Casual sex - two words that can mean very different things to many different people. For some, the idea of having sex casually – with someone whose name you might struggle to remember in the morning – is an unfathomable act, like showering with your shoes on or eating dinner in the bath. But for others, casual sex (when practised safely, obviously) is natural, easy and - if single for a prolonged period - possibly essential.
While there have been some reports about millennials going off sex, it’s also true that our attitudes to casual hook-ups have become more open than ever before. It’s all part of a generational shift around attitudes to sex and settling down - young people date more freely, cohabit more easily and get married much later than our grandparents ever did and, according to one survey, we have slightly more sexual partners than they did too.
According to the most recent British Sex Survey (which is carried out every 10 years), just under half (49%) of those surveyed claimed to have had a one-night stand. And one in five said they’d had sex with someone whose name they didn’t know. It also found the internet had transformed the ease and availability with which young people have casual sex: almost 30% of 25-34-year-olds have had a one-night stand with someone they met online.
And, perhaps most interestingly of all, this additional survey showed women were more open to the idea of no-strings sex than ever before. While one in five men (20%) see nothing wrong in one-night stands - a view that is unchanged since 1990-91 - the number of women who feel the same increased from just over 5% to 13%.
Casual sex isn’t for everyone, though. Psychologist Emma Kenny suggests that no-strings sex is sometimes not as straightforward as it seems. “We are programmed, to some degree, to develop feelings for people we get intimate with. If you spend time with a regular hook-up, it’s pretty common to start believing you want more,” Emma says.
We might call it ‘casual’ sex but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an etiquette. “Make sure you thank them when you leave," says Emma. "If you know it’s a one-off then don’t lie and act like you’re going to call.”
“Honesty is the best way to engage in casual sex,” agrees relationship coach Jo Barnett. “Discuss your likes and dislikes, and set boundaries.” The most important thing is to be on the same page and “agree that you don’t want anything else from each other", she adds.
Of course, there are as many types of casual hook-ups as there are prophylactics on the shelves of your local chemist. For every one-night stand which ends in earth-shatteringly good sex, there are those which turn awkward the moment the sunlight pierces through your bedroom window and the hangover kicks in.
“Sex with men feels more animalistic”
Lucy*, 29, from London
I started having casual sex at university. It just became part of a night out. You’d meet someone, bring them home and have sex with them. There wasn’t any stigma either - all my friends were doing it, so we didn’t judge each other.
At first, it felt liberating, like I was in control. But then I fell for someone and it wasn’t reciprocated. I was really upset. Getting hurt like that changed how I approached having sex with men. For a while, it made me more cautious.
But then I moved to London after uni, and did it all again. I’m not sure how many people I slept with during that period, I didn’t count them. I started doing drugs like ecstasy and cocaine and experimenting with my sexuality - I’m bisexual - and dating girls for the first time. If I’m honest, I enjoyed playing the role of the ‘wild one’ among my friends.
These days, for me, there’s more emotion involved when I have sex with a woman. With men, sex feels more animalistic, whereas with girls, it's different - more emotional - like it would be harder to get up and walk away in the morning. Maybe it’s down to social conditioning but that’s how I feel.
“There’s a stigma for guys too”
Dave*, 23, Norfolk
I’ve just finished university and moved back in with my parents – so I’m definitely not having as much casual sex as I was! In my final year of uni, I broke up with my girlfriend and went on a bit of a sex bender.
I did get a bit of banter from my mates about it - a few asked me why I would want to ‘sleep with a random person I didn’t even know’.
Admittedly, it can get complicated if one side catches feelings - but you just have to be brave and break it off. Sleeping with someone you know is more into you than you are into them is pointless and will only end badly.
On the plus side, I’ve learnt some new tricks in the bedroom like different positions and I'm definitely better at foreplay now.
I’m glad I had this chance to get casual sex out of my system - by the time I’m in my 30s, I’ll hopefully have grown out of it.
“You imagine your penis will never fail”
Brian, 21, Leeds
I probably have sex every few weeks, usually with a mixture of people I’ve met on apps or on nights out. If I’m being honest, it’s better meeting girls in real life. Online hook-ups can feel a bit artificial.
I think everyone has an image of what sex will be like when they start having it. You think it’s going to be great, you’re going to have loads of it, everyone is going to have an orgasm, and YOUR penis will never fail.
And then you start having sex and realise that’s not the case. My most cringe moments include things like putting on condoms on the wrong way when drunk or struggling to get the right angle in a position that’s comfortable for both partners. It all adds up to make the experience of casual sex less glamorous than you might expect.
But, I do really enjoy it. If I’m 40 and still single, I’ll definitely be up for it.
“I hid my sex life from my family”
JD, 24, London
I used to have casual sex a lot but I had to keep it private. I come from a practising Muslim family - if they knew about my lifestyle I feel like they’d think poorly of me.
Having casual sex helped me feel comfortable with my brown body. As a brown kid in Britain, you grow up seeing sexual attractiveness as the preserve of white men. At a time when you’re becoming sexually mature, those feelings of being an outsider hit you really hard. Casual sex helped me move past those insecurities, to see that people found me attractive.
With casual sex I enjoyed the newness of each sexual partner, and learning what they liked. But I definitely fell into the trap of expecting more than some of my partners were able to offer.
After a while, I stopped doing it because I realised it left me feeling a bit cold inside.
“Antidepressants killed my sex drive”
Chloe, 21, Birmingham
I'd describe myself as pansexual, bisexual, or queer. Mostly, I meet people through social media. I don’t use dating apps, as I prefer to get to know people slightly better through looking at their online profiles, like Instagram or Facebook, to vet them first.
I was on antidepressants for a lot of last year, so my sex drive was suppressed because that’s one of the possible side effects. I’m not taking them any more and I have sex more regularly – about twice a month.
Antidepressants hindered my ability to orgasm, a lot. It was possible to come, but it just took so much more effort. The medication also made me feel very “bleh”- so the two things combined to put me off it. It's good to be back to normal now!
“Orgasms are a deal breaker’
Alex, 30, London
I’m a serial monogamist, meaning that I tend to bounce from relationship to relationship. So I’ve only had casual sex a handful of times. For the most part, those experiences weren’t great. My partners didn’t make that much effort, or weren’t particularly skilled, or conscientious: we just didn’t click. The next day I’d feel a bit regretful.
Maybe I just chose the wrong partners. They didn’t care about me coming too, so we’d just have sex and then they’d roll over and go to sleep. Often those men would go on to ghost me. They didn’t respect women but I’ve learned over time to make better choices about who I date.
Now I’m older, I’ve learned more about myself. I’m in a relationship at the moment but if I’m single in the future I think I’d try casual sex again, and definitely tell them that, at the very least, I would like an orgasm please. No more suffering in frustrated silence.
"Don't judge me for not having casual sex"
Iona, 24, Brighton
I’ve been in a relationship for 10 years, so I’ve never had a one-night stand. I'm lucky that I can get everything I need from one person.
People can seem freaked out when they realise I’ve never had casual sex. Something changes behind their eyes - it’s like I’m somehow not normal. It seems odd as I would never judge anyone for what they do, or don’t do, sexually.
Maybe one day I’ll be in my 30s and feel like I need to shag about. But right now, I’m good.
*names have been changed to protect identities