When my 20-year marriage ended a year and a half ago, I knew I needed to stay single for awhile. But because my ex-husband and I had been so mismatched sexually, and because I had no intention of being a nun until I fell in love again, I was eager to have sex.
And so, have sex I did. And do. At 51, with a busy life, and two kids still in the house, I don’t have the emotional energy to give to a significant other. And with the all-consuming drive for a ring and a baby behind me, I have learned how to recognize when a sex partner is primarily a sex partner instead of someone with long-term potential. No matter how tantalizing the man, I have the wisdom and discipline not to linger at the hardware store looking for milk.
In the past year-and-a-half of dating, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes casual sex successful for both people, and what makes it a disaster for at least one. And I’ve decided it really comes down to ethics: treating the person you’re sleeping with with dignity and respect. It’s the absence of these two qualities that gives casual sex a bad name.
People often confuse casual sex with meaningless sex, but they’re two different experiences. Done poorly, casual sex is just a parallel masturbatory activity accompanied by bad manners. Done well, casual sex can be an intensely rewarding erotic encounter with someone for whom you have affection.
Below is my primer on how to have casual sex that’s hot AND ethical. This is written from the point-of-view of a woman, but it could also apply to a man.
1. State your intentions up front
Don’t pretend you can offer an emotional commitment when you can’t. Don’t gaze deeply into her eyes and tell her you think you could fall in love with her. Don’t whisk her away on a trip, or buy her baubles. If you are doing any of these things because you think she won’t have sex with you without them, then man up and don’t have sex with her. If you’re honest about wanting no-strings sex, tell her; she might surprise you by wanting the same thing too.
2. Be reliable
Don’t be dodgy about plans. If you say you’re going to get together for coffee Sunday, then get together for coffee on Sunday! If you decide against it, for whatever reason, let her know. Don’t leave it up to her to figure out when you don’t respond to her “hey are we still getting together for coffee on Sunday?” text message. Similarly, don’t say you’re going to “figure out a plan,” when you really just mean a conceptual plan that you will carry out only if nothing better presents itself.
3. Communicate like a grown-up
It’s 50 shades of infuriating to be kept on the hook via erratic, out-of-nowhere texts that either don’t invite a response — “Hope you had a good weekend, we should get together some time” — or try to snag a last-minute, 11 p.m. booty call when you’ve been MIA for two weeks. If she’s not someone you truly want to keep in your life, don’t contact her at all. But if she is, let her know where the two of you stand: “I really like you, but I’m just looking for something physical right now; is that okay with you?” or “I want to keep seeing you, but I don’t want anything more than once every week or two,” or, “I’m busy the rest of this week, but what about next Tuesday?” Creating a no-guessing environment demonstrates respect for your partner and leads to better sex.
4. Be a generous lover
Ethical casual sex is not mutual masturbation. It’s an erotic encounter that requires the meeting of minds, not just body parts. Ask her what she likes up front, before you have sex. Ask questions that invite specific answers: do you like to be spanked? Do you like dirty talk? Do you like giving blow jobs? Do you like being tied up? What’s the best way for you to come? You can also learn your partner’s desires by co-writing a scene via text or e-mail:, one person comes up with the beginning of a fantasy and the other continues it, going back and forth until there’s a fictional or literal climax — or both. This way you’ll both know exactly how to please each other when you do end up in bed.
Be a gentleman. Walk her to her car when she leaves, or ask her to walk you to your car when you leave. Text her to see if she got home all right. Text or call in the morning to tell her you had a great time. None of this means you’re promising a future together — it just shows her you care about her as a person, and if you don’t, you shouldn’t be sleeping with her anyway.
One of my all-time best relationships has been with a man I’ve seen casually for the past year. We were crystal clear about our intentions, needs, and turn-ons from the first date. That honesty created trust, respect, intimacy, and healthy boundaries — a formula for creative and insanely hot sex. We’ve also gotten together and not had sex because we’ve become friends as well as occasional sex partners.
Casual sex shouldn’t mean being casual with the other person’s feelings. Misleading her in order to get sex, vanishing into the either instead of telling her you want to move on, keeping her on the hook in case you want to swoop in when you feel horny and no one else is available — those are behaviors that should have ended in high school and make both people feel shoddy about the relationship.
People need sex. But not everyone needs, or wants, a serious relationship. It’s just not reasonable to expect everyone to remain celibate until they’re ready to get serious. But it is reasonable to expect people to approach casual sex with integrity, as well as lust. What could be hotter than that?