A concept that researchers have used to promote healthy romantic relationships is “sliding versus deciding.” People tend to have better relationships when they make conscious transitions between relationship stages (deciding) rather than passively accepting them or letting them “just happen” (sliding; Stanley, Rhoades, & Markman, 2006). Although sliding versus deciding originally referred to romantic relationship transitions like deciding to move in together, it may be applicable to nonromantic relationships as well. A recent study found that people had better well-being following hookups if they felt like the decision to engage in a CSRE was their own, compared to feeling like the hookup happened due to peer pressure or that it “just happened,” (Vrangalova, 2014). If the opportunity to hook up arises, take a couple seconds to think about whether you really want this specific experience, or whether you’re just horny, lonely, bored, or tipsy. If you really want it, go for it! If you don’t really want it, maybe go for a late-night quesadilla instead. Late-night quesadillas never leave you feeling unsatisfied, confused, or awkward.
Rule #2: Always be communicating
If there is one thing everybody needs to know about any type of relationship, it is that communication is essential. People are not mind-readers. As much as we might wish that our partners knew our turn-ons or how we really feel about them, it’s not realistic to expect that everything will be magical without us putting in effort. Consider it your job to make this experience better for you and your partner, even if you don’t know each other well or don’t expect to see each other again. Constantly ask yourself, what do I want, what does my partner want, and how can we work together to make the most of this experience? Before you start removing clothes, you should know if sex is a possibility tonight. If yes, who has a condom? If not, could sex be a possibility in the future? Is this a one-time thing, or is it possible that you could hook up again? During the encounter, is your partner enthusiastic about what you’re doing? If not, maybe it’s time to check in. Are things getting hot, and you want to take it a step further? Make sure your partner feels the same way. Always Be Communicating is literally the ABC’s of sexual relationships; if you follow this rule, you’re much more likely to have a pleasurable experience and avoid doing something that you or your partner doesn’t enjoy.
Rule #3: Have realistic expectations
Similarly, don’t expect the sex to be mind-blowing. Even if you and your partner have chemistry and good communication, it takes time, trust, and comfort to become sexually in sync. A new partner or a casual partner might not want to do everything (and you should absolutely respect your partner’s boundaries), or things might not seem natural in the bedroom.
Rule #4: If you’re looking for a date, then ask for a date
In my experience, people’s distress often originates from ambiguity about the relationship after a hookup. “I hooked up with my ex, are we together now?” “I’ve been hooking up with this guy for a while now. How do I get him to want to date me?” These people get tough love: whether or not someone wants to date you is out of your control, and hooking up with them is not a sure way to change their feelings. What you can do if you’re romantically interested in someone is let them know your intentions before you become sexually involved. If you want to date someone, you (yes, you!) can ask that person out on a date. Worst case: your romantic interest says no and saves you time and worry. Best case: you get a date, they know you’re interested in more than sexy fun time, and you don’t have to renegotiate the boundaries of your relationship after being sexual.
I understand that things get complicated. Maybe you’re in a friends-with-benefits situation and feelings develop that weren’t there before. What do you do? See Rule #2. Let your partner know what’s going on. Best case: your partner feels the same way and you don’t waste time worrying. Worst case: your partner doesn’t feel the same way and you can move on to bigger and better things.
Rule #5: Be prepared to walk away
What happens when you discover that you and your partner aren’t on the same page? One of you wants sex, and the other just wants to make out? Or one of you wants a relationship, but the other wants to keep it casual? Sometimes partners can negotiate the experience so that it meets both people’s needs (“Actually, I’m okay just making out.” “You know what? Let’s go out to a movie and see how it feels.”). Other times, it just isn’t going to work. In those cases, it’s important to know when to break it off. Hookups are supposed to be fun. If you don’t think a hookup will be fun, spend your time doing something you’ll enjoy more (ahem, pizza and Game of Thrones). If you’re in a nonromantic relationship that’s not fun, and you don’t think things will improve, there’s no point in causing yourself further distress. Break up if it’s broken.
Rule #6: Don’t be a jerk
There are always (at least) two people involved in a sexual relationship. It’s your responsibility to take care of your partner as well as yourself. In addition to it just being the right thing to do, looking out for your partner will help make the experience better for you sexually and emotionally. Respect your partner’s feelings and boundaries. If your partner doesn’t want to get naked, either get hip to that or be prepared to walk away. It's not that hard; use the golden rule to figure out what you should do.
If your partner wants a romantic relationship you don't, it's time to break it off. Nothing good will come of a situation where two partners have opposing goals. It may be tempting to keep getting sexy for as long as your partner will keep you for selfish reasons, because (a) why would you turn down sex with a willing partner?, or (b) you don't want to deal with the emotional fallout. But you hold as much responsibility to end it as your partner does. If you're in it for the sex, taking advantage of your partner’s investment in your relationship in order to get sex is incredibly insensitive. If you're continuing the relationship to avoid the emotional fallout, you might be unintentionally giving your partner false hope, which is still not cool. Plus, breaking it off now will help you avoid a potentially worse fallout later.
If you zoned out until now, you should probably work on that attention span, but whatever, it’s cool. I’ll recap for you. The bottom line is, nonromantic sexual relationships are complicated. There are a lot of things you have to learn with a new partner, and it can be intimidating to have to communicate what you want sexually and relationally. But you really will save yourself some distress if you take care of business promptly, so you don’t find yourself in a situation where you’re not getting what you wanted to get out of your hookup. You and your partner need to know what you both want and make it a priority to treat yourselves and each other well.
Some of you may be left with questions. “Rose, some things are out of my control. What if I follow your advice, but I still find myself in a bad hookup, or what if something nonconsensual happens to me?” That really sucks, and there are ways you can take care of yourself after a bad hookup or after something nonconsensual happened. I’ll get to those, promise. Stay tuned!
Campbell, A. (2008). The morning after the night before: Affective reactions to one-night stands among mated and unmated women and men. Human Nature, 19, 157-173. doi: 10.1007/s12110-008-9036-2
Lehmiller, J. J., VanderDrift, L. E., & Kelly, J. R. (2011). Sex differences in approaching friends with benefits relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 48, 275-284. doi: 10.1080/00224491003721694
Owen, J., & Fincham, F. (2011). Young adults’ emotional reactions after hooking up encounters. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 321-330. doi:10.1007/s10508-010-9652-x
Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding versus deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2006.00418.x
Vrangalova, Z. (2014). Does Casual Sex Harm College Students’ Well-Being? A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Motivation. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi:10.1007/s10508-013-0255-1