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Casual Sex: Not So Casual?

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One of the things that makes doing research on a topic such as sexuality so interesting, and at times quite difficult, is the fact that sexual behavior and attitudes in society are all but static. As a result, you never know exactly what behavior and attitudes you are investigating. I realized that recently when I was looking into the concept of ‘casual sex’. Casual sex is mostly seen as a sexual interaction between two individuals outside of a relationship, and is characterized by a lack of emotional- and long-term commitment between the sexual partners. But as it seems, casual sex these days may not be so casual.

Paula England and Reuben Thomas have inspired me to take a new perspective on casual sex in their book chapter ‘The decline of the date and the rise of the college hook up’. England and Thomas provide an overview of the way relationships are formed, and how this has changed over the years.

Traditionally, relationships evolved out of a period of dating. Since its ‘invention’ in the 1920’s, dating has developed from young men having to ‘court’ women in their parents’ home, to men asking women whether she would like to go to a movie, dinner, or concert, and has ended up at its current status of being.. well.. nearly dead.

At least that seems to be the status quo at many US college campuses. Most relationships on campus now seem to evolve out of a ‘hook up’. A hook up, according to England and Thomas, occurs when “two people are hanging out in the dorm or see each other at a party, start talking or dancing, and, sometime during the evening, go somewhere private, and something sexual happens”. This can turn into dating, but dating in this case means that both partners have developed a romantic interest in each other and are already in an exclusive relationship.

So, dating has changed, and with that perhaps also the concept of casual sex. Although hook-ups still involve a sexual interaction between two individuals outside of a relationship, the possibility of hook ups turning into relationships seems to conflict with the idea of casual sex being characterized by a lack of emotional- and long-term commitment between the sexual partners.

So where does this leave us with our conceptualization of casual sex? Would it perhaps be better to divide the concept into two sub-constructs? One would reflect the traditional notion of casual sex, a sexual interaction purely for the sake of sex, without any commitment or prospect of a long-term relationship. The other would reflect a sexual interaction between partners who do feel committed, and have the intention, or at least the hope, of it developing into a relationship. It’s a thought to consider when studying sexual behaviors, at least among college students. We should consider it casually though, you never know when it might change.

England, P., & Thomas, R. J. (2006). The Decline of the Date and the Rise of the College Hook-up. In A. Skolnick and J. Skolnick (Eds.), Families in Transition, 14th Ed. (p. 151-162). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Photo: jacknet/Flickr

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