no strings attacked movie

All tied up: Let’s do away with “no strings attached” sex

Recently, much to my confused delight, I found myself perched on a washing machine being energetically fingered by a human male.

Well! This was an interesting (and enthusiastically consented-to) state of affairs, not least of all because

  1. I am a lesbian (okay, okay, I’m bisexual, but as my hilarious and beautiful freshman roommate says, “Reina. Men will not try to have sex with you if they read you calling yourself a lesbian in print.” To which I say: The creepy ones will!), and
  2. I was on a washing machine.

Even more interesting: This particular human male had read a piece of mine on sexual ethics, hookup culture, and vulnerability, and he had some questions.

Namely: Why on earth would you talk to a chick you fucked the morning after? Doesn’t this just make shit more awkward for everybody?

I believe that my pussy is a diplomat, spreading feminism wherever she goes. Accordingly, and fingers being duly extracted from my vagina, we assumed our positions around the dryer/campfire. Sharing time!

To the smart-asses noting that I prefer talking about sex to, you know, having sex: Sexuality is discursive, bitches.

The topic of the hour: No strings attached sex.

We live in a culture that dichotomizes intimacy. Oftentimes, we understand sex as either a love-you-forever, mind-body-and-soul, marry-me experience in which two humans are supposed to care deeply for one another and treat each other accordingly, or a throw-away, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, commodified, amoral trip around the roller rink. Those sequins!

A politics of purity — a straight, white, cisgender politics of respectability — often characterizes the former kind of sex. The latter kind of sex is best summarized with the term no strings attached.

There is an acronym for no strings attached (source: my Tinder matches), many Urban Dictionary definitions (source: Urban Dictionary), and even a 2011 movie (source: Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher).

But the main idea is this: People should be able to have sex with each other without having to be in a formal romantic relationship, without having to be sexually exclusive, without having to be emotionally intimate, and without having to be friends.

I can dig this. I was recently finger-fucked by a guy I didn’t know on a washing machine. I’m not about to tell you to only have sex with people you wanna marry. I am, however, about to tell you that ethics don’t suddenly stop the moment we pull down our pants.

Because when we start talking about sex without a formal romantic relationship, or sex without romantic/gushy/lovey dovey/deeply committed feelings, we sometimes slide into thinking that we can have sex without any relationship, or without any feelings, at all.

This is silly because we are human beings, and have relationships and feelings about literally everyone. The lady on the bus. Our coworker with those sideburns. Our fathers. Lots of feelings about our fathers. Just because we don’t have intense, gushy, romantic feelings about other humans, doesn’t mean we are not, in some way, emotionally involved with them.

And this is dangerous because sometimes we interpret a lack of romantic obligation to one another as a lack of any ethical obligation at all.

This is where shit gets shady. Because ethical sex can be hard. It’s fun as shit, but it can be really, really hard. It requires communication. It requires consideration. It requires (always and every single time, you guys) consent. Contrary to the idea of fucking without strings, having respectful sex is all about recognizing the ways we are connected.

That’s where the no-strings model fucks up.

Here’s a secret: I think feminism is a little to blame. For a long time, and still today, feminists of all kinds have been fighting to destigmatize our sexual decisions. We work against cultural standards that say our bodies — and particularly female, queer, trans, disabled, poor, and of color bodies — are bad, that sex is dirty, and that people who have sex (especially queer sex or sex for money) are evil, dirty skanks.

Feminist scholars like Gayle Rubin and Cathy Cohen have fought this idea by arguing against cultural hierarchies of “good” and “bad,” “moral” and “immoral” sex, and by reclaiming kinds of sex that are marginalized. And activists in the queer, sex workers’ rights, feminist, disability rights, and WOC/QPOC movements have further sought to free our sexual choice from moral judgment.

But when this message about choice gets translated into popular culture, it gets distorted — often to patriarchal ends. All too often, this message is interpreted not to mean that our sexualities should be destigmatized, but that sex itself is amoral. That sex is some kind of carnival where the rules of normal life are suspended, where human feelings turn off, and where respect is suddenly Not a Thing.

In fact, considering all the tricky ways in which marginalized people can be particularly fucked over when fucking — class- and race-based stigma, anti-LGBT violence, and sexual assault — “no strings attached” seems like a concept that most benefits those among us who are already privileged.

No strings attached sex is not a thing because we are always, all the time, surrounded by strings. And some of us? Some of us are all tied up.

Spoiler alert: This isn’t because women secretly all want commitment. It’s because women are oppressed!

Here’s the idea: No strings attached is impossible, because society is made of strings. Our ties to each other and to our cultures define who we are. Even if we’re not dating, even if we’re not friends, even if we had weird sex one night after a Spice Girls Reunion Tour concert (I have never done this. No, like, I have honestly never done this, because I wasn’t lucky enough to get tickets to the Spice Girl Reunion Tour), we are connected. We are connected by the society we share, and we are connected by our experience with each other.

Strings keep us together. But they can also stifle us.

For a lot of us, the social expectations that bond us together can be limiting. If we are marginalized in some way, we can be choked by harmful stereotypes about who we are, stigmas about our behavior, and material limitations on our mobility and resources.

And sex itself is a tangled, tangled nest of strings: Of messy, unavoidably human, emotional bonds. Of weird myths and stereotypes and discomforts. About how we’re supposed to do it, who we’re supposed to do it with, and what it all means. As humans with human feelings living in a human culture, sex is always-already dictated by these stories, and part of human bonds.

For those of us already tangled up in harmful notions of who and what we are, sex is extra risky. If we are marginalized in some way, when we have sex, we risk being gossiped about, or pregnant and stigmatized for getting an abortion, or pregnant with no access to abortion and no money to support our kids, or raped, or racially stereotyped, or discriminated against for our queerness, or deemed damaged goods.

Any conception of sex that doesn’t also consider, and consider very carefully, how our actions in the bedroom affect each other — even if we don’t want to marry one another; even if we’re super sex-positive poly bad-asses and don’t believe in marriage; even if we don’t know our partners’ last names — is bad sex. It’s not about being touchy-feely-romantic. It’s about being socially just and emotionally respectful.

We live in a culture, in communities, with other humans. There are always, always strings. Our job is to figure out how to fuck without some of us getting strangled with these strings, not to only be able to fuck when we pretend they don’t exist. In the best case scenario, sex — even one-off sexual encounters with sweet randos in unconventional places — is about connection. About figuring out how to exist in a culture, with feelings, connected to other human beings.

I would like to say that at this point in the washing machine conversation, my sassy wit, sparkling erudition, and super clever Michel Foucault references led attractive male human to eat me out for hours as dryer sheets scented the air, but this is patriarchy, and it turns out (thank you, freshman roommate) that astute feminist analysis does not usually get one laid.

Instead, we parted ways, the air between us glistening with strings.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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