feb. 14 — it's just casual, ma

While sex remains a taboo topic in many Filipino households, the emphasis of members of Generation Z on sexual freedom and exploration has given way to their widespread engagement in casual sex. This essay examines the cultural milieu that led to the normalization of hooking up and how its individualistic norms are core contributors to both positive and negative outcomes in dating.

To mitigate these costs, I discuss an approach to broaching sexual ethics with youths that acknowledges our desires and their risks while cultivating a sensibility for the needs and boundaries of our partners.

What is casual sex?

Casual sex is best described in contrast to relational sex, which is practiced in the context of a committed relationship. The relationship casual sex operates in can take different forms shown below, which can range from a one-night stand to a more intimate friends with benefits situation.

Although these differ in terms of the amount of interaction between partners outside of sex, they all share the absence of an expressed expectation of commitment. Throughout this essay, I also use the term ‘hook-up’ to refer to a casual encounter.

Today, casual sex is a part of the normative social script — or knowledge of what is culturally expected — on college campuses, with research suggesting that students are as likely to hook up as they are to go on a traditional date. Many pursue casual sex primarily for physical pleasure, while others are motivated to engage in it to fulfill emotional needs for companionship or validation.

Contrary to the common claim that these encounters have ‘no strings attached’, people may treat a hook-up as a gateway to a relationship, allowing one to gauge compatibility with prospective partners. In their study on the dating scripts of American university students, England et al. found that 47% of women and 36% of men expressed the interest to start a long-term relationship with their hook-up partner. They note that while few hook-ups actually develop into such, students who form committed, monogamous relationships typically do so after a string of casual encounters.

In the Philippines, trends show a growing awareness and acceptance of various forms of sexual expression, including different sexual orientations, gender identities, and casual arrangements. The results of the 2021 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality (YAFS) study show that 19% of young men and 6% of young women aged 15-24 have engaged with multiple sexual partners, higher by 2 and 4 percent respectively than figures reported in the 2002 YAFS. Moreover, the study showed that 7.3% of Filipino youths already engaged in casual sex and 3.5% have had a fuck buddy experience.

A brief history of hook-up culture

What could explain the increase in casual sex among Gen Z and Millennials compared to their Generation X counterparts? 

To understand the rise of hook-up culture, we must first examine the historical context of the sexual revolution during the 1960s and 1970s. This period was characterized by a major shift in attitudes towards sex, of questioning taboos and advocating for greater sexual freedom and liberation.

The development of the first contraceptive pill fueled the collapse of the norm of premarital abstinence in the Western World, as it allowed women to pursue higher educational attainment and participate in the labor force. Marriage, which used to be an essential part of the social script for women transitioning into adulthood, became an act to reserve for later, after one has achieved stability in both their career and romantic relationship. Consequently, sex was separated from reproduction.

Catalbiano et al. summarize the two prominent changes in the collective psyche that accompanied this period:

...an increased emphasis placed on individual autonomy, including in sexual lifestyle, and the rejection of social control and rules (operated by the family, the church, the state, or other social institutions). Thus, premarital and extramarital sexual intercourse, extramarital fertility, and homosexual relationships have become more and more publicly disclosed and institutionalized.

A parallel shift occurred locally as the grip of Western influence held strong in Filipino culture. Whereas the traditional dalagang Pilipina was idealized for being mahinhin (shy, modest) and pakipot (hard to get) towards admirers, rapid modernization and the liberalization of mass media led many to question the passive role of women in the dating process. Urban areas became centers of social change where new ideas and sexual lifestyles were embraced more readily. 

The Philippine sexual revolution was not met without resistance, however. To this day, traditional values and religious beliefs hold significant influence, particularly in more conservative areas and among older generations. Furthermore, today’s youths may be the grandchildren of the main actors of this revolution—but their forebears witnessed the emergence of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, which led to increased awareness of the risks associated with unprotected sex. Thus, Gen X individuals tend to have a more cautious and pragmatic approach to sex. 

In contrast, Millenial and Gen Z individuals exhibit more confidence in their ability to manage risks associated with sex due to the abundance of information on sex accessible through their barkada or friend groups, the internet, and sex education curricula offered by their schools. This could arguably be viewed as overconfidence, with the 2021 YAFS results showing that Filipino youth awareness of HIV/AIDS is strikingly at an all-time low, suffering a 19-percentage point drop from 1994 when awareness stood at 95%.

Heldman and Wade acknowledge the role of risk perceptions in their review of hook-up research:

In sum, it is possible that hook-up culture would have emerged earlier in the wake of the Women’s Movement and the sexual revolution, but that the HIV/AIDS epidemic had a dampening effect...accordingly, decrease in the perception of risk and a growing confidence in the ability to limit risk may have paved the way for hook-up culture.

They further hypothesize that hook-up culture on American college campuses emerged in the 1990s, citing a variety of other factors from changes in students’ gender distribution, access to pornography, and the nature of alcohol use.

We know little of the exact timing of this phenomenon in the Philippines. However, in the 2010s, another structural factor was crucial in shaping the sexual scripts of young adults: online dating.

Liberated or miserable?

A 2022 survey commissioned by Bumble shows that 42% of Filipinos have used a dating app in the past year. Where once, the norm was meeting a sexual or romantic partner through work, family connections, or other shared communities, now, kickstarting dating happens alone with one’s phone screen: Swipe right on a profile if interested, swipe left if not. 

The swipe model facilitates hook-ups on demand by solving the issue of proximity while preserving the privacy of your dating life. Apps like Tinder, Bumble, and Grindr show seemingly endless options of singles with similar preferences for age, hobbies, or gender identity.

Your next sexual or romantic encounter could be “unburdened and free from the prying gazes of parents, teachers, church leaders, or an overly curious government,” as columnist Christine Emba writes in her book Rethinking Sex: A Provocation.

There are clear benefits to this privatization of sex, as apps enable women and sexual minorities to seek connection with less fear and shame. However, Emba points out that unbridled freedom in the absence of mediating institutions has its dangers. Your offline world may not necessarily collide with those of your matches, so no one can hold you to account for your behaviors:

You can be rude, you can be crude, you can ghost, and no one in your circle of actual acquaintances will ever know unless you choose to tell them. No one can see your messages or your dick pics. No one will know what you get up to when (or if) you do meet up.

Emba’s concerns are rooted in the double-edged norms of an individualistic approach to sex. Individualism champions the pursuit of personal desires at the expense of a sense of shared accountability.

Casual sex affords one greater freedom to explore their sexual proclivities or pursue educational and career goals without being hindered by the constraints of a committed relationship; on the other hand, when hooking up, one is not expected to communicate their intentions with the relationship, share their sexual health histories, or shield their partner from hurt or rejection should they lose interest down the line.

As shown below, such norms lead to a variety of negative outcomes that disproportionately affect women, ranging from relationship ambiguity to victimization and coercion.

One example would be romantic exploitation, or taking advantage of a partner’s romantic interest to keep a casual relationship going. The norm of limited accountability diminishes incentives for the less interested individual to consider the feelings of their partner. Moreover, perceiving the hook-up as a mere vehicle for pursuing one’s personal goals allows one to continue the sexual relationship with relative impunity. For the exploited party, this often leads to feelings of having been used, anger, and betrayal, due to the lack of honest communication about their partner’s true intentions.

Ultimately, online dating in the age of hook-up culture can often prove to be lonely and alienating. In their paper entitled The Uncertainty of Marketised Love, Bandinelli and Gandini write:

Sociologically, the rise of dating apps is to be understood as part of a cultural logic whereby love is no longer primarily organized by social and economic institutions, but rather left to the free choice of individuals.  This condition, however ‘liberating’ to a certain extent, is also a source of suffering for the subject, who is burdened with the responsibility of picking the best possible partner, and has only his or herself to blame if this endeavor fails.  We are supposed to make a choice following our emotions, but there is no institution that regulates and organizes this process, and emotions are not always as clear and stable as one may wish.

As Emba argues in Rethinking Sex, perhaps what we need is more mediation, interdependence, and structure in our dating practices to counteract the negative impact of individualism.

The growing openness of Gen Z to new, diverse perspectives on sex has long challenged the traditional Filipino family’s role in regulating sexual behavior. Would it be beneficial, if rather uncomfortable, to reinstate that function as to raise a more sexually responsible generation?

Let’s talk about (ethical) sex

Although Christine Emba problematizes the structurelessness of casual sex, the recommendations she provides by the end of the book are limited largely to the level of the individual. She proposes a sexual ethic grounded in values such as mutual concern, self-knowledge, and radical empathy, and encourages readers to take responsibility for ambiguous interactions in their dating lives. 

For change to happen on a systemic scale, however, parents and educators must also be proactive in broaching the topic of sexual ethics with youths. So, how do we talk about sex in our households?  

To answer this question, Australian researcher Moira Carmody interviewed young people about their needs in relation to sex education. She found that most curricula on sexual violence prevention focused exclusively on the dangers of sex and de-emphasized the role of pleasure.

“Rarely were young people provided with a range of navigation tools by families or schools to assist them in negotiating the complex and often confusing emotional beginnings to their sexual lives,” she wrote. This is echoed in the Philippine context, where the influence of Catholicism often reduces female sexuality to the sole purpose of producing offspring, rejecting notions of pleasurable sex beyond this context as “unacceptable and immoral”.

From her research, Carmody developed the Sex & Ethics Violence Prevention program, which aims to “reduce unwanted and pressured sex between people known to each other, but not at the expense of the positive experiences sex can provide.”

It covers a range of topics from various cultural perspectives on intimacy, negotiating conflicting desires, and even being an ethical bystander in response to sexual violence. Throughout the six-week program, participants are given scenarios that allow them to reflect on real-life experiences, identify what their consequences might be, and imagine alternative possibilities to relating intimately in those situations.

These opportunities for reflexivity are lost when schools and families simply resort to proscribing constraints on sexual behavior. Vera-Gray summarizes the ethos of the Sex & Ethics program in her review of Carmody’s book:

It is not intended to establish the borders of acceptable or unacceptable desires or practices – giving young people hard and fast rules – rather it is concerned with determining the conditions for ethical exploration, inviting young people to apply this exploration to their sexual decision-making.

One starting point is to create a home environment where it is accepted to talk about sex and relationships. In the same vein of Carmody’s prompts for reflection, parents can draw on external cues, such as current affairs, songs, and movies to start conversations and ask open-ended questions such as “what do you think you would do in that situation?”

This also helps youths become careful consumers of popular culture, as reflections such as these can equip them to understand the sociocultural contexts that influence sexual scripts. From there, parents can also integrate their own perspectives and value orientations in explaining their answers to the same questions.

This active exchange of ideas can serve as the foundation for more thoughtfulness in decision-making surrounding sex. By drawing on the experiences of past generations, today’s youths can define what real sexual liberation looks like for them, set and enforce boundaries, and with attention and care, mitigate risk where they can.

Casual sex is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean we ought to settle for the individualistic status quo it operates in now. Hook-up culture has much room to shift and evolve, as all cultures do—and that change starts with having honest conversations and rethinking the ways we relate to each other today.

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