It took me until third year – but coming back to Sussex University after the Christmas holidays, I had a sudden realisation. No, not that I should actually wash my sheets more than once a month, nor that it was time to stop going to the pub at 11am on a Tuesday just because I could. I realised that sleeping around wasn’t making me happy – in fact, it was making me so miserable, it was time to stop.
It was a text from a guy I’d been sleeping with on-and-off for months that had done it. Six days ago I’d said him a message asking if he wanted to grab dinner – not an unreasonable request, I’d thought, for someone who knew my vagina intimately. His reply had taken 144 hours and bore no relation to what I’d asked. Instead, he’d responded with only two words: ‘come over’. There wasn’t even a kiss on the end. Or a question mark.
It was actually really hurtful. I’d shared some really intimate moments with this guy – both physical and emotional – and it took him six days to get back to me?
This wasn’t unusual behaviour on his part. And whilst I’d always thought his previous nonchalance was a bit shitty, I’d also always reasoned that I wasn’t allowed to complain about it. He wasn’t my boyfriend and we’d both agreed that we were going to keep things casual. Besides, I would spend hours reasoning to myself, keeping it casual meant I wasn’t tied down to anyone and I was free to do what I wanted. I was in charge. I was making the rules. I was having fun. Except that – in this, my moment of realisation – it wasn’t really fun anymore, was it? It was actually really hurtful. I’d shared some really intimate moments with this guy – both physical and emotional – and it took him six days to get back to me? He certainly didn’t respect me – probably, didn’t even give a shit about me – and, as much as I’d spent the last six months denying it, his behaviour made me feel even worse about myself.
So I wasn’t surprised to read about research from Syracuse and Brown Universities in the USA suggesting that, despite what a lot of us project, sleeping around at university often leaves girls feeling anxious and miserable. The study of nearly 500 hundred uni students found that women who have casual sex on campus are more likely to feel depressed compared to people in romantic relationships. Hook-up behaviour during college was positively correlated with experiencing clinically significant depression symptoms,’ explained a spokesperson for the research team. ‘Sex in the context of romantic relationships was not correlated with depression. There are several reasons why hooking up, but not romantic sex, may be associated with poor mental health among women. These include unfavourable attitudes toward sex outside of committed relationships, risk of acquiring a negative reputation, failure for the hook-up to transition to a romantic relationship, sexually unsatisfying hook-ups, and peer pressure or verbal coercion from partners to go further sexually than they want.
It would be easy to dismiss this report as slut-shaming wrapped up in an academic manifesto – and, believe me, I’m the last person who wants to wade into judging people for sleeping around because I’ve so been there – but, seeing as I have most definitely been there, the findings kind of make sense. And they’re problematic because, I don’t know f you’ve heard, but casual sex is kind of a ‘thing’ at university.
I began to realise first year of uni wasn’t about settling down: it was about shagging around. As much as possible.
When I first got to Sussex, I was in a relationship that I’d been in for a little bit over a year. But despite all my pre-first year promises to the contrary, within weeks of me moving away we’d broken up, and I was single. In the haze of £2 sambuca shots and snogging sessions on the walk home from some shitty club though, it didn’t seem to matter. In my naivety – me, never having had sex out of a relationship before – it seemed like there were plenty of opportunities to meet someone new. But after a few months of awkward hungover morning conversations and avoiding people who’d seen you naked the night before at lectures I began to realise first year of uni wasn’t about settling down: it was about shagging around. As much as possible.
But a few crushing disappointments later, I’d started to grow a thick skin and get used to the idea. What had been put into motion by a bit of peer pressure and the fact that guys my own age didn’t want to settle down suddenly felt like a lifestyle choice I was making. ‘Casual sex is important for our sexual development,’ I’d say to friends – as if intellectualising my behaviour to excuse it. The arguments – both amongst friends and in my head – continued: How was I going to demand better sex if I’d only been with a couple of guys? How would I know what I wanted? And, anyway, my mother’s generation fought for sexual autonomy and now I had it!’ It probably also helped that casual sex and excessive drinking seemed to go remarkably – scarily – well together, too.
Looking back on it I’m sure my staunchly anti-relationship status was also aided by the fact that sleeping around had become a bit of a competitive sport in my friendship group. Nights out were designated for sex-chat one-upmanship and if you didn’t have some embarrassing/hilarious/terrifying sexual anecdote to share you’d feel a little bit left out. There were even times when I’d be in the middle of sex with a guy when I’d be thinking about how I was going to tell my mates about it the next day. That tells you something about how detached from the actual act of sex I’d become.
It all made admitting that actually I wasn’t having much fun, that my behavior wasn’t my decision and I’d actually quite like to be in a relationship with any number of the boys I was shagging, near-impossible to admit. Whenever I’d have such a thought I’d feel like I was letting down my liberated, university-educated point of view. Even when, mid second year, I did actually meet a guy who said he wanted to go out with me, I’d built up such a wall that I refused to even consider a proper relationship as an option.
Tormented by the strife, worry and angst I’d put into three years of waiting for texts and making awkward conversation the morning I didn’t trust myself to have sex. Let alone a relationship.
In a way, that six-day wait for a text in third year saved me. I realized my behavior had to stop. But it didn’t help the emotional damage I’d done myself. In the aftermath, I was so jaded and generally pissed off with men that the idea of having one anywhere near me for anything other than polite conversation made me hate myself. As a result I was celibate for a year after I graduated. Tormented by the strife, worry and angst I’d put into three years of waiting for texts and making awkward conversation the morning after had finally cracked: I didn’t trust myself to have sex. Let alone a relationship.
It took having sex with a friend of mine who I loved and trusted implicitly to eventually break my bout of celibacy and start the long and arduous task of re-learning how I actually wanted my sex life to look like.
So here is where I am now – casual, no-strings attached sex isn’t something I go near. You might be able to handle it but I’ve learnt my lesson – and it’s that I don’t think you can expect to sleep around and come out of it totally emotionally unscathed. I don’t know any girl who is totally ok when a guy sleeps with her and doesn’t phone her back. Do you? Honestly?
Don’t get me wrong, the occasional casual encounter still happens (usually when wine is involved), but at least now I know what I actually want when I have sex with a guy – fun, of course, but respect. And a response to a text message in less than six days.'
Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophiecullinane
Photograph: Rory DCS
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.