This is going to be pretty long, so I’ll break this up into 3 posts:
I. Personal experiences that have contributed to both pro- and anti- ideas
These days there are many articles about young people who aren’t really thinking about marriage but want companionship and intimacy, and new kinds of relationships are constantly being defined (eg dating partner, casual sex). However, there seems to be a comparative dearth of reflective articles considering reservations or opposition, especially those that come from a secular perspective. Searching for “issues with casual sex,” there are a bunch of articles that point to how certain strategies weren’t suitable, but other than religious ones (ie here), there were very few that deal with concept itself.
Relationship issues is really not the usual wheelhouse on this blog. However, I increasingly feel like I need to think through my own ambivalent position with this, and sharing them has no additional cost, I suppose. I also want to share this because I get the sense that secular people can be turned off by arguments couched in religious terms. Whether being turned off is justified or not, at least I do think that religious terms might not be the most pertinent for seculars.
Anyways, I’m not a religious adherent (though I think of Buddhism as the most sensical). I am a woman around 30 from a PRC Chinese family, and mostly heterosexual. The most pertinent experiences contributing to my current thoughts were my parents’ divorce, a new crowd in LA, and a number of recent relationships where I found myself in arrangements I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.
While my parents are not really traditional and gave me a lot of freedom, they also believed that marriage was important and should last, and could not teach me, for example, that casual sex was okay. My parents divorced when I was starting high school, after my father was cheating on my mother with a co-worker of his.
The divorce had two rather unpleasant effects on my worldview: the first came from the fact that the co-worker was a woman who had affairs with men in the company in exchange for completing some of her work. Thus, I started disliking things associated with female sexuality, such as makeup, fashion, etc, and also affected my perception of women in general. The second effect was that I became deeply pessimistic about relationships. Upbringing aside, I have always been the romantic and sentimental sort, so it wasn’t that I repudiated the concept of love or didn’t feel it, I just didn’t think the chances of making one work was enough to put in the effort. Also, what my father did in itself was such a betrayal of my mother and I, and had unpleasant consequences for us, that when intimacy outside of an established relationship is mentioned, I associate it with betrayal.
Until recently, my Chinese upper-middle class sense of dating involved having meals and holding hands and getting to know someone through years, perhaps even a decade. I at least saw people moving in together, but it was for the two people gradually compromising with one another until they were one unit, ending in marriage.
From high school into undergrad and a master’s degree, my immediate circle were also other Asian immigrant children, who as of now have either married the first person they dated, or never dated. I was also very studious and wasn’t really in touch with mainstream culture – the things I do follow you can see from the rest of the blog, which aren’t exactly great places for learning this kind of thing. The only time I dated for 10+ years since my parents divorce was in undergrad, and the guy broke up with me after a month of pretty chaste interaction. Given my idea of relationships at the time, the breakup made no sense, but because nothing much happened, it didn’t ultimately change my concepts.
When I got to LA to do my PhD, however, I met a department full of queers and anarchists, and moreover they were Americans who were predominantly not immigrants. My housemate is a fellow grad student. She believes in the freedom to have sex with people other than her main partner but her partner did not, leading her to hide her hookups from him. This triggered a lot of issues with my parents and bothered me a great deal. She has a new long-distance partner who is also not entirely on board with open relationships, however at least tolerates them with some discomfort.
Another example is a mutual friend who is a lesbian and hiding her sexual orientation from her parents. Although largely monogamous, she has been in threesomes, believes in having sex very early in dating, using the quality of sex as a microcosm of the relationship, and her recurring definition of a date has to involve at least kissing.
I have disagreed with and have been bothered by how my friends live their lives, especially when they are hurting someone that in my view they are supposed to care about. However neither are malicious nor vengeful; they tend to have big hearts, are very responsible to their families, friends, and school work, and also thought through their ethics (more on this in the next post). I could either believe them to be bad people, or to believe issues I have with their behaviour aren’t that much of an issue. I’ve been trying to work on the latter.
When I got to LA, enough time had lapsed since my parents’ divorce where I was ready to believe I could find someone and establish a relationship. Having not really thought about it in practical terms and being rather sheltered, it wasn’t that I disapproved of non-conventional relationships, but that I couldn’t even conceive that they existed.
For example, I didn’t really know what “friends with benefits” was til a couple of years ago. My friends here still have goals of finding an emotionally devoted companion, so I also couldn’t conceive of dating someone long-term while knowing they are incompatible. I had wanted to be single, or married and monogamous, but could not conceive of wanting to be a swinging bachelor(ette) for one’s whole life, or conceive of having an open marriage. All of these formations appeared in 3 relationships I had in the past few years.
The experience that emphatically started all of this shock and self-questioning was a Korean man I dated long distance (mentioned here when talking about the unexpected entanglements we still have from history). A couple of months into our interaction, he told me that he was descended from a ancient royal lineage and his parents expected him to produce pure-blooded Korean children from a legitimately married wife. So, at some point he would have to break up with me and marry a Korean woman. First, I was deeply offended by the race factor (and I couldn’t even conceive that Chinese and Koreans were different races, even if races were a thing to begin with). Second, it was hard not to think of it as an insult that I was good for the short term but not long term.
I could handle it if doubts of my long-term suitability was a result of not knowing me well, but in this case the possibility of it being long-term was close to 0% and due to a factor I couldn’t change. I didn’t think that I could be treated fairly with a predetermined verdict, nor could I act naturally with this hanging over my head. I was angry, sad, and confused, and it took me a good week to recover. The Korean man also had mental health issues, and by then he had also irrecoverably spiraled into depression. He sent an email saying he was sorry but he had no control over his issues, and I never really heard from him again. This experience has left me heartbroken to this day.
The second recent relationship I had was with a fellow grad student who is also an international student, but not Asian. He is bisexual and had recently ended a long-term relationship with a man, but realized he was now more attracted to women. As this was new to him, he wanted to date around, me being one partner among many. I was apprehensive about this, but felt as though I didn’t quite do justice to the Korean man because I was too concerned about the form of the relationship over the person.
The relationship lasted several months due to the following issues: first, he accepted it natural that I should be the one to “loosen up” and found my adherence to “ancient morals” incomprehensible. He also believed that he would need to have casual sex after marriage. At some point I couldn’t keep compromising, and he also felt pressured every time I brought up my discomfort with his dating practices. Second, related to the first, was that he believed that in a relationship people should look after their own interests, whereas I believed that even in casual dating there should be some effort to learn about and cater to the needs of one’s partner.
Third, his sexuality and identity were also in flux, and was often distraught when his other dates didn’t go well (eg sometimes on a weekly basis women online would accuse of him being gay in actuality, or made fun of his foreign language name). In these moments he would need my help and even showed up unannounced at my home. So, I found myself in a dilemma; I did genuinely cared about him, however I couldn’t genuinely comfort him if what I really believed was that he wouldn’t have any of these problems with insulting dates had we been monogamous. Moreover, I felt like it wasn’t fair to be his go-to person for resolving any and all of his dating issues if was just (unwillingly) only one of all his partners. Even ancient imperial concubines had it better, I thought – if I had the primary duties of a first wife, then I should also have the privileges. At the end of the relationship he revealed that he had dated 25 other women in the months that we were together (not counting the men, who actually I had no problems with).
Some years ago, I had a big crush on someone in one of my classes. I never said anything at the time, though we became friends, and feelings abated. He would fall into the camp of friends who have never dated, and I just assume he wasn’t interested at all. Last year we were in the same city and hung out a lot, and I started to develop feelings for him again. I asked him to stay the night, but he said that because he needed to drop off his car before morning, he could not, but would if the circumstances were different. I knew from being friends with him that he was interested in intimacy, but not in having a girlfriend or marriage, and generally believed marriage and all social categories to be constraints. I have the feeling that we are supposed to consummate this relationship next time the “circumstances” are aligned, however I would be dissatisfied with intimacy without some form of dating-like activity. If there is none, I would rather not find out the hard way by being used and then tossed aside (one thing I am sure about is that sex for the sake of release is not for me. For me, attraction is predicated upon liking the person, and sex has to contain some affection for enjoyment).
Unfortunately I don’t think this is the kind of relationship where I can be up front and ask what is supposed to happen next, since I get the impression that people involved in casual relationships are in them precisely because they don’t want the pressure of thinking about the future. In addition, asking would make me appear decidedly un-casual about it and possibly rock the boat. So, my current struggles are not only with not getting the relationship I want, but being in a form of relationship where I don’t even feel I can ask about what kind of relationship I’m getting.
And so, I found myself having to readjust again – and getting the sense that every time I’ve adjusted to a new concept, I would be met with another one beyond my new threshold of acceptance. After I had reconciled that short term relationships with one person was okay, I was faced with the demand to be in an open relationship; after I had sorted through the nuances of that (next post), I was faced with a relationship that didn’t involve dating at all. Part of me is extremely tired and I’m approaching the point of wanting to completely abstain for the rest of my life again. Before I decide to do that, I had to sort it all out here.