To many daters, "casual sex" may seem like a contradiction in terms: How can anyone stay laid-back about such an intimate act? Even so, a no-strings-attached fling (or "booty call" as some call it) is exactly the situation some people find themselves in at certain points in their life. If the opportunity presents itself, should you go for it? What's the best way to handle it without risking heartbreak? "It would be silly to think that casual sex has no repercussions because this is going to impact you somehow," says Lou Paget, certified sex educator and author of The Great Lover Playbook. Luckily, though, there are things you can do to help keep that impact well within your comfort zone if you do decide to forge ahead. If you're thinking of exploring this romantic realm, consider this your primer.
Step #1: Make Sure You're Doing It for the Right Reasons
The first step, of course, is to gauge whether you can emotionally handle this sexual scenario. One easy way to do this is to imagine the aftermath. For example, if you sleep with someone and then the phone doesn't ring again, will you be shattered? "People sometimes believe they'll be fine with it, but then after the fact they think, -Well, he should be calling me.' I say, -Have a coffee, and wake up!'" says Paget. "If the only thing that is being presented is casual, that's what you're going to get." People who are generally impulsive might also want to hit pause and think about it before jumping in. "If you have a tendency towards falling quickly in love or experiencing post-fling guilt, it probably isn't for you," says Steve, 44.
Timing should also be a big factor in your decision-making, and many experts and single folk agree that people who've recently emerged from a breakup and who aren't ready for a commitment are prime candidates for casual encounters. As Deanne, 30, puts it, "Sometimes you want to be alone mentally, but with someone physically."
Step #2: Pick an Appropriate Partner
After you've taken measure of your own emotions, next up is to do the same for any potential partners: What makes someone an appropriate fling? "I see a tremendous amount of hooking up between friends or just people who like each other and got horny or drunk at a party together," says Joann Magdoff, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. "The thing to keep in mind is that whatever the relationship looks like when you say -Hello,' it's not going to look like that in twelve hours or even in two weeks if you sleep together, so you have to be prepared for it to change."
One rule many experts and daters agree on is that you should steer clear of people you actually pine for. If you want to date this person, then do that-and if he or she isn't into dating you , settling for no-strings-attached sex is dangerous territory. On the other hand, complete strangers aren't ideal since they can be hard to trust. "I would find casual sex with a total stranger practically impossible," says Steve. "Although the idea is exciting, the reality is that the very best sparks can only occur when both parties feel safe and cared for." If you are going to have a casual encounter, most people we spoke to say that the best candidates are people you know and are attracted to but can't see leading to anything long-term, whether that's due to different personalities or life goals. "A good partner," says Deanne, "is someone who is excited to see you but then is just as happy to leave in the morning and you're OK if this person doesn't call again for a week or a month."
Step #3: Keep It Safe-and Communicate the Rules
It's absolutely of paramount importance to keep a fling safe. "If you're adult enough to be having sex, you're adult enough to take responsibility for it-and that means protection," says Paget. "I listen to too many people tell me, -Well, he was a nice guy and he had a great job, so I slept with him.' Seriously, what does that tell you?" So, make sure you have condoms handy (that goes for women as well as men). "Just because you have a condom in your wallet doesn't mean you have to have sex," cautions Magdoff. "However, you have no excuse for not having a condom with you because you don't know what might happen."
Protection from STDs and unwanted pregnancy shouldn't be your only concern. Since sex and emotional intimacy can easily get entwined, make sure both you and your partner are clear on your expectations. Magdoff suggests saying something along these lines: "I think you're cute, you think I'm cute… let's have a nice time and assume that's just what this is going to be." If you're definitely not open to having a relationship with this person, say so. "You don't have to marry them, you don't have to date them, you don't even have to call them if it's clear going in what you're doing… but you should be kind to them," points out Magdoff. In other words, if you're intimate with someone, there needs to be mutual courtesy before, during and after the encounter (yes, that even includes when you run into each other weeks later unexpectedly at a bar). If anything makes you think that respect won't be there, it's probably not a good idea to follow through.
Step #4: Know What to Do If Stronger Feelings Develop
So what happens if you suddenly start to feel a little more strongly toward this person? "Feelings always develop because sex is an intimate act and you become more attached to the person one way or another," says Padraic, 37. "At the very least, if the sex is good, you become attached to that." Samara, 26, agrees with this theory: "At first my casual relationship with this guy seemed perfect, but after a while I did want more… not a relationship per se, but I just wanted to feel like we were dating, where we'd do the holding-hands thing and fall asleep in each other's arms," she says. "I eventually interpreted my wanting this from him as the onset of stronger emotions, so I decided to send him an email saying my feelings were headed in another direction, and he probably didn't reciprocate, so this was a good time to end it-and that was that."
But what about the possibility of shifting from fling to real thing? There are exceptions to every rule, but in most cases, it's really difficult to go from a purely physical relationship to an emotionally committed one. But if you think there's potential, there's no harm in saying so with a simple "Hey, I know we agreed to keep things casual, but I'm starting to develop feelings for you and would like to try dating. What do you think?" After all, you have little to lose-and plenty to gain.
Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a New York City-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Cosmopolitan, Fitness, and Marie Claire, and she frequently contributes to Happen.
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