Remember what Rihanna sang to Wale in their remix of his song “Bad”?
Our culture continues to celebrate romantic devotion much more than it does sex, leaving sexually liberated women like Rihanna curious if she’s “bad” just because she “won’t commit.” But Dr. Zhana Vrangalova (our favorite sex educator on Periscope and the woman behind The Casual Sex Project, a user-submitted database of casual sex encounters and reflections) is here to debunk the myth that casual sex can’t be intimate and/or pleasurable, even if it lacks commitment.
You launched the Casual Sex Project close to three years ago. Why do you think it’s so important for people to anonymously talk about casual sex?
I wanted to create a space for people to share their true hookup stories, because I don’t think we have enough of those kinds of spaces in a way that’s not necessarily erotic. I mean, some of our stories are erotic and fodder for masturbation, but a lot of them provide more than that. In that way, the idea is to showcase the diversity that casual sex can entail. Often times, it’s portrayed as black or white, right or wrong or good or bad, but I think there’s a lot of variations on what casual sex actually looks and feels like. That’s what inspired the project. Now, the site has more than 10 million views and gets about 100,000 unique visitors a month.
There’s an assumption that casual sex isn’t, or can’t be, intimate. Do you think that’s true?
There’s definitely that stereotype, but I think the best casual sex is intimate. And I hope that my work inspires more people to try to make their casual sex experiences more intimate and more passionate. For some people, intimacy means needing to have a lot of shared history and emotional attachment to their partners. But there’s such a thing as casual intimacy. You don’t need to commit to spending your life with someone in order to be into that person. Whether it’s a five- or 10-minute quickie or a full-night thing, I think what needs to happen is dedicating yourself to that person and trying to be present. In other words, try to have the best sexual experience you can with that person even if you’re not going to see them again. We see that with the Casual Sex Project all the time. It’s full of stories where people had a one-night stand or a fuck-buddy kind of relationship, but still had really mind-blowing, passionate sex.
I think the shame people still associate with casual sex can make it less enjoyable for certain people , though.
Yeah, that’s true. We grow up in a world that tells us it’s bad to have casual sex, especially for women. But that extends to men, too. Talking recently with a few of my slutty guy friends—you know, men who really love sex and have sex with a lot of women—I hear that they will often feel guilt, not necessarily what they’re doing to themselves but that they might be hurting the women they’re having sex with. Guilt isn’t an easy thing to fix. But if you’re someone who has casual sex and enjoys it, you have to own that. And you should celebrate that by finding people around you who are going to accept and love you. A lot of guilt comes from social disapproval and stigma. Luckily, we live in a world where there’s someone for everyone and all kinds of communities. There are a lot of sex positive groups that won’t shame you. Some of us got luckier than others because we got less suppression and guilt instilled in us growing up—depending on whether we grew up in very religious versus less religious families.
So guilt can make casual sex less intimate?
Research shows that for highly sexual women, it takes 10 or 15 years before they stop feeling guilty about wanting sex so often and with so many different people. That can definitely impact the amount of intimacy you put in, because if you’re feeling guilty and ashamed, you’re not present in the moment. You’re holding back.
I think a lot of straight guys understand female approaches to sexuality as something very different than their own. Even if they’re not looking for a relationship, they almost don’t know what to do when having sex with a woman who allows it to be really intimate and passionate without strings attached. It’s almost like if the sex is that good, some men can’t believe the women they’re with don’t want more from them in terms of a commitment.
A lot of the time, men withhold intimacy in casual encounters because they are afraid if they did show more intimacy and passion, the women would get attached and want something more. I think that can happen, and I’m sure it does, especially because a lot of women are under the influence of a standard, monogamous romance model. But it’s unfortunate that kind of withholding of intimacy in casual encounters become sort of a default for men, sort of an a priori defense mechanism even with the women they don’t have to do that with—i.e., with women who aren’t going to get attached. I think that often leads to less intimacy, and therefore, less good casual encounters then we could all be having.
Is there a right way for guys to be honest about their intentions within a casual sex relationship?
Set clear boundaries. From the beginning, say, “I’m not looking for a long-term relationship, but I really want to have an amazing sexual experience with you.” At the end of the day, make women feel good about what they did. Cuddle and reaffirm that what they did was great. Stay in touch. Make women feel like they’re human beings who you interact with and care for in a casual way, without commitments and without leading them on with ideas you don’t have intentions of carrying out. If our culture is going to have a lot of casual sex, a lot of education needs to be done in order to teach people how to do it well.
Have you noticed or researched any specific positive outcomes when people have more casual sex?
Sex in and of itself is good. There are all sorts of physical and mental health benefits. You feel better. You’re happier. It’s a stress reliever that pumps your brain with chemicals that make you feel good. All those things happen regardless of the context of a sexual relationship. Certainly pleasure and sexual satisfaction are also huge. Even if you don’t want to spend forever with a person, you still benefit from companionship and emotional connection. It’s a way to make social connections that can spur fun stories and memories.
Does having more casual sex make you better in bed?
Obviously, romantic sex provides a long-term space for exploration and experimentation in a way that casual sex can’t necessarily provide. But both types of sexual contexts can create space for exploring, experimenting and learning new sexual knowledge and skills that the other cannot. With romantic sex, you have one partner with a certain set of desires, needs, body type, set of physical capabilities and all that. There’s a lot you can explore, and the safe space that’s created by having someone you know that loves and trusts you and that you can go deeper into each other’s desires.
That’s just one person, and it’s limited. You can’t go beyond whatever their desires, needs and limitations are. So if someone can’t deep-throat your penis because it’s too big for their mouth, you know you’re never going to get deep-throated. There’s a physical limitation. Or if you’re with someone who never wants to have anal sex, you’re never going to experience anal. Whereas when you have sex with different kinds of people, you can experience different kinds of things. That’s a great benefit. And for a lot of people, novelty is a huge benefit. Novel experiences can be a great reward, a sort of chemical reward in your brain.