How To Have Good Casual Sex
July 19, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller
What are the keys to having good casual sex?
This question is at the forefront of Dr. Zhana Vrangalova’s program of research. I recently interviewed Zhana for the Sex and Psychology Podcast and asked her to share some science-backed insights on having better casual sex.
Below is an excerpt from our conversation (you can listen to it in full in this podcast). Note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Justin Lehmiller: Good casual sex is all about communication. I’ve seen this in my research on friends with benefits—people often get into those situations without getting on the same page about what each partner wants. One partner might only be there for “no strings attached” sex, but the other partner is looking at it as an opportunity to potentially start a romantic relationship. When people go in with those really different expectations, I find that it often doesn’t work out well.
Being aligned with your partner and communicating about expectations and desires is important. Also, if you’re pursuing a long-term sexual arrangement, getting on the same page about the ground rules is essential, too. For example, are you allowed to have sex with other people? Are you allowed to spend the night?
So, Zhana, what other advice would you offer people in terms of having good casual sex?
Zhana Vrangalova: The communication around boundaries and rules and expectations is really important. And then, especially if you are also doing it as part of a couple—if you’re hooking up with other people as part of an open relationship—it’s super important to make sure that it’s done in a way that’s consensual and ethical and everyone’s on board.
But then there is the pleasure piece as well. We know that, especially in heterosexual relationships, there’s a big orgasm gap: men are much more likely to have orgasms than women. And when you look at casual sex specifically, that gap is even larger than it is in romantic sex. You have something like 40 percentage points difference between men and women in whether they’ve had an orgasm with their partner or not. I always think of this large study that surveyed something like 20,000 undergrads from 20 different colleges around the U.S. and asked people whether they had an orgasm the last time they had a hookup involving penetration. These were all heterosexual students and 40% of the female students said they had an orgasm compared to 78% or so of the men. That’s something that we need to pay more attention to.
The norms around how casual sex happens and what hookups are like, especially in heterosexual relationships, really prioritize the pleasure of men and leave the female orgasms as sort of a nice bonus if they happen. It makes it less likely that the women walk away from these experiences feeling like, “oh my God, this was great.”
So, one of my non-negotiable tips is to make sure you get pleasure and make sure you give pleasure. And of course, what exactly this means will differ from person to person. But I think it’s really important for people who are going to be hooking up because we’re hooking up with people who don’t necessarily know us; some may not care as much about our pleasure. So it’s really important to be assertive.
Know what it is that you want sexually from that situation. What are the kinds of sex acts you want? Do you need oral sex? Do you need fingering? Do you need a toy? Do you need anal stimulation in combination with this or that? What positions work for you? What kind of setting works for you? You need to know that, and then you need to find a way to communicate that to your partner and assert these needs so that they can be met. Even if your partner wants to meet them, they’re not psychic. They don’t know. And very often we don’t have the language; we don’t have easy communication around sexuality. So, people are not necessarily going to ask us what we want.
When we don’t know what the other wants, we often project our own desires on to the other person. We think, well, if this works for me, it works for the other person. And unless we’re told otherwise, we’re just going to do that. So even when people want to be a good lover, they might not know how to do that. So sexual assertiveness is important, no matter what kind of relationship people are in, but it’s extra important in casual interactions because of that lack of familiarity.
I also want to really encourage people to try to bring in at least some amount of passion and intimacy in casual interactions. I think our norms around what casual means suggests that there’s no intimacy, at all. Like there’s this complete emotional distance and it’s just the physical act of having sex in these hookups. And what we know from research is that when there’s somewhat more closeness and intimacy and passion, everyone walks away from it feeling like this was a better experience, a more satisfying experience. So for better hookups, I really want to encourage people to have some amount of that passion and intimacy. It can still be very casual. It doesn’t have to extend beyond that hour or day or week-long period. But while we’re with our casual partners, try to give and connect with them as much as we can.
Justin Lehmiller: I think that’s such an important point and great advice. It’s true that people are often looking for more than just sex here. Justin Garcia at the Kinsey Institute has done some work on this where he’s found that most people want things that aren’t casual from casual sex—they often want intimacy, too. So “casual sex” is kind of a misnomer in that it’s not just about this act of pure physical pleasure
So don’t be afraid to have a little intimacy in it. For example, it’s okay if you want to cuddle afterwards. Just get on the same page with your partner about what this is and what it isn’t.
Zhana Vrangalova: I’m glad you brought up Justin Garcia’s study because when you look at some of those numbers—where you ask people what they’re looking for and their motives for this hookup, including sexual satisfaction and emotional connection—we see that sexual satisfaction and emotional connection are often almost identical.
I mean, sexual satisfaction might be a little higher in terms of what people were looking for, but emotional connection is not too far behind. And people often think, “oh, that’s just the women. That’s what women are after.” No, men are after that, too. It’s the other nourishing element of what a sexual interaction can bring into our lives. So don’t skip on that. It’s going to be a better experience for everyone involved.
Listen to my full conversation with Dr. Vrangalova here to learn more about casual sex and healthy hookups!
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >