When I moved back to Delhi after graduate school, I finally wanted to pay attention to the parts of my adult life that had taken a backseat during the pandemic. I felt sure of the two things I needed the most—an inviting home and a colourful sex life. My hope for my new house was that if I had spent enough time in my kitchen brewing coffee and on my walls plastering it with dried-up flowers, bought as spontaneous gestures of love, my home would begin to smell of familiarity. I carefully curated corners of my house with unironic art and bought a sprawling lilac couch for my living room. Whatever adequately represented who I was made it through the cut, and I let it sediment in my bare apartment. In contrast to the warmth in my home, not a lot of serious thought went into setting up my Hinge profile. After gaining the quick approval of a couple of girlfriends, I began dating exhaustively.
There were midnight walks and bike rides, followed by catchy names that could spark an instant connection in case any of these men had to be recounted at a moment’s notice amongst girlfriends. There was the two-second boy, the lizard guy, the tired lawyer dude, the could-have-fucked-a-pillow-and-not-known-the-difference-boy — I tried to be innovative; evidently, I sometimes failed. These casual dates would often lead to casual sex. The following morning, I would leave the houses of my partners mostly feeling drained and dissatisfied. For the most part, this was not for the lack of sexual chemistry but for how often my sexual partners had been completely out of tune with my body. Despite being physically present, they always somehow felt emotionally absent. Most of my partners would stay the night, but that barely made any difference. Perhaps it would have been easier had they left in the middle of the night; at least the hope for a shift in intimacy would not have hovered over my naked body.
Through conversations with friends who had felt similarly, I knew I could not make peace with what the casual dating scene had to offer. The two seconds fuck and leave, the sparseness of conversations around sexual satisfaction and the ghosting felt like the raw end of a deal I had never consented to. I quickly found myself in a place in life where I neither wanted to jump into a long-term monogamous relationship nor did I want meaningless “casual sex” anymore. When I think of casual relationships, I heavily borrow from the cultural parlance that surrounds them. These relationships are non-committal and evade a deep sense of responsibility to the other. Casual relationships, by definition, in their “casualness”, involve little to no strings attached. From one-night stands, fuck buddies, friends with benefits, and booty calls, the arrangements of casual sex are as vibrant as sex itself. At the time, casual sex had felt liberating because it had given me the space to experiment with the voraciousness of my sexual appetite. However, the few times that I did receive care in them, I realised it had totally caught me off guard. It had almost felt jarring because of how unfamiliar it was in my former sexual encounters.
A friend had shared Ella Dawson’s essay, “Stop Calling It ‘Casual Sex” which perfectly articulated what I was feeling in this phase of my life. Dawson questions the foundation of casual sex which is had with the intention that “it is not supposed to matter.” Care which is a given in committed relationships has always felt like a lot to ask for in a casual relationship. It made me wonder if non-committal relationships like situationships and my need for nurture were mutually exclusive concepts.
Whenever my romantic relationships have fallen short, I have always turned to my friendships with the women in my life for answers. These friendships have always refused to fall within conventional labels — they have been overtly erotic, exquisitely romantic, and often sexual. Care, which has been sparse in my sexual encounters with men, has been the overwhelming theme of my friendships. The women in my life have nurtured me in ways that I can only dream of and hope for in a potential sexual partner. My friends have made sure that I reach home safely after a night out, check in with me regularly and even more so when I don’t seem like myself. They have had unwavering faith in my ability to get my shit together even when I thought I couldn’t. Their care is not a placeholder but has set the standard of the ways in which I expect my partners to show up just as my girlfriends had. It made care seem like a very real and reasonable possibility in the glow of which I had truly felt nourished.
I also look to my roommate and the relationship that she shares with her plants to understand the ordinary nature of care. She adores them— she rubs oil on them gently with a washcloth in a motion delicate and soft that not a spot is left untouched by her care. She thinks that this will protect them from unwanted pests. I’ve even caught her speaking to them in hushed tones because she believes it will lead to their longevity. She is uncompromising in her acts of care, even if they might be slightly whacky, unheard of, or might not even lead to the results she hopes for. But, in that moment she truly believes with her whole heart that is what they need. Similarly, in casual relationships, acts of care allow us to fulfill each other’s needs so that a trusting meaningful relationship can be built outside of the willingness to commit. The undefined nature of casual relationships itself offers redeeming possibilities to build healthy relationships outside of the structure of monogamy. This elasticity gives us the room to tailor care to our and our partner’s needs which can look radically different for each of us. It allows us to be loved in as many ways as possible without having to make a choice between our need for sex or emotional intimacy.
A couple of months ago, my then-partner and I tried the Shibari knot — an ancient Japanese technique often used in bondage. As my partner interlaced this crimson velvety rope trailing it around my thighs and calves, he paused and explained with almost scientific objectivity, “Do you feel how tight it is?”, I nodded. Pointing at the small piece of rope that lay abandoned on my right ankle, he said, “The knot is supposed to unravel the moment you pull at this loose end.” Knowing that this quick release was at my disposal made me instantly feel at ease. The accessibility of opting out that I knew I had is ingrained into the fabric of BDSM. Through clear conversations and safe words, kinky sex prioritises communication in ways that not a lot of other types of relationships know how to. Situationships, friends with benefits, one-night stands and hook-ups do not exist on the fringes of the modern dating world but are equally or if not dominant modes of dating.
Often, questionable behaviour like ghosting, being dishonest or unclear about intentions or slow-fading leads to hurting people and loathing bodies in its wake.
To value care as essential to casual sex isn’t to homogenise it but what it can potentially do is make it acceptable to talk without hesitation with our sexual partners, about what works for us and what doesn’t. Conversations around casual sex and casual relationships are important because they allow us to create sustainable practices of fucking, where no strings attached sex doesn’t necessarily also have to mean sex that leaves us feeling dehumanized, spent, and worn out.
BDSM in this regard pushes the boundaries in a normative society and prioritizes consent and transparent conversations above everything else. Care in casual relationships can exist on a spectrum ranging from truthful communication to tender gestures — there is no one-size that fits all. I know some of my friends prefer that their partners spend the night, another friend likes to spend quality time with her partner outside of the hot sex they have, and some of my friends have a breakfast ritual with their booty call. I, too, have found myself similarly placed with respect to my casual dates. I like spending time with them, getting to know them and occasionally going out, all in the service of intimate, passionate, and sometimes kinky sex.
Another catastrophe of lack of care is how easily it can slip into the territory of sexual transgression. There is a fine line between sex devoid of care and sex that is unpleasant. My point in talking about this is any sex where performance takes precedence resulting in a partner being treated as an object, is sex that is being had on an extremely slippery slope. In sexual encounters where care and consent are absent, there is often a shared custody of dehumanisation. In a lot of ways, care and consent can not only work in collaboration but care can also act in the service of consent. There is nothing sexier than a partner willing to understand and talk about your kinks, is tuned into your body to ensure that you are truly present and is interested in offering aftercare. Care under no circumstances replaces consent but works towards creating intimate and safe spaces where these conversations can be had with ease.
Communicating our innermost desires and our needs in casual sex can demystify our ideas about how sex can be casual and caring at the same time. Lack of care in casual relationships often stems from the anxiety of making sure that one foot is out of the door permanently. It comes from the pressure to abide by the constructs of a casual encounter, lest you get called out for seeming too attached in this who-cares-less-Russian-roulette. I have been determined to be on the losing end of this bargain and in the process, I have met some wonderful people. I have been able to talk openly with potential partners about care being one of my non-negotiables. I want good sex as much as I want to be cuddled — maybe even make breakfast together, if that means we would be treating each other as people with full lives and even fuller hearts.
When I have been vulnerable with my kind partners about my needs, I have mostly been thanked for my openness. I have sensed a palpable ease in my sex buddies being able to express this desire for care in return. This realization that care was important to me even if I was seeing people casually, also helped wean away potential partners who were unwilling to offer anything other than a quick fuck. My partners and I have subsequently been able to hold space for the ways in which we want to be loved and supported. Whether it was for my partners to call me more frequently, or be gentler during sex, the underlying security of being cared for has led to greater sexual comfort. Being able to admit hurt or articulating when we wanted different things created the space to negotiate our sexy arrangement without either of us feeling like we were being too much. We could ask for more oral sex, less penetrative sex or more time outside the bedroom if that’s what we needed. These honest conversations created a space to assume accountability to each other, not out of guilt but with a common understanding that as people our sexual appetite was as important as our deep-seated desire to be cared for.
Shatakshi has been chipping away at her New Year resolution to write more, read more! Her writing critically analyses all things gender and culture. She has been previously published in Gulmohar Quarterly, Jaggery Lit, Alipore Post and Feminism in India.