Can Sex “Just for Fun” Be Emotionally Healthy?

This week’s installment of Heather Corinna‘s sex-and-relationships advice column tackles the issue of casual sex.

Q: So excited for this new blog spot! Can you discuss whether it’s emotionally healthy to have sex outside of relationships? I want to own my sexuality, but all of the advice around me seems to be no-sex-outside-of-relationships-or-marriage. I know this depends on the individual, but any insight would be great! I’ve been toying with asking an ex–whom I am friends with–to have sex just for fun. I’m 98 percent sure he’ll agree, but I am worried about emotional health consequences. He has always wanted a much closer relationship than I do.  I’m worried I’ll feel guilty for possibly leading him (or myself) into wanting more.

You’re right: this is a very individual and situational decision. To give some context, a recent study found that, on average, for 20-year-olds, casual sex and committed relationships led to the same level of psychological health. But individuals aren’t averages. Not everyone wants or is comfortable with sex in the same kinds of relationships or scenarios (including committed relationships). Context and interpersonal dynamics factor in, too.

There are some guidelines, however, that everyone can apply. When a sexual situation is likely to be sound, we usually feel good heading into it, as does anyone else involved. If we feel uncertain or predict negative feelings on anyone’s part, those are strong cues not to proceed.

I’m not sure what the phrase “owning your sexuality” means to you, but for me, one thing it entails is responsibility: doing my best to make sexual choices that are sound for me and a partner. (That’s also part of doing consent well.) If I am offering something sexually light and fun but anticipate that it will be emotionally or interpersonally complex–or if I’m feeling stressed, confused and worried about it–then I can know that easy-breezy is neither what I can expect nor earnestly offer.

Even when I’m having sex-for-sex’s-sake–which I would define as sex that takes place outside of a larger intimate relationship, without any agreed-upon, intended or implied commitment–that doesn’t mean I have zero responsibility for my emotional health or that of others. My partner (or wanna-be partner) and I still owe one another respect, care and consideration, which includes considering possible outcomes, even if we don’t intend to be there with each other for them.

It sounds like you’re on board with that, and you’ve already voiced your own sense that this specific situation probably isn’t sound for you or your ex. While he’d likely agree to sex, clearly some of this wouldn’t be fun for him or you, and could be an emotional landmine. While your romantic relationship may be over, you two are in a relationship: you have a history and a friendship, and it sounds like you have strong feelings for and about one another that are not only or primarily sexual. If what you want is just a roll in the proverbial hay, this isn’t likely to be it.

It also sounds like you’ve been curious about sex outside of romantic relationships, but you haven’t felt supported in or exposed to alternatives. So you might also want to give yourself more time to take a bit more stock of what you want and to find people to talk with who aren’t all saying the same things. If that’s not currently available to you, Sex & Single Girls is a great anthology with a diverse array of women writing about various sexual experiences. I also think Jaclyn Friedman’s new book, What You Really Really Want, could be just the thing for you.

My best advice is that you hold out for an opportunity to explore casual sex if and when you feel a lot better about it. That will also likely entail a partner or scenario you don’t feel so conflicted about; that feels more likely to be explosive in the ways you want, rather than the ways you don’t.

Check out last week’s advice about lube blues.

Have a sex, sexual-health or relationships question you want answered? Email it to Heather at sexandrelationships@msmagazine.com. By sending a question to that address, you acknowledge you give permission for your question to be published. Your email address and any other personally identifying information will remain private. Not all questions will receive answers.

Photo from Flickr user skampy under Creative Commons 2.0.

Comments

  1. The problem that I have with all of these articles, is that there’s zero awareness that sex is anything other than a positive experience, or that sex itself is anything other than penis-in-vagina. How about doing an article or ten explaining why “nagging for sex” is problematic? Or why it’s okay to just say no if some young girl isn’t interested in a sexual relationship just yet? Or, yanno, anything for lesbians? This is supposedly a magazine for women and yet it’s excluding so many other perspectives about sex, and of course it’s excluding bi-sexual and lesbian women completely — exactly in the same way that Women of Color are marginalized as a special interest group.

    Sure, Women of Color can produce and buy their own magazines, but the other half of the problem is that this sends a message to white women that it’s acceptable to marginalize and completely ignore the existence of an entire group.

    We’d like our existence to be acknowledge by het women, that’s not too much ask.

    • I’d never suggest sex is only PIV. In fact, I’ve been on the front lines of pushing for everyone not to do that for all of the 13 years I’ve worked in this field. I don’t even know what kinds of sex this person was asking about, and didn’t refer to any specifically, so I’m not understanding where that response from you is coming from. Clue me in? I’m similarly perplexed about asking for a piece on nagging for sex. Can you fill me in on how that relates to this question and answer?

      I don’t know what “all of these articles” refers to, but again, I talk every day about how sex can involve a range of experiences, including the negative. And in this piece all by itself, I directly addressed some things that might make what this person was asking about a negative.

      Or maybe I’m not getting that this is more commentary for Ms., not me, especially since I just started here, and this was the first advice letter we got? Do know that I work for people of all orientations, and have a ton of content for queer women (mind, it’s all BY a queer woman, the one writing to you right now), content about consent and nixing sex when that isn’t what someone wants, the works. And as I go on here, I assure you, you’ll see it. The one limitation to that is with advice columns, I can only answer what I’m asked. So, in the case no one who writes me here asks those things, I likely won’t be writing on them. But since plenty of what I do write will be adaptations and reprints of previous columns of mine, I assure you, you will be seeing more diverse content than this one piece represents. :)

      • wow I almost didn’t expect my comment to be posted, and certainly not a personal reply! wow, thank you! :) And keep in mind, my comment here (hate to even call it a complaint) was a general one, directed at all columns where the focus is on sex. Heard this subject was a new feature, and thought I’d chime in.

        Do know that I work for people of all orientations, and have a ton of content for queer women (mind, it’s all BY a queer woman, the one writing to you right now), content about consent and nixing sex when that isn’t what someone wants, the works. And as I go on here, I assure you, you’ll see it.

        Yay for you!! and thanks. You probably know this already, but *it seems like* there are growing numbers of “sex counselors” who advocate what appears to be really harmful ideologies — articles such as “ten reasons why you should set aside your reservations and submit to bondage kink as a way to empowerful your relationship with your dude”, things like that. It’s massively creepy to pressure women into relinquishing their right to say no, and in mainstream media too!

        And well, those folks call themselves “feminists”. And that misogyny is only the beginning of what they try to shove down our throats in the name of feminism! So I’m getting very suspicious of anybody who starts a sex counseling column nowadays, hope that’s understandable, apologies. Anyway, good luck and have fun with your new column!

    • Where in this article does it focus on penis-in-vagina sex? Where in this article does it focus on anything but the person who is reading the article and their selected “partner(s)”? As a pansexual and nonmonogamous, this article does nothing to exclude bisexual, lesbians, and pansexuals like myself. Nor does it marginalize me as a Woman of Color.

      Frankly, you’re bringing something to this article that is just not there. Please recognize this and read the article for what it is: one that encourages the reader to look for resources and support. As far as I am aware, this sort of advice goes beyond race, gender, sexuality, etc and is applicable to everyone. I applaud Heather for being able to provide excellent sex-positive advice to all audiences.

  2. This sounds like something men tell women Heather. You can be babelicious, and have sex just for fun. Men can, anyway.

    For women, the reality is quite different. Sex for fun can be dangerous: incurable STDs that can cause disease and infertility, cervical cancer, birth control pills and devices with their harmful side effects, pregnancy with its complications including a lifetime of raising a child, alone.

    • That’s not at all what I said, however.

      More to the point, STIs are a risk for everyone who chooses to have sex with partners, in any context or relationship model. Cervical cancer is a risk for everyone with a cervix. The only group of people for whom they are so low risk as to be able to say they’re really not one are for people who have never had any kind of intimate contact before with someone else is the same spot.

      Unwanted pregnancy: also a risk for anyone. And people in couples use contraception just as much as singles do here in the states. Pregnancy carries risk and possible complications for everyone who becomes pregnant: being in a certain kind of relationship doesn’t change that physiological issue. Single parenthood isn’t something that only happens to people who become parents via sex outside of marriage or long-term relationships.

      None of those things have been found to be issues based on someone’s motivations for sex.

      • My point is, it’s not so much fun when women have to bear so much more of the risk. Penetrative sex is very dangerous for women, before they even decide to sink the sausage. All men do is have fun, and usually, won’t even wear a condom. Who’s having fun, and who bears the risk.

        • This is such a heteronormative comment.

          I have a partner who is male-bodied who I penetrate with a strap-on. My male-bodied partner takes on far more risk when ze has other male-bodied partners than with me, who is female-bodied.

          So, who is having fun and who is taking on the risk, again?

      • Heather unwanted pregnancy is not a risk for anyone, only for fertile women. This is basic biology.

        • That was poorly spoken on my part. I meant it is a risk for anyone from whom it IS a risk for, regardless of if they have the kinds of sex that present that risk within marriage, long-term relationships, friendships, affairs or more casual sex scenarios.

          • Well that’s the point here isn’t it? The male half of that equation isn’t taking that risk when they have sexual intercourse using a penis.

            Just because every woman in that situation is at risk doens’t make that risk any less problematic. For example most abortions are carried out on married women, because married men and a whole lot of women too unfortunately think that married men are entitled to the fucking that has always been enshrined as a right in marriage and the risk of unwanted pregnancies is one worth taking.

            I do think you need to examine the poltiical institution of penile intercourse and what it actually means for women more carefully if you’re going to be handing out advice about it on a feminist blog.

      • Uh Heather, lesbians do not have any of those issues. We don’t worry about pregnancies, and the risk of contacting a STD is massively low.

    • ns, you don’t have to like, have or want casual sex, but I really don’t understand where this drive to tell other women not to comes from? Yes, sex carries a level of risk – as do many activities in life, say, driving a car – but these risks can be minimised.

      I have been having a great deal of ‘sex for fun’ with various men for about a decade now and have not suffered any of the dire consequences you listed. On the contrary, it’s been a blast. I would be insulted by your insinuation that I’m some kind of brainless dupe who has been told what to think by men, but I’m too busy enjoying myself.

      • Hi Caitlin. I can only speak for myself, but it’s clear to me that most heterosexual women and even bi women are extremely male centric, having internalized not just the Male Gaze but the male criteria for what constitutes pleasure.

        I am not heterosexual, not am I bi-sexual. As such the heteronormativity which is constantly shoved at me, is literally triggering and sickening. It is not too much to ask that the needs of Women of Color are included and addressed, not is it too much to ask that the needs of lesbians and lesbians of Color have our needs addressed as well.

        It is not too much to ask. Please consider why some het women become so defensive when asked to examine their privilege.

    • “For women, the reality is quite different.”

      What?

      It’s comments like this, that have this expectation of a gender binary and sterotypes behavior men and women exhibit that marginalize people like myself that fall outside of the gender binary.

      Sex (not just for fun) for men, women, queers, everyone can be dangerous. Which is why we ALL need to understand the risks and practice safer sex.

      All people can have sex for fun (men, women, queers, unicorns, everyone). Hell, sex *is* fun. The problem lies with society’s expectations of monogamy between partners and stigmatizing any relationships that do not fall within the monogamous/reproductive/one-true-love point in the diverse spectrum of life’s relationships.

      • Women are painfully aware that sex carries quite a few extra risks for us. Unwanted pregnancy, ambivalent pregnancy, easier transmission of STD’s from p-i-v (gay anal also carries the same degree of risk), rape, sabotaged birth control, nagging pity sex, acquiescent-sex in order to prevent full blown rape, to name a few.

        Sure sex can be fun, but sex can be other things as well which are quite stressful. And I’m tired of sex columns which paint a wholly unrealistic picture of sex without also remembering to include those other topics — as if those subjects don’t exist. If this is purporting to be a feminist sex column, then it seems entirely appropriate to discuss and include EVERY aspect of “sex”.

        And actually Heather, I think ^that’s sorta the problem, which I haven’t been able to articulate. My irritation is not at you or the few excellent pieces you’ve done so far, it’s with ALL articles of this nature. Please consider that when most male-centric folks attempt to define “sex” they end up with a laundry list of techniques which are pleasing to men, or a list describing how to accommodate men without sacrificing “too much” personal comfort and safety. And that isn’t the full extent of “sex”.

        I’d like to believe we’re all post-sexism and living in an age where some men don’t do horrible things REPEATEDLY, but hey I just held a sobbing girl in my arms today as she quivered and sobbed her way through a story about her boyfriend. And last night a girl emailed me with a horrible story of her own. I’m sure you’ve heard similar, Heather. The last thing these young women need is another “how to have a great orgasm” advice column. These are bright young women, not stupid at all, and otherwise appearing to have all the self-confidence and self-esteem in the world. But when they are alone with men who claim to love them, they cannot recognize objectification as it happens (except as a dull discombobulated feeling), nor do they know how to deflect and resist that dehumanization *as it happens*.

        This generation of young women are living in a time where websites are readily available which gleefully describe grooming tactics in great detail, where greater numbers of young women and children are groomed by gangs into prostitution, where men and boys receive all their information regarding sex from watching male-centric porn, where advertising messages of woman-as-sextoy are ubiquitous.

        I’m asking. What does this sex advice column intend to do, which is so vastly different from the thousands of other sex advice columns out there? I’m really sorry to dump all this on you Heather, you probably weren’t expecting such a response and in many ways it’s not fair. Your first few articles do actually veer away from standard themes yay!! I was heartened!! And yet, after more consideration, the standards *should be* higher for a feminist magazine, and this generation of young women are in dire need of something a bit more pertinent than “here have a great orgasm”. Without context, without awareness, without acknowledgment of the constant pressures these young women face to sexualize themselves every waking hour, just another orgasm manual seems like more harm than good, especially from a feminist magazine.

        And after all this heavy unexpected criticism, guess I should offer some suggestions, or at least a jumping off point. :) How about starting a dialogue on how to recognize mutually healthy sexual relationships, or how to gracefully extract oneself from various sexual situations? How exactly should one respond when a partner’s requests make one uncomfortable? What do do when one’s partner whips out the cell phone camera? Or even when the partner’s breath reeks of garlic or is intoxicated? Today’s young women don’t know the answer to those questions and especially don’t realize they’re even allowed to ask, because “going along with the flow” is how they’ve been conditioned since birth. How about discussing the finer points of performing cunnilingus (god knows women don’t need another fellatio primer) or more generally, how to even introduce any unresolved issues with resistant or clueless partners? Is sex always supposed to be a burst of stars or could sex also be defined as peaceful?

        Anyway, from your other articles you are definitely a better class of sex advice counselor, but well I’m still concerned this too is going to miss discussing “sex” in it’s entirety. Serious apologies.

    • Why is it some sort of givent that men are emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and spiritually robots? Why also do we act as if our relationships to sex are the same? We’re chemically wired differently, as well a psychologically. This doesn’t make shaming anyone excusable, but why do we gloss over these facts? Why are we culturally claiming ignorance that men and women are different? Do we want to pretend those differences aren’t there? Is that the nature of fairness?

  3. I wish I’d had women telling me about the risks of PIV sex from a feminist point of view when I was a young woman, because I had plenty of casual “fun” sex, but the STD I got, the two pregnancies and abortions, and the treatment for pre cancerous cells on my cervix were not fun at all. Even if I’d had a lot more orgasms the sex wouldn’t have been worth it, if I’d ever thought to tally it up at the time. Of course women are encouraged not to. We’re encouraged not to look at the abortions, the pregnancy scares, the bad sex, the painful sex, the side effects and dangers of contraception, the STDs when we do our patriarchal duty and fuck men.

    Coupled with the fact that most men are rubbish in bed (from fairly extensive research on my part) you have to wonder what’s in it for women at all. What exactly are the benefits? I reckon I kept going with it because I’d been brainwashed by pornography and magazines like Cosmpolitan that it was a woman’s job to have sex with men and it was supposed to be enjoyable although it never quite turned out that way. It also helps you fit in – women who aren’t having sex or are critical of it, who are shunned or even attacked. Not forgetting the women who do have sex get called names too of course.

    This uncritical support of PIV intercourse on a feminist blog is worrying.

    • “This uncritical support of PIV intercourse on a feminsit blog is worrying.”

      I think columns like this — the write-in advice columns — inherently struggle with our tendency, as readers, to expect a writer respond not only to what they’ve been asked, but also to what we would like them to address and what we, personally, have brought to the article. As someone who’s carried a great deal of sexual shame for many years, I know how easy it is to view an article like this as “uncritically supportive” of PIV intercourse — simply because it discusses the *possibility* that intercourse *could be a positive experience.* But frankly, looking over Heather’s response, I cannot find anything remotely uncritical about it; it strikes me as amazingly neutral, actually. Like most of the responses I’ve seen from Heather, it’s based on a very careful interaction with the inquiry itself: “this is something that might appeal to you, the person writing, based on your words; here are some tools to consider what you appear to want and how you might seek that.” I think — even though we’ve been trained by magazines like Cosmo to suspect sex advice to be universal — it’s unfair to read this article (or series) as if it’s supposed to apply to us all. Moreover, Heather’s larger body of work has never shyed away from looking at the risks of sexual activity that you mention: STIs, pregnancy, abortion, HPV. She’s actually been, for many, that person you mention wishing you’d had — the one discussing the dangers (and the possibilities) of sex with young people, specifically. (She founded and runs the website Scarleteen, where she does those things daily). I don’t see then, how this piece — or the larger context of Heather’s work — support your understanding that this is “uncritical support.” Offering the possibility that sex can be good is not the same as suggesting it is never anything else. And I think the fact that the risk and reward co-exist (and *should* — in a context where we can make the sexual decisions that are right for us, personally) is one of the great tools we have, as feminists, to dismantle the expectation of going wild and the expectation of remaining pure. I look forward to the rest of this series.

  4. Oh man! I didn’t realize all the amazing hot safe kinky sex I’ve been having really means I don’t support rights for women! Apparently, no matter how much fun you’re having and how few risks you’re taking, sex really is a man’s game and women, certainly feminists, shouldn’t have anything to do with it.

    • Mophead, this issue is not “either/or”. It’s “both, at the same time”. And too often a focus on how wonderful sex can be, completely obliterates the fact that sex is frequently not wonderful. Nuance is a great thing.

  5. I’m just going to add a comment for what seem to be people’s main outstanding issues in one fell swoop to make my life a bit easier, but also because I feel like I’m being asked to engage some things in a way that isn’t fair or sound, such as being asked to address issues that were not even part of this particular piece/question or general issues readers have with the editorial choices of Ms.

    1) I think I’ve been clear about this already, but since it’s a general issue, I’ll reiterate: I have no idea of what the person who asked this question means when she asks about having sex. Unless people make clear what kinds of sex they are specifically asking about or interested in, what I always do is bounce off of “sex” as a word which usually means “the things I experience as sexual and desire from what I experience as a sexual place in myself.” I see a lot of assumptions or address about PIV, but I still am not sure where they’re coming from, unless the people with those concerns see “sex” and to THEM that means PIV. But it doesn’t to me, not personally nor professionally, without someone telling me that that is what they mean specifically. And I didn’t see the person who wrote this question saying that’s the kind of sex she was asking about. Therefore,the advice I gave her was meant to address this issue with the possibility of any number of kinds of sex.

    2) My column is specifically an advice column. That means that when I’m writing here, for the most part, what I’ll be responding to are questions I am asked to answer. So, by all means, if there are things anyone here would like me to address, go ahead and send in a question! :) At the same time, I’ll often be pulling from my files of previously answered questions, so I’m also glad to hear some of what’s been suggested here as things some readers would like to see addressed, and make a point of soon pulling some questions and answers which address some of those issues.

    3) Issues with Ms. and their sexuality content as a whole should be directed to the editors, not to me, as the only content I have a say in here at Ms. is my own.

    4) This is a brand-spankin-new column. What it will be is in part going to be based on what readers send in and ask, because that’s the nature of an advice column. I’m not an advice columnist who makes up questions, so that part is out of my hands and up to readers who write in with the questions. Otherwise, what can you expect? Well, for anyone unfamiliar with the way I tend to go about this, you’re more than welcome to take a look at my advice columns from the past over at RH Reality Check here (http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/user/heather-corinna) or at Scarleteen here (http://www.scarleteen.com/article/advice). I think it’s safe to say what you’re going to find from me here at Ms. will be very similar, with the primary difference being a much more stringent word count. :)

    I do think some of the concerns and issues raised here about sexuality advice as a whole and at a feminist publication are absolutely sound and I agree that so often, sex columns are really problematic.

    But what I’d like to ask is that before being critical about things I haven’t said, written or addressed yet, or putting critiques of how other people have done things on me, you extend a bit of good faith and just give me a chance to do what I do for more than a few columns and see. By all means, if and when I do things like write specifically about things like PIV in ways you feel aren’t sound or write about sexual response flippantly, then I’d be glad to talk about them with you. I do think I hold myself to a higher standard than many other sex advice columnists, and I don’t have any issue to others holding me to that, too. But what I ask around that is that in whatever standards readers hold me to, they are about my work, not the work of others, and about things I am actually writing about, not about things I am not or have not yet. Thanks.

    • oh, yay. I saw that you had posted my comment, and frankly that was enough for me. Too often I will chime in with what I see as a problematic “over-all” attitude, and the person will get so defensive they won’t even post the comment (or perhaps obliquely dismiss my concerns in their next comment or post). Which as far as I know, means they’re not even willing to consider that my concerns have any merit.

      Heather dear, you are awesome. :)

  6. In addition to the RH Reality Checks, Heather Corinna is the genius behind Scarleteen.com and a great inclusive sex educational book called S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College. Everyone might want to go check these out before they jump to any more conclusions about Heather’s motivations, credibility, or integrity. Based on many years of personal and professional association, I foresee a great deal of excellent discussion around issues of consent, sexual autonomy, Queeritude, gender exploration, social critique of sexuality and sexual expression throughout the ages, etc. here as the result of Ms. Magazine’s decision to hire Heather as their sex education/advice columnist. For real.

  7. Heather,

    You’re awesome and awesomely sensible. I love that you are writing for Ms. and are patiently wading through and responding to controversies in the comments section. I have a similar type of job in the blogosphere in the health care field and I admire your work and decorum!

    keep on keeping on girlfriend!

  8. This is an article that I need to show plenty of people – including people in my own family (once I get the courage). I’m a happily married women living in another state then where I grew up. He has helped me come to realize that I don’t have to be anything but who I am to be beautiful and sexy and loved. It’s so much work for him AND me but you know what? There has been progress made.

    I’m commenting for the single reason that we have an open marriage. A lot of people think we (well, mainly I) am cheating and that we are wrong socially and morally to do so. Open relationships and open marriages are on the rise and if anything they prevent us from feeling like we have a leash on our necks. My husband and I have a solid system where we get approval from all parties involved and that’s that. When it ends, it ends but while it’s still going everyone is safe from harm. Currently, a good friend of his (and more recently a VERY good friend of mine, if you get my drift) has been there in our lives. He doesn’t just come over for some fun. He and I hang out and play video games, go out for lunch or dinner, and even just cuddle and pop in a movie!

    While this situation isn’t for everyone it’s perfect for us. His girl friend is all for it and is glad that he can lend his, erm… Talents… to others. It’s kind of like having two relationships with two separate kinds of needs and wants and desires but everyone knows what’s going on. My husband works a lot and so does our friend. No one is better than anyone. However the “sex just-for-fun” aspect still applies. We don’t have to be like this, you know? But we are. And if it was only “sex just-for-fun” he would be there and still take care of my body and my feelings.

    The author is right. You can’t just jump into this kind of deal if you have doubts. If a person is going to be anything but kind and gentle with you it isn’t worth the emotional pain. For someone such as myself… Well I had a hard life and never really experienced anything but hate and disgust. Both my husband and our friend help me through that.

  9. i think we should all think about the younger generation, what message ladies are we sending the younger generation.

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