Guess what! Hookups are not just for college students. In other news: Young people didn't invent sex. You wouldn’t know any of that from the media coverage of casual sex, which invariably focuses on the carnal aerobics of hot young keg-standing coeds. Nor could you tell it from scientific papers on the topic, which, like so much research, rely on collegiate samples. Zhana Vrangalova, herself a sex researcher, is changing that perception with the Casual Sex Project, a website that solicits true hookup stories from people of all ages and from around the world.
These flings are not set in dorm rooms, frat houses or university libraries. Among the responses Vrangalova has collected thus far, there's a threesome outdoors in the countryside, impromptu sex next to a headless stuffed sheep, a tryst at a swinger’s club in Manhattan and a “happy ending” at a massage parlor. There are also more prosaic flings in bed and, of course, in the back of a car. There is awful sex, glorious multiple orgasming, and one experience that sounds like sexual assault (and yet the woman writes that “it was so hot”). Sex is had sober, drunk, stoned and high on coke. There is BDSM, infidelity and bittersweet ex-sex ("He felt his way around my body, and I let my hands remember all that they once loved to hold").
Some descriptions are erotic: "Rubbing my neck, holding my hand, slipping his fingers in and out of the sleeves and neckline of my shirt. Dipping a few times into the edges of my bra." Some are schoolgirl gushy: "He grabbed me and kissed me and my head exploded. BEST. KISS. EVER." And of course, this being sex, there is plenty of humor, too: “I’m panting and looking at her smiling while she out of nowhere grabs some moisture off her vagina and brings it up and anoints it across my forehead while saying ‘siiimmmba,’” writes one man. (The "Lion King" reference was apropos of nothing, making i...
Vrangalova, who has conducted plenty of for-reals scientific research on hookup culture, spoke with Salon about what makes a casual sex seeker, why women regret hookups more than men, and who benefits most from hookups.
Why launch the Casual Sex project?
Because there is no other outlet out there for people to share their hookup stories specifically -- unless they start their own sex blogs, which many people have no desire to -- and I feel the world needs to hear more about what casual sex looks like and feels like.
Casual sex seems to play a role in many people's lives and there is so much talk of the hookup culture, yet we have very little first-person information about what that entails for a variety of people. I am fascinated by the fact that we as a society have a priori decided that sex is only acceptable and healthy if it's within the confines of a long-term relationship; that if it's done purely for fun and pleasure it's somehow a bad thing.
So I wanted to create a communal space that is anonymous, nonjudgmental and welcoming of everyone with a hookup story where the good, the bad and the mediocre can all come out. Given my experience with researching casual sex, I also wanted to make that space somewhat structured, by having people answering a specific set of questions, rather then let it be completely free-form. I feel that makes it easier for people to write their stories and easier for people to read others' stories -- they get a consistent set of information about each hookup.
What have you learned so far about people's casual sex experiences?
That there is an incredible diversity of hookup experiences in terms of what counts as casual sex -- from one-night stands, to sex with an ex, to paid sex, online sex -- the quality of the experience -- from that hookup being the best sex they've ever had to it being the worst sex they've ever had -- the transformative power of the hookup -- from opening their minds and bodies to enjoying sex more freely to making it painfully clear to them that sex without love is not for them. Some people have only had one single hookup and they remember it 20 years later, others hook up on a regular basis; some cheat on their partners, others have group sex sanctioned by or together with their partners. The variety is really astonishing.
Why are you interested in getting casual sex stories specifically from people who aren't in college?
Because we know very little about the casual sex experiences of college-age people who are not in college and virtually nothing about people past college age. But non-students hook up too. Especially in today's world where people remain single for longer than ever before, constantly move, travel and meet new people, and divorce and infidelity are extremely common.
And experiences of non-students are bound to be different than those of students. Students live in unique environments that don't exist in the "real" world. We know little about how these experiences play out outside of the prototypical frat party. For example, young people who are not in college form a different socioeconomic demographic and perhaps hooking up has a very different meaning for them, when financial insecurity of early parenting may take priority. Similarly, it may be different for post-college adults who are older and know themselves, their bodies and their minds better, yet may be less "carefree" and more focused on planning their future than college students.
Notice any differences between the casual sex stories of college students versus older adults?
It's still too early to make any conclusions -- and I'm not exactly tallying up the results here -- but one thing I'm noticing is the difference in substance use. Unlike college hookups which are very often preceded by heavy alcohol use, many non-college hookups don't involve much -- or any -- substance use. Adults also seem to be a bit more deliberate about it.
Any gender differences?
Of the few unambiguously negative experiences so far that were regretted quite a bit, virtually all were women. Typically, they fell in love or really liked the guy and wanted it to be more than just casual sex either right from the start or after they started having sex. So they felt hurt and disappointed that the guy didn't share their desire for more. In one case, the experience was very awkward and unsatisfying and she said it turned her off from sex for a while and from casual sex for good.
What reasons have your respondents given for having casual sex?
Many different ones: lust, being attracted to the person, not having had sex in a long time, narcissism, confusion, isolation, exhibitionism, self-doubt, curiosity, loneliness, deeper friendship, strong emotional connection, affection, wanting the attention, "I don't know why," "why the hell not," "to please my Master," to have a story.
What negative feelings have they expressed about casual sex?
Regretful, sad, disappointed, let down, empty, lonely, fragile, guilty for cheating on partners, worries about STIs or pregnancy after not using condoms. For some it revealed or reinforced the feeling that they can't have casual sex, that sex is more pleasurable for them when their partner loves them, that they are too susceptible to falling in love too quickly and too hard.
How much sexual regret have you seen in the responses?
There are some stories that are regretted significantly but they currently make up only about 10 percent of all stories. The majority of experiences shared so far -- and we're only talking about 60 to 70 stories so far -- have been fairly positive and are not regretted at all or only a little.
That is not to say that this is true of hookups in general -- there is undoubtedly some self-selection going on here: People are more likely to share positive experience they enjoyed than negative ones they are ashamed of.
Research so far shows that, once you account for any initial differences between people in psychological health, new hookup experiences do not have a universally positive or negative impact on well-being. Instead, it depends on who you are and why you do it. One of my studies found that doing it for the right reasons -- because you really just wanted to hook up -- has no effect on your mental health, but doing it for the wrong reasons -- for example, they got drunk, peer-pressured or hoped it was more than casual sex -- leads to higher depression, anxiety, and lower self-esteem.
Another one of my studies that is coming out soon in the Social Psych and Personality Science found that the link between hooking up and well-being also depends on your attitudes and general desires toward casual sex: Those who approved of casual sex and have generally high desire in it benefited from their hookups -- they had higher self-esteem, life satisfaction, and lower depression and anxiety when hooking up. Those who disapproved of and didn't truly desire casual sex were the ones to suffer ... in their psychological health following hookups.
This may sound pretty intuitive but these are some of the first studies to show that hooking up is not always bad or good for everyone, that it depends on various personal, interpersonal and situational factors. And we need more research that will move the discourse away from the black-and-white picture often painted and toward these more useful nuances.
Are there any traits that make a person more likely to engage in casual sex? How do casual sex seekers differ from those who limit sex to monogamous long-term relationships?
There are a number of differences. Casual sex seekers are more likely to be more extroverted, sensation seekers, impulsive, avoidantly attached, unconventional, less religious or politically conservative. Among men, they are also more likely to be attractive and physically strong, and especially among college men, also more sexist, manipulative, coercive and narcissistic.
Of course these are only averages -- that doesn't mean all casual sex seekers are one way and all long-term-oriented people are the other way.
It feels like hookup culture has been a thing for quite a while now. Will it ever fade away, spark a backlash or transition into the next sex-thing that everyone's doing?
I can't quite predict the future, but I do think casual sex is here to stay. That doesn't meant that everyone will be having it, there has already been a backlash against it and there will always be pockets of the population who will condemn it or reject it, but for many other people it fills an important role in their lives -- exploration, excitement, a placeholder until a serious relationship comes along, a fun addition to an existing relationship, et cetera -- and they will continue to practice it during those times and life periods.