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 [email protected]. 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.

About

Heather Corinna is the executive director of Scarleteen, the inclusive online resource for teen and young adult sexuality education and information she founded in 1998. She is the author of S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College; a co-founder of the All Girl Army; and director of the CONNECT sexual health outreach program for King County, which primarily serves homeless and transient youth. She is on the editorial board of the American Journal of Sexuality Education, a writer and contributing editor for the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, a member of the Board of Directors for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, and her sexuality advice is also syndicated weekly at RH Reality Check. Heather was the winner of The Champions of Sexual Literacy Award for Grassroots Activism from the National Sexuality Resource Center/SFSU in 2007; in 2009 the winner of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, Western Region's Public Service Award and the Our Bodies, Ourselves' Women's Health Heroes Award. In 2011, Scarleteen won a Seattle Web Award for Best Nonprofit Website. A Chicago native, she now lives and works on an island in the Pacific Northwest.