It’s something of a cliche that getting what you want doesn’t always make you happier. That’s never more true than when it comes to sex. For many people, living the sort of swinging lifestyle modeled by Hugh Hefner seems like the ideal.
After all, who wouldn’t love a life of hot-and-cold running sex with a rotating series of partners? What kind of red-blooded person wouldn’t want to have more hook-ups without worrying about things like “commitment” and “relationships”?
As it turns out: a lot of people. In fact, a recent story on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast – and many of my own readers – talk about just how miserable hook-ups can be. After all, you’re supposed to be “chill” about it all, lest you give the impression that you’re not cool with your situation. Developing feelings for someone is seen as a continual risk and keeping someone at arm’s length can get exhausting. It can seem like a continual balancing act of keeping just enough distance to discourage the relationship frame while also having to put in the effort to keep the sex coming.
The problem with hook ups is how often people seem to be stuck following the “unwritten” rules – rules that, frankly, make no sense. The fear of “a relationship” runs rampant among them. But hook ups – whether it’s a one-night stand, a friends-with-benefits situation or a no-strings-attached arrangement – are relationships. And like any relationship, there’s a right way and a wrong way to make them work.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. Hook ups and casual relationships can be amazing experiences for everyone involved… as long as you follow some simple rules. And the first rule of making a casual relationship work is:
5. Respect Is Paramount – Even in Hook Ups
One of the biggest issues when it comes to hook ups and casual relationships is that people assume that while hooking up means “no strings” it also means “no respect.” It creates a hierarchy where certain types of relationships are worthy of respect while others aren’t. This ends up being one of the reasons why many women aren’t up for casual sex; not only is the sex lousy, but the guys treat them like shit afterwards. And if you’re not in it for the commitment, why waste the energy on it? Get yours and if they don’t like it, well, they can piss off because it’s not like you’re in a relationship.
But this mindset neglects to consider that a traditional, committed relationship isn’t what many people want. While hook ups and casual relationships can be tricky, for many people they’re perfect. Not everybody is cut out for traditional monogamy or relationships. They want sex and even a certain amount of intimacy, but with the excitement and novelty that comes with new partners. Others aren’t in a place in their lives where a committed relationship is possible. They may be coming out of a long-term relationship. Others may be in a transitional place in their lives and simply don’t have time for anything more than a casual relationship.
Some people like the thrill of the chase and the excitement of flirting and lose interest quickly. Others like the freedom that hook ups bring; it’s easier to meet up for sex and then have their alone time when they need it. Some people like having their own space – emotionally and physically, which makes casual relationships perfect. And still others just like to fuck a lot.
The disconnect comes with the fear of someone mistaking a casual relationship for something more.
One of the mistakes that many people make is that they assume that keeping their distance emotionally means being a complete dick. When you’re worried about your fuckbuddy thinking that you might be catching feelings for them – or that they may be trying to “trick” you into commitment – the easiest way to remind everyone that this is just a sex thing is… to be an asshole to them. After all, showing the slightest bit of consideration could be seen as a sign of interest right?
Wrong. It’s basic fucking courtesy and respect and should come standard.
Being considerate of somebody’s feelings isn’t the same as “sending the wrong message,” it’s treating them with respect. The mistake is that people forget that “brutal” honesty isn’t an extra layer of righteousness; it just means you’re being honest that you’re an asshole. Not being dismissive of someone’s interests or feelings doesn’t lead people into thinking you want something more. It just means you’re not a dick.
Even if you’re not planning on seeing them again, treating someone with consideration and respect isn’t too high a bar to clear, nor is it “sending the wrong signals”. You can say “Hey I had a great time,” without worrying that they think you’re angling for another date. You can be clear that this was a one-off without kicking them to the curb before your cum starts to dry.
Just that little bit of “treating your partner like a fellow human being” can make the difference between feeling empty and unhappy afterwards and just enjoying the intimacy without complications.
But this is just a start.
Another key to having happier, more fulfilling hook-ups?
4. For More Satisfying Sex, Establish Your Lines of Communication Early and Often
One of the reasons why hooking up is often so miserable is that nobody is talking to one another. After all, talking means sharing and sharing means you might cross the line into “relationship” territory. Mix this with the idea that sex is supposed to be “spontaneous” and just happen and you end up with a recipe for everyone ending up with shitty sex and no real way to fix things.
Good sex requires good communication, even in random hook ups. No two people get aroused or get off the same way and treating your sexual repertoire as a one-size-fits-all extravaganza is going to lead to a lot of mediocre nights with unsatisfied partners and faked orgasms. You may be justifiably proud of your skill with the Rusty Venture or the Transylvanian Twist, but what made one girl scream in ecstasy is going to make another’s skin crawl off her bones.
Plus: it means that most guys fall back on porn-fucking that women hate, with minimal foreplay and a rush to penetration.
When there’s no communication, there’s no way to know what your partner actually wants or needs. You’re not Charles Xavier and she’s not Jean Grey; trying to figure out what someone wants through mindreading is a fool’s game. And, quite frankly, if you can’t talk about sex with someone who you’re going to mash genitals with, you probably shouldn’t be fucking them in the first place.
Now, to be fair: trying to talk about sex, advocating for your pleasure and being concerned with theirs can be awkward. We’re so used to not talking about it that it’s hard to start. This is why you should model the behavior you want in your relationships and be the one to break the silence. Being willing to be the one to go first can drastically ease the tension. What do you need for good sex? What do you like? What’s a no go for you? Owning your sexuality and being willing to share is key for a better connection.
If you’re not sure where to start, it can help to plan it in advance. Sex educator Reid Mihalko has a great script he calls “The Safer Sex Elevator Speech” that can help guide you through the rough spots. It can feel a bit awkward to be blunt about your needs. After all, we’re not used to being that straightforward about sex. But sometimes blunt is what you need. The more you get used to being open, the easier it becomes. And the more comfortable you are about communicating your needs, the more comfortable your partner will be.
And that’s important because communication is about more than just sex…
3. Establish Your Boundaries… and Maintain Them
Another reason why casual relationships can be such a trial is that we feel like we always have to have our guard up. When you’re worried about someone catching feelings, everything becomes a threat. What’s acceptable fuckbuddy behavior and what’s couple behavior? If you let someone spend the night, is it implying you are looking for more?
We spend more time making assumptions about relationships than talking about them. We think our relationship narrative is universal when it’s anything but. Worse, we assume that our partners are just going to know. Small wonder then that we get stressed. What may feel perfectly natural to one person can feel like it’s crossing a line to another. And if they’re crossing that line… well surely it must mean something, right?
Just as not talking about sex causes misery, not establishing your boundaries in a casual relationship leaves people feeling stressed. That’s why it’s important to be up front about what you do and don’t want in your relationship. Where are your hard lines between casual and serious? Is staying over a hard “no” or is it something you’re ok with? Are you cool with doing things together or is this going to be a “we get together for sex, period” relationship? Are there topics that you consider off limits if you’re not going to date? Is there a limit to how many times you get together per week? Do you ever expect to meet each others’ friends? Are you open about your hook up or is it on the down low?
It can feel weird and mechanical to say things so bluntly, but establishing these rules makes everything simpler.
What about exclusivity? Yes, some casual relationships can be sexually exclusive in a number of ways. Some regular hook-ups may not allow for unprotected oral if there are other partners in the mix. Others may allow for oral sex and mutual masturbation with outside partners but draw the line at penetration. For some people, it’s a matter of health concerns and personal comfort; they prefer to limit their potential STI exposure. For others it’s simply drama management. And for some people, making sure that there isn’t an expectation of exclusivity is important.
Yeah, that may be a line too far for some people. Asking for some form of exclusivity from someone you’re not romantically involved with is going to chase some people away. But at the same time… if your boundaries are something they can’t agree to, do you really want to be fucking them?
Just as important, though, is enforcing your boundaries. Some partners may start crossing lines without realizing it, while others may use the “it’s casual!” label as an excuse for shitty behavior. You have to be willing to speak the fuck up and advocate for your needs and limits. The fact that you’re “just” hooking up doesn’t mean that you don’t have a right to your needs or your limits. Enforcing those boundaries weeds out the people who are wrong for you and helps protect you emotionally.
But, speaking of emotions…
2. Fuck “Chill”
Part of what makes hook ups and hook up culture alienating to people isn’t the sex, it’s the attitude. There is an expectation in a casual relationship that you’re supposed to be “cool” and uncaring. The more that you can perform your disconnection and lack-of-caring, the better off you are because you’re not projecting neediness. And on the surface, that can seem to make sense. After all, if you want to keep this hook up casual, then it’s best not to give any impression that you want more, just in case they take it the wrong way.
But like the drunk frat boy trying to do an Afrika Bambaata/Journey mashup at the karaoke bar, what seems like a good idea at the time is… kinda freaking dumb in its execution.
The fact of the matter is, trying to be “chill” makes everything worse. The taboos around talking about the relationship – and it is a relationship – is part of what makes hook ups miserable for everyone. In fact, that be-chill-at-all-costs attitude mostly encourages everyone to act like an asshole or accept behavior that leaves you feeling drained and violated. You may feel like you’re being used, but you’d better shut the fuck up about it unless you want them to think that you’re a needy bag of slop.
Pretending to (or aspiring to) not care about someone you’re fucking or hoping to fuck in the name of being casual is a bigger source of stress and misery than just admitting you have feelings like a grown-ass adult. You don’t dare give any signs that you take this seriously, even if it’s just as mild as “I enjoy your company.”
The pressure to be “chill” and avoid any indication of an emotion deeper than “I’m horny” makes it impossible to actually make the sex pleasurable. After all, if talking about the relationship at all is forbidden, then you can’t advocate for or acknowledge your needs. Nor, for that matter, can you actually check in with your partner to see how they’re doing. When you’re both trying to pretend that you’re the cool one, neither of you can be the one to say “hey… how are you feeling about this?” As a result, trying to make sure that you’re both on the same page becomes impossible.
Keeping a relationship casual isn’t the same as pretending that you don’t care or that you could take or leave things. Taking pleasure in more than just the squishy noises doesn’t put you at risk of falling in love or sending the wrong message to your partner. A friends-with-benefits relationship, for example, is predicated on the friend part, after all.
Fuck “being chill”. Owning your emotions in all of their glorious complexity is part of what makes it possible to have the kind of relationship you both actually want. Feeling your feels is what lets you advocate for your needs and to maintain your boundaries. It’s part of making sure you’re coming to your relationship from a place of mutual respect and courtesy, whether it’s a regular hook-up or a one-time encounter.
But most importantly…
1. Make Sure You Have Your Shit Together
The single mistake that people make when it comes to hook ups and casual relationships is that they don’t pay attention to their own emotional health. The fact of the matter is, not everyone is equipped for casual relationships… or are even in a place where they can have them. However, some people feel that this is what they’re supposed to want. Pushing yourself into a hook up because you feel like it’s something you’re supposed to be doing when you know that you’re not ready to handle it is a great way to leave yourself feeling drained.
Just as important is having sex for the right reasons. One of the ongoing myths of what it means to be a man, for example, is that all men want meaningless sex above everything else. However, some guys don’t want meaningless sex. They want that emotional connection. They crave the emotional intimacy as well as the physical. For others, sex isn’t just for pleasure or a mutual connection, it’s about validation. It’s about what the fact they’re having sex – and who they’re having sex with – says about them.
Some people simply aren’t in a place where sex is a good idea at all. It may be that they have issues surrounding self-esteem and deservedness. It may be that sex is a form of self-harm for them. They may have entitlement or resentment issues that lead to their deliberately crossing boundaries or treating their partner like shit. Or it could well be that they are the person who attaches too quickly and causes unnecessary drama.
And some people are just not ready for a relationship, period.
Being a good partner, whether you’re looking to the long term or just the next hour, means taking care of yourself first. Being in good emotional working order is crucial. Pushing yourself into something that ultimately is going to hurt you is part of what makes hooking up a misery.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Taking care of yourself, taking care of your partner takes the stress out of casual sex. Following these hook up rules can make even your one night stands sexier, healthier and ultimately, happier.