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Let’s stop slut shaming: A (moral) defence of casual sex


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Statistics for the average number of sexual partners of university students have never convincingly settled on a figure. It’s going up, though.

couple bed

Some studies suggest that the average university student (by the age of 21) has had 9 sexual partners. Others are more cautious, suggesting the number is more likely 5 or 6. There is some gender disparity: on the first study, the male average was 11 and female was 7.

Of course, these averages are skewed. Some people find “the one” before they come to university, or on the first day of Freshers, and never look back. Others have reached 9 by the end of the first semester of first year. But should we worry about casual sex? And should we “slut shame” those who have slept with 20, 50 or even 100 people come graduation?

Casual sex is an omnipresent feature of most students’ lives. The 2014 Sex Survey – conducted by The Guardian – showed that 49% of university students openly admitted to having one-night stands. There are some disparities here: 57% of men have had one-night stands, compared to 43% of women. Homosexual men are the biggest “offenders”: 67% have had one-night stands. 14% of university students have used Grindr or Tinder to arrange a casual hook up. 20% have had sex with someone without knowing their name. 11% have visited a prostitute for casual sex.

So, essentially: we have casual sex. And we have casual sex a lot. Amongst the 49% who admitted to one-night stands, it was rare for this to be a one-time occurrence.

Put it into perspective though. Say Jane – who lost her virginity at the average age of 16 – has slept with fifty men by the age of 21, but has never been in a relationship. That’s 10 a year or, to put it bluntly, less than one sexual encounter a month. Yet those in committed monogamous relationships – who have sex on average four times a month – feel they have the privileged right to pass judgement.

But, of course, the fact many of us engage in casual sex does not morally defend it. But then what are the typical arguments against it?

Some people suggest it degrades the value of sex. But this is purely based on seeing sex as needing to hold some important, emotional element. But why? Many philosophers and psychologists now defend the ‘plain sex’ theory, that the aim and goal of sex is physical pleasure. Furthermore, that I engage in casual sex does not stop me engaging in emotional, intimate sex in the future.

People wrongly seem to presume that hooking up is pursued at the expense of future committed relationships. No evidence supports this conclusion.

What about the argument that it degrades the individual themselves? Many people, however, report that casual sex is extremely liberating and freeing; it allows them to explore their sexuality as an individual in a non-judgemental way, whether this be experimenting sexually, exploring the world of BDSM, or just having NSA sex that doesn’t require the lingering worry about its long-term impact. Considering it to ‘lessen’ the individual is to take a near-prejudicial moral high-ground.

But we don’t just need to negate those who demean casual sex. The established benefits of it are clear too. Some are medical: frequent casual sex has been linked to increased life satisfaction, lessened rates of anxiety and greater self-confidence. It’s beneficial for the individuals taking part. Note that this argument runs given that no one is also directly hurt (casual sex while in a monogamous relationship, for example, is still wrong due to the hurt and deception to the other party).

As leading sex researcher Zhana Vrangalova notes, ‘Typically socio-sexually unrestricted individuals (i.e., those highly oriented toward casual sex) reported higher thriving following casual sex’. Of course, casual sex is not for everyone; but for those who desire it, its fulfilment leads to a healthier and more productive life.

These benefits, then, are also psychological, as well as physical. Casual sex will allow you to better understand what “gets you off” sexually so you can maximise your sexual fulfilment.

We need to be careful about separating issues too. Of those who engage in frequent casual sex with multiple partners, 24% admitted to not always taking safety precautions to protect from STI’s. Homosexual men are again the biggest offenders here, perhaps because the fear of unwanted pregnancy is not lingering. STI precaution is something which does raise legitimate moral concerns, but only to the same extent that it does in relationships.

Given that 17% of partners admit to cheating, unsafe sex within relationships can be as likely to lead to the contraction of STI’s. Unsafe sex, then, is an ethical problem but this does not mean that casual sex is an ethical problem. Only unsafe casual sex is. We, after all, do not say that because drunk driving is morally problematic, driving is morally problematic. We should, therefore, stop saying that because unsafe casual sex is wrong, so is casual sex. The logic is fundamentally flawed.

Why, then, do we still band around terms like ‘slut’ and slut-shame individuals who engage in frequent casual sex? We do it because we haven’t removed ourselves from the Victorian conservatism that sex ought to be the private intimate endeavour between romantic partners. But times have progressed. Indeed, the only negative depression-related effects of casual sex are often linked, not to the sex itself, but to the undue prejudice people receive by being slut-shamed.

We, therefore, need to abandon the term ‘slut’ altogether.

Casual sex is about enjoying sex: about benefiting from the base physical pleasure of sexual intercourse. So be it that sometimes you may forget their name – or the morning after not even desire to know it – but at no point are you doing anything wrong. Everyone should explore their sexual identity, and casual sex is the perfect way to do it. I’ve done it: and so have 49% of the students I see every day. If we’re happy – and no one’s getting hurt - who's to judge?

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