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Is it OK for a woman to engage in casual sex?

A woman who recently ended a relationship with a substance abuser asks if it’s OK for her to date and engage in casual sex. Dr. Gail Saltz explains how to deal with people's feelings and other consequences.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Q. After reading your column about the married sociopath, I got to thinking about my situation. I am a single independent woman who just got out of a five-year relationship with a substance abuser. I have been dating a lot. I tell these men up front that I am not looking for a serious relationship right now. But I have needs like everyone else. If a nice and attractive guy is willing to go all the way on the first date and I have no expectations of pursuing a long-term relationship with him, is it so wrong to indulge in casual sex? (I take all the necessary precautions.)

I understand that society would say no, but I can’t help thinking that, as a single woman with no expectations, I am entitled to have some fun. The only problem I can think of, besides the need to screen out the psychos, is the negative effect on my reputation, which could possibly hurt me when I decide to finally search for my eternal mate.

A. I’ll start by noting that there there are distinct differences between you and the sociopath. Because you are not married, you are not betraying a spouse who will be devastated upon discovering such behavior. Furthermore, the sociopath enjoyed seducing and dumping women with no regard for their feelings.

If you choose to behave as you have described, you should be completely clear with the men you date that you are thoroughly uninterested in any kind of commitment. In other words, do not lead them on or take advantage of their feelings.

For many people, both women and men, sex signals at least the potential for emotional involvement. So you need to emphasize that you don’t want any of this. If these men are on the same page — or even are relieved they get to sleep with you, no strings attached — that’s fine.

Otherwise, these men might assume there is a potential future. So you need to inform them that you are not seeking a future at all, but merely having fun playing the field — and that you consider sex with them enjoyable, but by no means a prelude to a relationship.

I advocate full disclosure.

This holds for men and women both. Though there might be plenty of people who would be glad to be offered no-strings sex, there are many others who want something more lasting. There is no way to know ahead of time whether someone will or won’t develop feelings. You don’t want to lead somebody on, so you must make it perfectly clear that you are not interested in a permanent relationship.

Some people aren’t able to have sex without some emotional attachment. You might, for example, find that casual sex is empty and unsatisfying, and you might as well masturbate. There is certainly nothing wrong with that when it comes to satisfying sexual needs.

Or you might unwittingly find yourself developing stronger feelings than you thought — but you have already set up a situation that is merely short-term. So be honest with yourself about whether this kind of lifestyle really is workable for you.

Some women find that, by divorcing the act from the intimacy, they have problems later in connecting the two. I see women for whom sex is purely mechanical and devoid of feeling. Basically, the reason for sleeping together is “We both have genitals.”

Then, when they find someone they do feel emotional intimacy with, they can’t muster any sexual attraction. This is an unfortunate situation. So you should have some positive feelings toward these guys. If you find that you are in fact looking for something deeper — or it presents itself unexpectedly — I would urge you to be open to that.

I also urge you to be honest with yourself. I hear you saying “I don’t want to go years without having sex,” which is fine. On the other hand, if you find you have an addictive or compulsive quality to your behavior, and you are driven to sleep with multiple partners frequently, you should consider counseling.

As you know, you must protect yourself against danger and disease. As for your reputation — well, that is a risk you run, especially if you live in a small community.

If you do meet someone you are interested in for the long haul, and he finds out you’ve slept with every man in sight, be prepared for him to bow out. Fair or unfair, it is simply a reality that promiscuity is frowned upon. If you are playing the field, the way to avoid this is to play in a distant field rather than a close one.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: If you want no-strings sex, you should fully disclose your intentions so as not to hurt others.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .