Susie Bright: Stop talking about so-called “casual sex”

Over at Salon, Tracy Clark Flory talks to sex writer Susie Bright about her new memoir Big Sex Little Death, the feminist sex wars, and the “soufflé of poufy female sexuality” in pop culture these days.

I especially love what Bright had to say about casual sex and coming of age in a time and place where the idea was that “sex would be friendly and kind and fun.”

“Well, first of all, I detest the term “casual sex” — since when is it actually casual, this so-called casual sex? Every time I was with someone it was intimate. It was intense. I got to know them and they got to know me on levels we certainly wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t gotten together — and I don’t just mean what their bottom looked like, I mean their personality, their feelings. You’re vulnerable with someone. I mean, some people say, “No, I’m made of steel. I just go in there and fuck.” Have I ever experienced that, at all? I just don’t find sex to be this jaded, cynical, stoic exercise. How do you manage to do that and have an orgasm? I don’t.”

Word. I think “casual sex” should be banned from public discourse. It’s a term that doesn’t mean anything. And, as I wrote the other week, drawing a dichotomy between so-called “casual” sex and committed/monogamous/married sex erases a whole lot of very valuable–and very different–kinds of sex that fall under that “casual” umbrella.

I also think that labeling–and disparaging–some sex as “casual” contributes to a culture in which sex is too often treated casually. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We set up a two-tier system in which sex within a committed relationship is privileged and casual sex is considered shameful, dirty, and less-than. We tell young people that sex with someone you love is special and wonderful but casual sex is “just” sex. It’s no wonder then that some of them see sex as a conquest, instead of a partnership–a “jaded, cynical, stoic exercise,” instead of an intimate experience you share with another human being.

I suspect if we affirmed that all kinds of sexual relationships, from one-night stands to lifelong marriages, can–and should–be positive, healthy, joyful experiences, a whole lot more of them would be. So memo to all those hook-up culture hand-wringers: stop harping on so-called “casual sex.” If it’s actually casual, you’re probably just doing it wrong.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • procrastination

    That last paragraph is great! This is something I never thought about. The power of language is remarkable.

  • Arina

    I can’t agree more. Personally, as a reader and a writer, I would love to see a one-night-stand portrayed in a meaningful way in a story for once. Although, to be honest, I’ve never had one. I’ve stayed with my significant other for over 3 years and haven’t had any other sexual partners, but this doesn’t squelch my support in your belief that sex is always intimate.

  • Allie

    Word, indeed! THANK YOU for this! This also reminds me why I love Susie Bright! Her twitter is a great follow, too:!/susiebright

  • Rea M.

    The last paragraph is spot on. However, I disagree with the assumption that sex has to be intimate, in the definition of “intimate = forming close emotional ties”. Sex certainly can be an intimate experience, but it certainly doesn’t require it. It can be enjoyed simply for the sensual body experience, the act of exploring your body with another person, regardless of your connection to them.

    This notion that sex is always intimate plays into the false notion that women are the “emotional gender”, and we value sex for that emotional connection alone. Silliness, I say!

    • Maya

      I agree with you. Even as I wrote it, “intimate” didn’t seem like quite the right word to get at what I mean–which is certainly not that sex necessarily involves an emotional connection. I just mean that the way we use “casual” in this context usually suggests something cold, robotic, or disengaged. When, in reality, having any kind of sex–even when it’s solely about the “sensual body experience”–should be intense, real, and engaged.

      And yes to silliness! Times one million!

      • Lauren

        I’m comfortable with your use of the word “intimate” because, in the context you provide, it’s clear that the meaning is not that of emotional intimacy with a confidante, but an animal closeness in which one chooses to have a physical connection that reveals things most people we know will never see.

        Trusting and being entrusted with nudity, arousal and pleasure is intimate, but I think you did successfully avoid the sex=emotion cliche that looms over the topic. :)

  • ssc-athens

    Suzie Bright is brilliant and deservedly beloved for her perspective on the issues, but it sounds like she’s speaking off-the-cuff and some of what she’s quoted in the Salon article doesn’t make complete sense:

    “Rather than say “casual sex,” I would say, “What was it like to have more than one lover? What was it like to be in love or in crush with more than one person at the same time? What was it like to be sexually active without being shamed at all, ever?” I mean, the whole slut-shaming thing, I don’t think I even heard that word until I was much older. It just would have sounded quaint to me. It would have been impossible in the crowd I was running in to be put down for being sexually interested in more than one person.”

    If she’s saying she never heard the word “slut” until she was much older than an possibly older adolescent, well, that’s hard to believe. If she’s saying she’s never heard the term “casual sex” that’s maybe a little easier to believe that it wouldn’t maybe have been a common word among her close friends.

    But “casual sex” it was a common concept with some significance because it distinguished people who wanted to have sex without an exclusive, committed relationship, which in turn was the rationalization, at least, that a lot of young people, typically heterosexual, from the mid-60s on used for being sexually active — it was a way to get to know their partner before they got married.

    As far as whether or not people who sought “casual sex” actually used that phrase, probably not — but probably few young people, college students anyway, used the similar term that Erica Jong coined in her 1973 novel Fear of Flying, a “zipless fuck” …

    …where “when you came together, zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. For the true ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never got to know the man very well.”

    And in that context of course, “rose petals” and “dandelion fluff” are metaphors, much like the term “casual” in “casual sex” is a metaphor, or at least a distinction from what it isn’t — necessarily exclusive, committed, and presumably leading to a stable, possibly permanent relationship.

    In other words, to some people it could be much like dandelion fluff, but not necessarily the same as dandelion fluff.

  • ecape2

    I really like the way you’ve framed the debate, but I must say I don’t know if you’re right about who is perpetuating the “casual sex” term. You imply it’s the adults that are promoting in-love, relationship type sex who are the ones defining casual sex as well. I think that may be off. I tend to think that the people promoting the casual sex term as well as the casual sex concept, are more men who want to be able to fuck whomever they fuck without having to be obligated to that person in any emotional sense. A more sensitive person might even describe it as that they don’t want to have to give their partners as much consideration as they would give a good friend, for instance. I think that attitude is what’s dangerous -the attitude that you can have some kind -any kind -of interaction with a person, and not be obligated at all times to respect them and care at least somewhat about their feelings. I think older women who warn against sex outside of relationships are mostly trying to protect younger people against that attitude, not promoting relationships for relationships’ sake. I think “casual sex” is for some people the fantasy that they can have sex and not worry at all about their partner’s experience or feelings, because in the fantasy of casual sex their partner supposedly has no feelings. I don’t think it matters so much whether you call it “casual sex” or something else, I think there needs to be some kind of radical cultural education if you want to get men to stop essentially objectifying those partners they prefer not to be so committed to.

    • Weenta Girmay

      Yes, I totally agree with you ecape2. While I’m not sure that it is always men who want to be able to fuck whomever they want, it certainly is a symptom of a society which teaches men that the number of women they have sex with determines their masculinity. This affects the men who’ve been taught to have sex this way and only this way, as much as the women who they have sex with. I think “casual sex” does exist, but only as a misnomer. It exists as a fantasy for people who try to convince themselves they can have sex casually but much more emotionally tied to the person than they realize. Casual sex is sex done wrong, without mutual understanding or personal understanding.

  • Véronique

    If it’s actually casual, you’re probably just doing it wrong. I concur on the praise for the last paragraph, and the whole article.

    I’m seeing a term used more often these days — NSA (no strings attached). That’s about no commitment — just sex. But it doesn’t imply anything about the quality of the sex or indeed the quality of the relationship.

    I’m not sure that intimate was the wrong word. Maybe it needs to be qualified, as in “physically intimate.” There can be intimacy, a sharing of selves, that doesn’t include emotional attachment.

  • Seamster

    I dislike the way this post treats a type of sex that I have had and enjoyed. I have had sex in which the participants just said, “hey, we’d both enjoy this, let’s do it.” I would call it casual. Please don’t tell me I’m doing it wrong.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    Well, I can’t really get behind the notion of words or ideas being “banned” from public discourse, but I do think it’s high time for new qualifiers to define people’s sexual encounters. Human sexuality and emotion covers a wide spectrum which needs to be looked at.

    At the same time, though this author says she’s never had sexual encounters without some degree of intimacy, there are those out there who do manage to. So while we need to introduce the idea that there can be brief sexual encounters that do involve a degree of emotion and intimacy, I don’t think we should try to deny that for some people, it happens without any degree of attachment as well. I don’t know if I can outright say they’re all doing it wrong, but I can say that I’ve personally found that the deeper the intimate connection to a partner, the better the sex is going to be!

  • Laurent Castellucci

    I am a bit more in ssc-athens’ camp about this.

    I always used to say that I was fine with “casual” sex, it was “disposable” sex I didn’t want. To me casual implies it is friendly, affectionate, you like the person, but you have no intention of this becoming a serious romantic relationship. “Disposable” was that whole “I am steel and I just fuck” thing Bright is talking about.

    Admittedly, that was my own idiosyncratic terminology.

  • Smiley

    I disagree.

    I always regret this tendency to remove words that are useful and used to differentiate situations. For example, to ‘deny’ and to ‘refute’. To refute an accusation is to prove that it is false, and to deny it is to claim that it is false. There is a difference, and yet to ‘refute’ is used more and more often in the sense of ‘to deny’.

    That is a pity because the difference is important, and it is sad that this difference is being erased from the vernacular.

    Back to our casual sex?

    Why deny that there are different types of sex? It seems clear to me that sex can be casual, dynamic, intimate, bad, pleasant, extraordinary, loving, etc.

    It can be a combination of any of those words. To deny that it can be casual – in the sense that it is used and understood these days – goes against the evidence.

    And removes a useful word. English is such a rich language, it is really a shame not to keep it that way.

  • Alix Boraks

    I’m going to have to disagree that there’s something wrong with sex of the I-am-steel-and-emotionless variety, simply because I think that privileging ANY type of sex over ANY other type of sex is wrong (aside from privileging consensual sex over non-consensual sex, of course). Making anybody who engages in sex that appeals to them feel as though they’re doing it wrong is, I think, a major step in the wrong direction for a movement which terms itself “sex-positive.” I think that, in order to be genuinely sex-positive, one has to accept all types of (again, consensual adult) sex – even the types that are unappealing to us personally. Otherwise, I think some major hypocrisy is in place.