The Myth of the "Casual" Encounter

For the longest time, there’s a viewpoint I’ve tried to express, but to do so is uniquely difficult. It’s a viewpoint that is not entirely “modern,” per se, nor is it particularly popular. But it is an important one, nonetheless.

Let’s just say that the accumulation of the Roe vs. Wade overturning, the Will Smith-Chris Rock slap, the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp trial, all the mass shootings (Uvalde, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook, e.g.) that desperate, lonely, resentful young men have perpetrated, the Brock Turner case, the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, the former president’s “locker room talk,” the enormous rise in a particularly heinous crime during the Covid-19 lockdown, the films Promising Young Woman and A Marriage Story, and countless other influences (including apps like Tinder and OnlyFans) has all led me to one salient conclusion: “casual sex” is a myth.

I know what you may be thinking: “No it’s not. We have very reliable birth control and other forms of contraception. People can very easily avoid serious infectious diseases and/or unwanted pregnancies with 98% assurance in most cases.” That is true. However, 1-2% is quite a lot when we are discussing something as serious as pregnancy or sexually transmitted illnesses. For parallel reference, consider the Covid-19 virus. “Only” an approximate 1% of patients died from the disease, but even that shut our whole world down. If 1-2% airplanes crashed, everyday there’d be jumbo jets falling out of the sky like rainfall.

Moreover, we hyper-focus too much on the “mechanics.” In most aspects of life, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. For instance, consider the fact that we can now work from home or across the world due to sophisticated digital technology; or, given the invention of antibiotics, we can catch the flu or the cold without worrying it’s a death sentence. The domains of industry and health management have fundamentally changed because of material improvements. Sexuality, however, is not one of those domains. Why not? Because most of that domain is “invisible,” like a proverbial iceberg. Its complexities are too many to manageably maintain!

When people think of sexuality…or at least, when people think of their first (appropriate) exposure to it, they probably think of health class; that first health class in middle or high school. Some stodgy, out-of-touch life science teacher gives a deadpan explanation of reproductive human anatomy. It is as though he/she were explaining a DIY manual from IKEA. The teacher tells his/her students to practice safe sex if they choose to do so, the children giggle nervously, and sunrise…sunset, the world goes round! Notice though that something is missing. The teacher explains the “mechanics”, which is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. The rest of the deep, deeply submerged “iceberg” ominously lingers (and rest assured, this “iceberg” can sink any ship, no matter its size)!

So, where or when exactly did the concept of “casual sex” emerge? Many people would probably say around the time of the sexual revolution and the invention of the birth control pill (circa 1960s). Or has “casual sex” always been around? After all, sexuality has been with us since the dawn of time. It’s the only other domain besides death or consciousness with as much mysteriousness to it! But, while its primary purpose is life and the replication of it, sexuality does have a recreational aspect to it. For non-human parallels, see the dolphin or the bonobo. That established, though, the key word is “recreational.” Brothels, harems, concubines, hippie “love fests” all fit the term. Transient, promiscuous encounters fit it as well. Or check out Urban Dictionary… or every modern day rom-com, sitcom, or catchy, convenient store magazine ever produced! Watch any commercial or any “reality” TV show. There are enough “recreational” concepts to fill every book of every library across the globe! But “casual”? No. Certainly not! “Casual” is a different thing.

People can do a lot of things “casually.” Sports can be casual. Card games can be casual. Board games, video games, fashion, and even eating or alcohol consumption can be casual (if one doesn’t overdo it). But not sexuality!  “Casualness” implies a lack of seriousness or a lack of gravity or weight…like exploring some frivolous cartoon world. And so, in that regard, I couldn’t think of a less “casual” aspect of life than sexuality. It isn’t merely the weight of pregnancy or disease. The emotional side is also significant. This is especially true for women as they are the only ones who carry life. Given the incredible danger and difficulty that pregnancy has historically warranted, deep emotions are bound to follow. But men obviously have emotions too, as well as responsibilities, and the fact that they can more easily “dodge” their responsibilities doesn’t make it any less serious (which is why the whole Maury Povich, “paternity test” spectacle has always disgusted me).

Let’s also not forget that given how much potential risk, danger, and life-consuming effort pregnancy and child-rearing entails, women are going to be extremely picky when it comes to who they choose as a partner. That’s not casual! And suppose you’re a heterosexual/bisexual man. Some beautiful young woman captures your eye. You fall head over heels. And then she rejects you! Her message is simple: I will not guide your genes into the future! That’s not casual! That’s not like being excluded from a business or a university or a pickup game of hoops! That rejection hits as deep as any possible rejection can hit, and sometimes its kickback can be very ugly!!

Many of the mass attacks we’ve seen dominating the news for the past 10-15 years were driven by rejection (combined with loneliness and isolation, which spiraled out of control). It’s no coincidence these shooters were all young men. They weren’t just unhappy. They were enraged, and each incident seemed to scream out the same, enraged message: “Have I got your attention now?!?” The fact that they were young men or even boys is also significant. Most countries around the world have “age of consent” laws, and they are designed to protect both boys and girls, because sexuality at too early an age can have serious, lifelong repercussions. Chris Hansen’s old Dateline- To Catch a Predator series from the mid-2000s highlighted that point (as least as far as the issue of internet predators are concerned). Decisions that are legally consigned to those of a given age or older come with immense emotional weight/responsibility, which is why such laws exist! There’s nothing casual there, and those who violate such laws face very non-casual punishments for it (as they should)!

Rape is not a casual crime, nor are the crimes that surround it. The crimes of most serial killers are sexually motivated, and their perpetrators frequently harbor sexually perverse fantasies (fantasies wrapped up in a desire for complete power and control). Menstruation is not casual. Miscarriages are not casual. Abortions are not casual. Romantic jealousy is not casual. Divorce is not casual. Domestic abuse is not casual. Infidelity is not casual. The fact that television shows and movies use a rating system (such as G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17) for content like graphic violence and sexuality is also not casual.

Most religions come down hard on any sexuality outside of the bonds of marriage. I grew up partially Catholic. I was always told if I engaged in specific, “unsanctioned” activities, the eternal lake of fire would await me! That’s not casual! The visceral fear I felt was not casual! The vicious verbal, physical, and emotional abuse those in the LGBTQ+ community have endured throughout history because of their orientation is not casual. All the current discussions regarding transgendered individuals are not casual. The list goes on and on! So, are there any elements of sexuality that are casual? Well, yes, occasionally, in some situations, verbal innuendos and double-entendres…and the humorous political scandal here and there. But I’d argue that’s about it!

So, let’s dispense with this whole idea of “casual sex.” It’s not just a misnomer. It’s a dangerously inaccurate one! Whether or not various aspects of sexuality are morally right or wrong, illegal or not, or good or bad are all entirely different conversations. But one thing is for certain- they’re all serious!