life either. Scholars like Plato and Aristotle also talk about walking into every situation “willing the good of the other,” which as Emba points out, just might lead to less casual sex, since it’s awfully difficult to know what’s good for someone without, well, knowing them.
“Less casual sex” might sound boring, judgy, or like a step “backward,” but ultimately it seems to be the way young people are leaning more and more as they reflect on what truly matters to them–choosing only to have sex when it aligns with your values and won’t contribute to harmful aspects of casual sex culture. If you too are considering whether or not you want to participate in casual sex culture, or even wrestling with pornography addiction, reach out to a Hope Coach. We’re always here to listen without judgment and remind you that you’re loved, no matter what you’re wrestling with.
For more about sex and intimacy read, "Why Do I Have a Sex Drive?"