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Is Casual Sex Experiencing A Backlash?

Earlier this week, blogger Jessica Grose at Slate wondered if there is “a new backlash against casual sex.” Grose points out that pop culture seems to have toned it down a bit: love-song warbling Taylor Swift is at the top of the charts, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera are both mommies now, and we hear nary a peep out of Paris Hilton. The problem, Grose argued, is a backlash to the Spears and Agulieras of yore, capturing women in a “shame cycle.”

But over at Salon.com’s Broadsheet blog, Tracy Clark-Flory disagreed, arguing that “sexual regret is not a new phenomenon” and that how women experience casual sex — with embrace or regret — is simply always evolving. There’s room at the pop culture table now, Clark-Flory seems to be saying, for everybody.

As someone who had a decent amount of casual sex in her late teens and first half of her 20s, I’ve thought about this topic a lot: “Is this as fun as it’s supposed to be? Should it be more fun? Should I regret it more?” As a 25-year-old, I am only of maybe the second generation to be loud and proud about having casual sex, and exploring this new-ish territory is full of questions.There seems to be this idea, which germinated in the second wave’s ’60s women’s movement (i.e., when the birth control pill was first available to women, abortion was legalized (in 1973), and Erica Jong coined the term “zipless f**k” in Fear Of Flying) and explosively blew up in third wave’s pop culture of the ’90s (“Sex and the City,” “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” the Spice Girls), that feminism partially meant allowing for women to have sex “like men do.” Women would finally be “free” in our sexual lives if we, too, could jump in and out of bed only for sexual pleasure and without emotions attached. Not that that was a “goal,” per se, but it seemed like a behavior that would prove women’s sexuality had finally been liberated from the oppressive social mores of the past.

But not all women find “having sex like men do” enjoyable — probably because there is, actually, no one way that “men have sex.” Some men have always had their emotions involved in sex, while others have preferred casual sex and bed-hopping. But having sex like men do shouldn’t become some kind of de facto litmus test for women’s sexual liberation. If women are disappointed with casual sex, they should not feel as though they’ve been sold a false bill of goods. It’s just that the expectations were unreasonable in the first place.

But is this a casual sex “backlash”? With the exception of some vocal “new Puritans,” such as evangelicals pushing abstinence-until-marriage and authors like Laura Sessions Stepp (who wrote Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose At Both), I would say no. Instead, I agree with Clark-Flory that the Big Question of “what does casual sex mean for women?” is being re-defined in a productive way:

“… [D]espite all of Carrie Bradshaw‘s sex in the city, it was never a secret that she wanted to ultimately find lasting love — that was kind of the whole point. Maybe instead of signaling a backlash, these are actually signs that we’re slowly inching toward a world where a woman isn’t either good or bad, a wife or whore, a virgin or slut.”

One particular area of growth is the freedom for women to be accepted for embracing sexual pleasure with other women. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, the women’s rights movement actually distanced itself from lesbians. (You can read more about “the lavender menace” here.) When we write about women and sex, we still tend to focus on heterosexuals having casual sex. That, I believe, is to our detriment.

“If there’s been a recent change in my generation’s relationship to casual sex, I suspect it’s that we’re relaxing our defensive posturing,” Clark-Flory wrote, concluding her essay. I couldn’t agree more — and I believe that whether it’s slutty girls who want to be slutty, chaste girls who want to be chaste, or I’m-not-sure-yet girls who want to sample the pu-pu platter of sexuality, everyone benefits. [Salon.com Broadsheet, Slate]

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