Thursday, March 4, 2010

On Casual Sex

I find articles like this one mystifying. I'm as much in favor of gender equality as anyone of my generation, and on balance, I think the sexual revolution was a good thing. What I don't understand, however, is the need of some feminists and sexual liberation advocates to deny that there might be any tradeoffs whatsoever associated with greater sexual openness, or that sleeping around just because you can might not be the healthiest option for some women (or men). Indeed, arguing such in the wrong crowd may very well get one branded a moralist and a prude at best, a closet patriarchalist at worst. This dogmatic attitude is deeply unfortunate, both because, like the social conservatism it decries as overly enamored of female chastity, it treats a woman's sexual life as a sociopolitical football rather than a matter of individual choice, and because it ignores some very real problems with promiscuity.

While the author of this article claims that it's been proven that engaging in casual sex is not psychologially harmful, this does not accord either with my personal experiences or with how actual people seem to behave in the real world. I don't move in particularly conservative circles, and while I haven't polled them I'd venture to say that almost none of my female friends are intent on saving themselves for marriage or anything like that. Nevertheless, with only a few exceptions, they don't appear to be particularly interested in screwing around, as opposed to trying to find a boyfriend for at least the semi-longterm. When they have had engaged in casual sex, it's been either a.)because they were drunk, lonely, or otherwise impaired, and a matter of regret afterwards, or b.)because they really didn't realize it was casual (or convinced themselves it wasn't casual) at the time, and only found out afterwards that the partner of the day wasn't interested in anything more serious (many men I've known are somewhat less than decent human beings, and will take advantage of this, whereas as others are merely immature and self-centered, and don't think about hurt feelings and messy aftermaths tomorrow when they have a chance to get laid tonight.) The fallout I've observed in such incidents has ranged from bruised feelings and awkward, unpleasant vibes between the involved parties up to and including terminated friendships, but it has certainly been real. I'm not a woman, but my own personal experience was similar - in the aftermath of a painful breakup, I had an alcohol-lubed one-night stand with a female friend that left me feeling hollow, emotionally drained, and disappointed in myself. Growing up as I have in a culture in which men are lauded for engaging in casual sex, I can definitively say that these feelings didn't result from any kind of social censure - had I told any of the men I socialized with at that time about them, I suspect they would have told me (whether they believed it or not) that I was lucky, and wondered what the big deal was. But it was a big deal for me, because I was (and am) a romantic, and I always thought an act so intimate ought to mean more than a few minutes of fumbling pleasure, and the fact that I hadn't lived up to my own ideals left me depressed. If that's true for me, heterosexual male, who by cultural consensus ought stereotypically to revel in shallow and transitory sexual pleasures, I'm sure it's true of at least some women, who by a similar consensus stereotype are thought to want more. If someone finds an experience messy, complex, and hurtful, it seems presumptious to tell them they ought not to have those feelings because they don't accord with your ideology.

Then we have the famous problem of the sexual double standard - the so-called "virgin-whore" dichotomy. A lot of the men I know, even highly promiscuous ones - a voracious sexual appetite, it seems, is often incompatible with self-awareness or a functioning sense of irony - consider a lengthy sexual history a huge turn-off in potential long-term romantic partners. As patently unfair as this attitude is, it persists, and the more we know about human psychology, the less tenable the feminist position, that such attitudes are merely a relic of the patriarchal past and can be ironed out of the male psyche given sufficient enlightenment, seems. For my own part, I too for whatever reason share the preference for a relatively chaste mate. I don't levy any particular moral judgment against women who choose to sleep around - their bodies, their choices, etc. - but a learning a woman has a history of such behavior pretty much torpedoes any romantic interest I might have had in her. I don't know why. I can try to intellectualize it by saying I don't want to be just one more in a long procession of men, or that I think of myself as a special jewel that only a truly discerning woman will appreciate. I can chalk it up to experience, saying that in my dating life women too ready to sleep with me have often turned out to be carrying baggage that made them less-than-ideal girlfriend material (which is true). I suspect, however, that the reasons are deeper and more visceral than that - that given the choice between two otherwise completely identical women, one who'd had three previous partners and the other thirty, I'd choose the former - why, I'm not sure, but I would. I don't feel it's fair to hold a woman to a standard I couldn't live up to myself, and that's the other reason, besides my romantic temperament, that I haven't slept around even when I've had the opportunity to do so - four lifetime partners at the age of thirty, three of them women with whom I had real relationships. Nevertheless it appears for me, as well as many other men of my generation, that growing up in a post-feminist world has not eradicated the desire to marry a "good girl", and rooted as this preference may be in the evolution of the human mind, I doubt it ever will. I suspect women are highly aware of this phenomenon, and know that acquiring a reputation for promiscuity is a sure way to turn off potential long-term suitors. Hence, regret about actions that may lead to them acquiring such a reputation.

All of this is to say nothing of the fact that casual sex carries risks that, regardless of whether people desire to wish them away, can't be ignored. Sperm and eggs have proven stubbornly unwilling to observe the distinction we have decided as sentient beings to draw between sex-for-pleasure and sex-for-procreation, and unwanted pregnancy is pretty much always an ugly business. Then there's the issue of venereal disease. As much as modern medicine can do, it can't cure 'em all, and an unlucky person might find themselves debilitated for life by something they catch from someone they'll only seen once in their lives. And so on. If sex is analogous to other leisure activities, it is more analogous to skydiving or bungee-jumping or high altitude mountain-climbing than to watching t.v. or reading books - a thrilling activity that carries real dangers with it. To deny such, or even downplay it, is foolish.

Sex is a complicated subject, best treated by women (and men) as a matter of individual conscience and prerogative, not a means a pawn in the game of gender-politics chess. Some women may want to sleep around, or dance on a tabletop in ass-baring chaps a la Christina Aguilera, and more power to them, but for those don't, well - I have trouble reading that preference as a betrayal of feminism, or a sign that such women have been successfully slut-shamed into "re-domestication". I thought, after all, that feminism was about a woman having the right to do as she pleases.

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