If there’s one thing I’ve gathered about casual sex, it’s that it’s supposed to be casual. No commitment, no serious feelings, none of the overthinking or attachment that come with actual relationships. And yet despite this supposed standard of transactional pleasure, I’ve heard countless stories of deep conversations and unexpected emotional bonds. From a scientific standpoint, this makes sense; when we hook up with people, our bodies release the bonding hormone oxytocin, causing us to feel more emotionally bonded to whomever triggered it. Casual sex is casual in that there are no expectations of monogamy or romance, sure—but still, there’s a level of vulnerability that feels anything but.
This, of course, is not the case for every hookup: there are plenty of casual encounters which begin and end with physical pleasure. Nothing more. When I talked to people about intimacy amidst casual sex before writing this piece, a handful said they make a point to talk as little as possible and leave ASAP. But what I found more disarming were the dozens who talk, who feel unexpectedly known and seen by their hookups. I wanted to know why. Do we have these intimate conversations as a means of convincing ourselves our hookups are more “special,” making them more ethical and warranted in our minds? Are we simply more vulnerable after being intimate?
When I was talking to a Parsons student named Ira about this, she mused, “I never understood how I have a mental block when telling friends deep stuff but I’m fine just telling some guy I barely know.” Immediately, I knew what she meant. “It feels like there won’t be any real consequences,” I responded. Multiple people I talked to echoed this sentiment—this feeling that they could be more honest with hookups because it feels less real. If your hookup isn’t seeing you in the context of your classes or your friend group or your family, after all, it feels like they are completely separate from those things, have no say or effect on those massively important parts of your life. And so telling a hookup about your mental health, ex, or friend drama doesn’t feel like it’ll have any tangible implications.
Let me take this one step further and propose something crazy: could it be that our hookups know us better than anyone else? On the surface level, the answer is obviously no—they probably don’t know where we grew up or what we put in our coffee or what newspapers we read. And it’s true that knowing how to make someone cum isn’t the same as knowing them, either. But I have countless friends who have returned from dick appointments having shared profoundly personal details about everything from insecurity to childhood trauma to religion. As one 19-year-old named Zadie put it, our hookups are closer to us from a different angle; they can skip over the superficial and get right to the deepest parts of you.
I think the intimacy of hookups goes beyond deep conversations, too. At their best, hookups can enable you to feel like the truest version of yourself, one stripped of worries over how you’ll be seen and perceived. When I asked my friend Vanessa about her post-hookup experiences, she emphasized how unique they’ve been. “When I’m talking to the guy afterward, I’m not consciously thinking about what I’m going to say or curating how I’ll come across. I don’t need to present as fuckable or charismatic or anything, because I can trust that the guy already believes me to be those things. It’s like this one window of time where I don’t feel like I’m performing in any way or trying to control how someone sees me, and so they get this version of myself that really I don’t think anyone else gets.” Of course we still want to be fuckable and charismatic in our hookups’ minds (if only so we can hook up again)—but this idea of taking off the mask and just being is something to aspire to. I dream of a world where no one moves to position themselves in bed so they look more attractive post-fuck—where everyone can just be, whether they’re lying next to their husband or someone who doesn’t even know their major.
One Exeter senior named Kiana summed it up beautifully: when it comes to hookups, “most people believe you can easily and intentionally separate physical interaction with emotional connection, but I find that’s often not the case.” To be clear, sex can be transactional and devoid of emotion—and that’s completely valid. But it can also be casual without being meaningless, like Kiana said; it can allow room for vulnerability and connection and intimacy without barreling toward commitment of any kind. There are a thousand little contradictions wrapped up in casual sex, an endless stream of oxymorons waiting to be scrutinized and mulled over and overthought. But maybe—just maybe—we should simply embrace this detached togetherness and let ourselves be really, truly known.
Illustration by Yoo Young Chun.