Can't Fight This Feeling: On Casual Sex and Emotions

By Sophia Rosenthal '17
Sex Columnist

Photo courtesy of Vimeo

Photo courtesy of Vimeo

You know the part at the end of the live-action version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” where the Grinch’s heart grows and he’s lying in the snow screaming, “Help me! I’m...feeling!” That—minus Jim Carrey in green makeup—is basically what I picture whenever people talk about “catching feels” for someone.

The popular narrative around sex and feelings is that the two go together only in the context of a committed and usually monogamous relationship. When you have sex in the context of a relationship, feelings are allowed, because you presumably care about your partner(s). But if you’re having sex with someone and you aren’t in some sort of mutually acknowledged relationship, feelings are generally seen as sneaky, evil creatures that one must avoid and ignore at all costs. Because if we feel something, then we might start to care, and if we care about someone then… we might as well just date them and start shopping for patio furniture, right?! Yikes. You introduce a small helping of “feelings” to the mixture, and all of a sudden you’re faced with the possibility of two very scary things: expectations and vulnerability.
No wonder “catching feels” is treated like an STI for which there’s no protection.

Yet, unlike libido and lightbulbs, feelings don’t turn on and off (if they do, please, in the name of all that is sparkly and good, let me know what I’ve been missing). Feelings are pretty much always there—it’s part of this whole being human thing. So why does this unconscious narrative exist that suggests we can turn our emotions off in sexual situations? Or, as Mila Kunis explains in the classic cinematic masterpiece “Friends with Benefits” (2011), “no emotions, just sex.” Maybe it’s just me, but I can barely walk into Sunday brunch without experiencing at least one, probably seven, emotions. And in a sexual scenario, it’s only going to get more intense.

But when we’re talking about hookups, one-night-stands, friends with benefits (plus or minus Justin Timberlake)—anything typically placed under the heading “casual”—then acknowledging one’s emotions is generally considered a bad move.

But why?

Now, I know what you’re thinking (and I always do. You’ve got a filthy mind. Let’s be friends). You’re thinking: Because I don’t want my night to be ruined when I see [hookup/sexy bed friend/person/hot dance partner/lover] making out with someone else on a Thursday night!
Okay, fair point.

Sex is messy, emotions are messier. Pretty sure we can all agree on that.

But for all intents and purposes, let’s also agree that a) emotions are inevitable (human stuff, yeah?) and b)—this one’s important—feelings do not equal romantic feelings. Sit with that one for a second. If feelings don’t equal romantic feelings, then all of a sudden it doesn’t seem so crucial to keep feelings separate from sex. Which is good, because I’m arguing that you can’t.
To elaborate, this isn’t about romantic feelings or falling for a sexual partner/partners; when romantic/bonded feelings are unrequited it’s devastating, and it requires a whole conversation of its own. This also isn’t a criticism of casual sex or aromantic sex.

This is a criticism of the general narrative that paints the repression of emotions as a shield against that kind of vulnerability. To suggest that we should ignore or tune-out our feelings during sex is not only silly, but dare I say it’s dangerous.

You’re allowed to have whatever kinds of sex you want, with whomever you want. But in order to enjoy it (let’s just assume enjoyment is a goal) you have to figure out what you like and what you want. And to figure that out, you have to be in tune with how you’re feeling. I’m not just talking physical sensations, although goodness knows that’s important, too. I’m talking real, messy, vulnerable, emotions. Does this feel safe? Does this feel awkward? Does this feel awkward in an okay, fun way that you can laugh about? Are you nervous? Are you uncomfortable? In order to take care of yourself and help your partner(s) take care of you, you have to have some level of self-awareness. No matter who you are, what you like, and who your partners are, feelings are real, and they are important. If you’ve experienced trauma, feelings and sex probably have a more complicated relationship, but their presence is still valid. Any time you’re interacting with someone you’re probably feeling something, and if you detach from that just to avoid encountering expectations and vulnerability, you’re missing out on the chance to learn something about yourself.

Just because you’re feeling something doesn’t mean you’re going to fall in love with whoever you’re with. Even a totally physical moment of I don’t care about anything, I just want it right now involves emotions. The point is not to suggest that you include psychoanalysis in your foreplay (unless you want to. Analyze this, Freud!) the point is that feelings are there, and we need to question the narrative that idealizes keeping them out of sex.

And the next time you have a “help me! I’m...feeling!” moment, tell that voice in your head, “congratulations, you’re a human-freaking-being.” Now how do you feel about that?