man and woman in bed

Chatting with Dr. Zhana Vrangalova about the Casual Sex Project, a collection of stories about one-night stands.

There’s been a lot of debate over the merits of so-called “hookup culture,” and whether having the freedom to have casual, non-monogamous sex is empowering or destructive for young men and women. But for all the frenzy over dating apps like Tinder and Grindr—do they encourage promiscuity and the spread of STIs?—we don’t know a whole lot about what hooking up actually entails.

For instance, why do most people have casual sex? What kind of precautions do they take? And, perhaps most importantly, how do they feel about it afterward?

This is where Dr. Zhana Vrangalova’s Casual Sex Project comes in. A sex researcher, blogger, and adjunct professor at New York University, Dr. Zhana has been studying casual sex and non-monogamy for the past decade. A few months ago, she started encouraging people to submit their own stories of one-night stands, fuck buddies, booty calls, and the occasional three- or foursome, and began featuring the stories on the Casual Sex Project, a digital collection of first-person sexual anecdotes.

Much like sex itself, the stories run the gamut from awkward to hilarious to sad to highly erotic. You’ll find Spin the Bottle–fueled threeways, sex with an abusive ex, and paying an ER nurse $50 to fulfill a boyhood fantasy. Pretty much every hookup experience you can imagine is featured on the website; because most submissions are anonymous, few authors hold any of the details back. I anonymously submitted a story a few days ago, and even though I regularly write about sex for this website, I found myself blushing the whole time I was typing.

Although many of the stories are titllating, the point of the project, says Dr. Zhana, is not to turn us on. Rather, it serves an educational purpose: By learning how other people have casual sex, we can better understand ourselves and our own sexual desires and experiences. The Daily Dot spoke to Dr. Zhana about hookups, Tinder, HIV, and what we can learn from reading about people’s sex lives.

So why the Casual Sex Project? What did you hope to learn from this project?

I’ve been studying as part of my graduate studies [at Cornell, where she received a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology]. We live in a culture that’s very ambivalent about this behavior in particular. A lot of people disapprove of it, a lot of people are very excited about it, a lot of people are doing it. There’s so much talk about the hookup culture. But there was no online space out there for people to share their actual stories of hookups. And I wanted to create such a space, because we need actual firsthand information for people to talk about what casual sex is for different people, what it means to them, what type of things happen. I thought it would be a good, useful thing to have that’s specific to hookups, and open and welcoming to everyone with hookup stories.

They’re not necessarily erotic stories. Some are erotic. Some people manage to write their story and probably give a few people hard-ons, but many aren’t. Many are matter-of-fact: “This is what happened, it was good or it wasn’t good.” Many are not pleasurable or arousing. It’s just real stories of all the diversity of hookups.

How many stories have you received so far? 

It’s been up for less than two months. I would normally get one submission a day, mostly from friends with extensive social networks. But as soon as the media picked up on it last week, I’ve been bombarded with stories. Yesterday I got 70 submissions. Today, it’s 10:00 and I already have 30 new stories. It seems like people are liking it. Usually you would only have a space to write something like this if you had your own sex blog. A lot of people have no interest or desire in doing that, but they do have these one or two stories they wanna share.

If you look at the media coverage of hookup culture, it sort of goes one of two ways: People either say hookup culture is a terrible thing for women, and it’s warping the dating culture as we know it, or they say that having casual sex is empowering for women. It’s either completely positive or completely negative.

That’s always bothered me as a researcher. Even the research has been biased in that way—it frames casual sex as a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s not the same experience for everyone. The stories reflect the many different ways people experience their hookups. Some of them have seen it as a very positive experience that opened up a lot of passion and satisfaction in their lives. And for others, it was a horrible experience, and they don’t ever want to do it again.

Not all hookups have the same positive or negative consequences for people, and not all people are equally susceptible to highly positive or negative consequences. We’re all different. For some people, hookups can be a good, positive thing they can enjoy without consequence, and for other people, no, they should probably stay away from them. So I think the project really shows all those nuances. We need to start thinking about all the 50 shades of gray that exist, as opposed to the black and white.

Do you think people are inherently predisposed to enjoying or not enjoying hookups? Does it largely depend on the person as to whether or not this is a good thing for them?

What research is showing so far is there are probably more inborn tendencies to be predisposed to enjoying hookups or less. I don’t think that’s all of it, but there’s some aspect of that, because when we do studies and measure people’s propensity for casual sex, they differ significantly. Some of that is obviously upbringing: whether sexual promiscuity is the norm in the culture you’ve been brought up in, your own personal experiences you’ve had with romantic sex or casual sex. Some of the more inborn tendencies are probably related to your sex drive, and people with higher sex drives will be more predisposed to enjoying casual sex, but also high need for novelty and sensation-seeking, and we all differ on that. Some people never wanna ride roller coasters, others get excited about that.  It’s a similar thing: some people like novel bodies and smells, and some people don’t really have the need for that. They’re much more satisfied and happy with having one good, reliable partner.

Another thing that plays a big role is your susceptibility to bonding after casual sex or sex in general. Some people are more susceptible to that. Sex sets in motion a set of chemical neurochemical processes in the brain that makes you bond with your partner, even if you’ve never seen them before or plan on seeing them again. Some people are more susceptible to this bond, so for them it’s more difficult to remain unattached, and therefore more likely to get hurt, if the person doesn’t call them again. Those things matter to make some of us more predisposed to carefree enjoyment of hookups versus being harmed by them.

What role do hookup and dating apps like Tinder and Grindr play in your project? You see a lot of stories about how they’ve changed hookup culture, and some studies linking them to the spread of STIs. Have you seen that reflected in the stories you’ve been getting so far?

Surprisingly, I did not get that many Tinder and Grindr stories for the project. But it hasn’t been up that long: in the past two months, only 60 stories have been shared. But I think the existence of online dating and the apps definitely makes it easier for people to find other people with similar desires and similar interests to hook up. The whole spread of STIs linked to hookup apps, that’s a bit of a consensus issue, but responsible promiscuity—if you use condoms and get tested and talk to your partners about those kinds of things—doesn’t really result in this crazy spread of STIs. And studies have shown that people are much more likely to use condoms when they have casual sex. They’re aware they don’t know this person and they have to try to protect themselves. With the apps, that’s even more the case. It’s like, “if I’m gonna hook up with this person I’ve had five minutes of online conversation with, I better wear condoms.” They make it easier to hook up, but they also make it easier to wear condoms.

It’s also really interesting to me when those stories come out saying hookups apps have ruined dating, because the vast majority of my friends who use Tinder and Grindr are more interested in dating than casual sex. Have you found that in your research?

As far as observing dating, the vast majority of people are interested in having a long-term relationship. The vast, vast, vast majority. There’s a very very small minority of people who say they don’t ever want a relationship, and all they want to do is have random hookups. We as humans have a basic fundamental need to have long-lasting, meaningful relationships with people. That’s not gonna change. Hooking up is in addition to these dating experiences, or something you do in between until you find someone you wanna be more than sex partners with. So I personally think it’s not ruining dating. It’s just giving people more options to have some fun in between relationships or in addition to relationships.

Were there any stories you’ve gotten so far that have really surprised you, or have run contrary to what you’ve found in your research?

Surprising? I don’t know. I expected a huge diversity of stories, and that’s what I’ve been getting. I guess it’s surprising that people remembered stories that happened 10 or 20 years ago. They’re so vivid in their memory they could write about it accurately. Some of these stories were not shared with anyone before, and this is the first time they’re sharing it and they’re telling it to the world. I found that really interesting and surprising.

One of the most heartbreaking stories for me was this guy in his early 40s who wrote about his lack of one-night stands. He’d been with the same woman ever since high school, and they got married. They’ve been married for more than 20 years and he’s never been with anyone else, and he felt so regretful about that. He wasn’t sexually satisfied with his relationship from the very beginning, and they had incompatible sex drives, but he stayed with her because he loved her. He was so torn and frustrated about that, and it really got to me. I was thinking about not publishing the story because it wasn’t specifically about a hookup, but it got to a lot of people because they wrote in with their own experiences.

There are a couple of stories that were so beautiful. People shared these experiences where that was the best sex they ever had. Sometimes it was a one night stand, sometimes it was a fuck buddy-type relationship, but it was like, “They taught me all these amazing things, that my body was a sexual organ I could play with and I don’t have to feel guilt and shame about having this up.” And on the opposite end, there was a story about this woman who felt pressured to have sex with this guy and then kept having sex with him on and off. She regretted it deeply and felt like there was nothing positive about it—she’d never had an orgasm, he’d always come over, have sex with her and not even touch her—but she kept doing it again and again. So yeah, there were these extremes, both positive and negative, that made me feel happy that people had these outlets to tell these stories and for other people to read them.

So why is it important for people to read these stories and know how people have sex? What can we learn from these?

There are so many reasons. From the most superficial—maybe you’re a voyeur and you want to know about other people’s private sex lives, or maybe you’re an exhibitionist and you want to provide entertainment for people. That’s valid. But I think for many people, it goes deeper than that. Many people are trying to figure out what sex means to them and where different types of sex fits into their own lives, and I think reading these stories helps them figure it out for themselves.

I also think a great benefit to reading these stories is it helps people feel less alone. Back in the day before the Internet, people with different sexual lifestyles, like gay people or kinky people or people with various fetishes that are uncommon, would think they were the only one with this particular interest or desire. Then when they found chatrooms that catered to their particular desire, they’d be like “Oh my God, I’m not alone.” You’d think people would have a forum for that already, that they’ve already discovered they’re not alone, but with the Casual Sex Project we’re talking about more subtle, specific kind of feelings. It’s not just people realizing there’s another person with the same sexual fetish. It’s more of a “someone had a similar experience and feelings about what happened” type of response. These stories validate people’s experiences.

Photo via Bryan Brenneman/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) 

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