What you need to know:
- The most common reason given is how easy it is to meet people looking for casual sex on dating apps.
- Some term it the feminist awakening.
- Others say their choices are a result of living in a society that accepts, encourages even, casual relations.
It’s Friday afternoon when I first meet 28-year-old Donna. She is dressed in a conservative loose-fitting, black dress, her braided hair piled atop her head.
When we speak, she is taking a small break from her auditing job. At 5pm, as the rest of the city will be making a beeline for the coffee houses and clubs that now have a new lease of life in the newly-loosened Covid-19 directives, Donna will text her regular hookup. A man she has been having casual relations with for months now, but is not dating.
“Regular hookup?” I am taken aback. Going in, I had imagined the life of a woman who has casual sex to entail a string of meaningless one night stands, a different man every time. I was wrong. Not according to Donna.
Apparently, when it comes to relationships today, exclusive and casual are not mutually exclusive. She chuckles as she remembers older times.
“Before I began hanging out with him, I tried all that, got with men I was just getting to know. I was hooking up with two guys at one point,” she says. Did the two men know what was happening? She nods yes.
“That is the point of casual hookups. You don’t bring your baggage and there are no emotional entanglements,” she says.
She knows what is likely to happen tonight. Her hookup will be free as he is most Friday evenings. He will ask her to come over. She will go to his house where the evening will comprise small talk, a little TV and then sex. Then she will go back to her house.
I want to know why she prefers this casual arrangement. She is a beautiful young woman. Doesn’t she want a boyfriend who is hers? When I ask, I am waiting for her to rant about how there are no good men left or how no Kenyan man wants to commit anymore. Instead, she tells me about how the pros of her decision outweigh the cons.
“For now, I am getting my physical needs met without the drama that comes with relationships. Right now, I am focused on growing in my career. These are my best years to do that,” she says.
What if she were in a better place in her career? Would she date this man she spends one or two evenings with every week? “Honestly, no. He is just a body. I can’t even imagine going on a date with him,” she says.
Times Have Changed
It’s clear that times have changed, so have perceptions and expectations of dating. Young people are dating more casually, cohabiting more easily and marrying much later. In a bid to find out whether it’s all out of laziness towards courtship or if there are deeper issues, we conduct a dipstick survey on the sexual habits of the younger Kenyan woman. We survey 18 women all aged between 24 and 30.
When asked how many prefer more solid relationships now, only nine answer in the affirmative. At this point in their lives, seven reveal they prefer more casual, emotionless relations while two are involved in cross generational, transactional arrangements with older men. In their past, three women have had sex with men whose name they did not know.
They give a myriad of reasons for their choices. The most common reason given is how easy it is to meet people looking for casual sex on dating apps. Some term it the feminist awakening, others say their choices are a result of living in a society that accepts, encourages even, casual relations. One woman says it’s thanks to easy availability of birth control.
Who is to blame? I pose to Lillian Muthoni, 28, one of the women who reveal she is currently in casual situations.
“Why are you asking who is to blame as if it’s a bad thing? I wouldn’t use the word blame. I have casual sex because it’s an option,” she says.
Like Donna, she lets on that at the moment her priority is growing her business. She is a makeup artist with a half a dozen younger women working under her. She is afraid that getting into a regular relationship demanding of her time, would slow down her business.
Hanna Rosin in her book The End of Men gets Muthoni’s point of view. She writes that getting into casual sexual arrangements is a strategy for today’s ambitious, upwardly mobile women. With these arrangements, they get the company of men while still focusing most of their energy on their academic and career pursuits, which they consider more important.
We have all heard that women want to get married and men will look for every opportunity to wiggle out of a commitment. Therefore, we assume that casual sex is an agenda driven by men and women are unwilling participants. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Muthoni says. “Not right now.”
How do her ‘relationships’ work? Her dating life is made up of a series of short flings, each lasting less than a month. She has initiated a fair share of them. None of these ‘relationships’ are given titles. That would be weak and clingy, she says. Currently, on and off, she ‘hangs out’ with an ex-boyfriend.
“We dated for a few months, three I think, while in college and realised the best thing about our relationship was the physical part. So, we threw the relationship out and kept this part,” she says.
Not everyone’s cup of coffee?
While casual sex has become a welcome alternative to traditional dating for a section of young Kenyan women, there are still those for whom it’s unfathomable. Like wearing a raincoat on a hot day.
Not too long ago, Rebecca Limo, now 27, had her life figured out. She would have one or two boyfriends who would adore her before meeting the man who would wife her and with whom she would have a happily ever after. Sex for her was going to be a respectful, patient experience happening in the confines of a solid relationship.
Then she got to university and she seemed like the only one looking for a traditional relationship. Everyone else was just hooking up and shacking up.
When she found that she couldn’t have a solid relationship, she convinced herself she didn’t want it and also settled into casual arrangements. She thought this pattern would break once out in the real world.
“It has been four years since campus and I have not had a serious relationship,” she says.
These casual arrangements are destroying her. For this marketer, the instant she has sex with a man, the power balance is tipped. She begins obsessing about what she is missing out on, what might have been and whether this could grow into something more.
“I go on dating apps and I always tick the looking for a relationship box, but I end up in casual relationships,” she says.
Science agrees that casual relationships are not for everyone. Recent research by Zhana Vrangalova, an associate professor of psychology at New York University which followed the lives of 527 undergraduate students, found that not all people who have casual sex have a positive experience. Only those who went in seeking enjoyment and to learn more about their sexuality. Those who got into a ‘relationship’ with someone while intoxicated, or because that was what they thought they needed to do to keep someone they liked around, were destroyed by the experience. If these study findings are anything to go by, engaging in a casual relationship while hoping something more will come out of it is a recipe for hurt and disappointment.
M Chemutai, 27, disagrees with these findings. Having been in a series of casual sexual situations, she says people only get hurt when they do not follow the rules.
“Nobody will get hurt if you are both honest and agree that the relations are purely physical. You also need to set boundaries. Things like going out on dates or spending nights in each other’s houses will result in tears,” she says.
What this means for traditional relationships
Listening to these stories, one cannot help but wonder the impact beliefs like this have on the fight against sexual violence. A little research shows that the impact is not good. A 2015 study by Wayne State University in the US showed that more cases of casual sex lead to an increase in sexual violence against women. According to these findings, sexual violence is more likely to happen on a casual date than as an attack from a stranger.
If casual dating is now an option and participants seem to be reaping positive benefits, what does this mean for traditional dating? Is it dying? Maybe not.
It is important to note that while most of the women we spoke to, who have no qualms engaging in casual sex, said these relationships were working at the moment, looking at the future into their late 30s and early 40s, most of them admitted a desire to get into a more stable lifestyle.
They acknowledge that while casual sex is getting them through their 20s, it is not a meaningful end goal.