My early twenties is supposed to be a primetime for relationships and love, right? Not for me: I rarely date, and have never had a long-term partner because no one has impressed me enough to break my exhaustive cycle of singleness. I am still somewhat jaded by the idea of monogamous relationships and the amount of emotional effort and compromise it takes to make them work. It recently occurred to me that I could break out of my romantic stalemate without having a serious partner. I pride myself in having strong convictions concerning what I deserve from relationships, but it’s natural for me to grow into different needs. I can reevaluate my expectations for a partner to align with what I currently want, without compromising my standards.
I grew up believing that I had to wait until I was in a loving, committed relationship to have sex. Though my parents’ marriage is dysfunctional and unhealthy in many ways, they always encouraged me to ‘wait for the right one’. It’s a good aspiration, because loving, committed relationships usually consist of the strong communication and trust that is necessary for a healthy sex life. However, this expectation is deeply rooted in misogynist notions of a woman’s virginity as her most valuable asset (sadly, everything can be drawn back to the patriarchy). I was under the impression that sex would fundamentally change me, so it was imperative that I have intricate emotional ties to whatever person had the high honor of deflowering me. My upbringing led me to place a lot of pressure on both myself and any potential partners, because I had built up this image of sex as a major life event—which it could be for some people—when in reality it’s just one of those things that you do, and at first it’s uncomfortable and kind of hilarious, but then you get better at it. And while it’s important to trust the person I’m having sex with, it’s not imperative that I be in a committed relationship with them.
My values regarding sex led me to be mostly indifferent, but also vaguely hostile, towards hookup culture. I didn’t shame people who choose to have casual sex, but I was going to wait, because as my father once put it, “Once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.” But what exactly was I losing? A few months ago, I began to have an intense internal struggle; I was jaded by my dating experiences, and I remember thinking, ‘Maybe my experiences with men will be a lot better if I just get what I want from them sexually. Nothing more’. I felt cognitive dissonance for my desire to have sex, because I thought having a casual relationship was in direct opposition to my goal of having a long-term partner. I felt that I was somehow selling out, settling for something I don’t actually want, because getting a man to be interested in sex is easier than taking the time to foster a monogamous and fulfilling relationship. I struggled with this for a while. After all, there’s a difference between wanting only physical intimacy, and wanting sex because it can temporarily fill a void for emotional intimacy and companionship. The distinction between these two needs is significant but gets muddled all the time.
It all depends on the person. I had my first sexual experience with someone I trusted even though we weren’t in a monogamous relationship. And lo and behold, our casual sex was fulfilling; we both had the maturity it takes to communicate what we liked and disliked, what we wanted from the relationship, and how we felt about each other. All in all, it was an optimal experience. I was surprised; we’ve all heard of (or maybe have been caught in) a relationship where the sex is casual but then you realize you want more. That can definitely happen, because any intimate relationship comes with some degree of risk. But I had the revelation that I can make distinctions between someone I want a purely physical relationship with, and someone I’m interested in dating seriously. Moreover, being sexually active outside of a monogamous relationship didn’t damage me or make me dependent, it made me happy.
For me, having sex was the key to letting go of some of my anxieties about relationships. Of course, sex doesn’t fix everything. I still want to be in a fully committed relationship with someone at some point. But right now, I feel secure staying single and having fun. Sex is an undeniably personal experience, but I’ve realized that it isn’t the pinnacle of intimacy for me. It serves many other purposes—it’s a stress reliever, it boosts my confidence when I can make someone else feel good, and it helps me strengthen my communication skills. I’ve found another way to show love to myself, and it’s wonderful.