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A Playboy Conversation with Zhana Vrangalova about Casual Sex

[© Michele Serchuk 2012](http://www.serchukphoto.com)

© Michele Serchuk 2012

Casual sex, hook-up culture, sleeping around – whatever you want to call it, premarital sex is having a moment. As it loses its stigma, worrywarts warn that all of this easy-breezy sex can’t be good. What these folks don’t mention is that science seems to be down with casual sex.

A recent study by the Kinsey Institute found that casual sex certainly isn’t harmful, at least not for your mental health. That’s really good news since Millennial adults are marrying way later than their Boomer parents. With fewer folks taking the walk down the aisle into marriage, this means Millennials spend way more of their twenties having casual sex. And thus, as you might imagine, attitudes around casual sex are shifting.

So. What does all this casual sex mean for the culture? How does all this sex affect us? And how does it change our sense of ourselves?

To answer these questions, New York University adjunct professor of human sexuality Zhana Vrangalova started the Casual Sex Project. It’s an online database of user-submitted stories. She collects, curates and posts the stories as a public scientific record of one-night stands, surprise threesomes, first-time group sex encounters, blind date hookups and all those cheating spouses.

Vrangalova asks users to fill-out a questionnaire/survey. They answer basic questions about age, race, current location, education, current employment, religious affiliation, sexual orientation and number of sexual partners. The users then also tell the (often detailed) story of their casual sex encounter. It has to be one of the sexiest surveys you’ll ever come across. (No pun intended.)

The user-submitted stories range far and wide. You find tales of RenFaire group sex in a tent:

We began to disrobe and Dave asked if it was alright for him to film on his camcorder for their personal enjoyment later. I was alright with it so he got undressed and began filming as we stood and Carla took both our cocks and began to suck us off. The girl knew how to give head, and her sex talk only got me harder. She asked to be called Slut for the rest of the night, she then deep throat me and she looked Dave’s camera in the eye. Dave asked her “Do you like his dick, slut?” She smiled pulling it out saying “I love his cock down my throat my lorde!”

There are also stories like this one about a dude who had sex with his best friend’s wife. Or this one about a guy living out a fantasy with a super sexy hook-up in a pool. And there are some that don’t feature such great sex, like, this gem from a woman who met a dude in a casino bar and had sex with the wrong man after her blind date mix-up:

What happened AFTER the hookup? How did you feel about it? What are your expectations/hopes for the future with this person? How do you feel about them now?

Ok so after the hookup I left and went home. I called my friend up and said I had a great time on the date. That’s when my friend said what are you talking about. She said that her friend said I stood him up. I then asked her to describe him. She described a white guy and not a black guy. So basically the guy I had the blind date with lied to me. So I called him up and it was a wrong number. So after I felt like I was treated like some whore who just got used. I’m not sure what the future with the date holds because although it was great, he did trick me.

Intrigued by what she’s finding in her study of casual sex, Playboy sat down for an interview with Vrangalova. Not only is she a brilliant young academic, but she’s also an attractive European woman, which may be why so many of the other customers in the downtown LA coffeehouse where we met were so terribly curious about this beautiful woman talking loudly about group sex.


Why did you start the Casual Sex Project?
There’s so little honest discussion about casual sex. It gets such a bad rep. It’s seen as something that’s bad for you. Critics like to say: ‘It’s harmful—especially, for women. It’s degrading. It’s not what women naturally want—they’re being pressured into it by the culture, and they’re doing things they don’t want to do, and they’re suffering, one way or another.’

I find that view very simplistic. What I found is there is very little data or helpful public discourse around casual sex. Plus, most of the data we have pretty much comes from college students, since so much of sex research is based on the habits of college kids. As if college students are the only people hooking up, right? Sure, it happens often on college campuses—no one is denying that—but casual sex is not only happening on college campuses.

You even hear reports of astronauts doing it in the space station.
(Laughs) Exactly! Hookup culture is way bigger than college campuses. The idea was to create this platform for people to share stories, share real stories, and add more diversity to the discourse about what casual sex looks like. That’s what I got. There are over a thousand stories posted; and if you read through any random selection of ten to twenty stories you’ll see they’re very varied.

We did read a random selection—and they are. They are also, often, very sexy.
Aren’t they? They’re fascinating. Some are very well written.

Some read like erotica. And some read like a researcher doing a field report or someone who was asked to keep a food diary.
Yep! Different people have very different ways of telling their sex stories. Even that diversity is fascinating. But obviously I’m more interested in the context and content than how well the stories are written. Some people do have these amazing stories—and some people have these horrible stories. There are a lot more positive stories shared on the Casual Sex Project. But I think what we’re really missing is some of the blah, the meh stories that are kind of in-between.

Do you find users have a bias that makes them only share the ‘really memorable’ stories?
Definitely. There is a bias against sharing the meh experiences. Those ‘eh, it was alright, it was nothing special’ sex encounters. So, I’d like to see more of those stories. But this is not meant to be a representative sample of hook-up stories of the world. It’s just whatever people want to share.

Do you read all of the stories that are submitted?
I was reading all of them at the beginning, but then I couldn’t do that anymore. Now we’re starting to analyze and code them—and once they’re coded we can do some analyses and look for patterns.

How do you detect fantasy from reality in the submitted sex stories?
That’s the most difficult thing to do. There’s no way to know. You read some stories, and you think there’s no fucking way. This is so outrageous. This doesn’t happen in the real world. But sometimes it does.

Do you reject stories?
Yes. If it involves child abuse, there’s no way we’re posting that.

What if someone submits a story you determine to be sexual assault? Do you post it?
Yeah, we do. Those are the bad stories. They need to be told. People need to hear them. We post both stories—those of victims and perpetrators. Obviously, not many of the perps post their stories. But it does happen.

Do you have repeat posters – people who use it like their online sex journal?
Oh, yeah.

Are there repeat posters that you look forward to their next submission? Like ‘who is this dude going to bang next?’ Yes, of course. You get to be like, ‘What’s next? What’s next?’ There are some people that get really hooked on the Casual Sex Project, and they post like nine different stories that happened. It’s certainly fascinating to compare different stories from one person and how they write about different people, like, how some sexual encounters are more positive and some are more negative. That’s something that I want to point out about casual sex: There’s a huge variability in what hookups are and how they feel.

With this rise of what the media loves to call ‘hook-up culture,’ do you find your students know more or less about sex these days? Are they knowledgeable about their turn-ons and turn-offs? Or does most of their sexual inspiration and education come from watching porn?
For the boys. They’ve certainly seen a lot of porn. A lot of the girls have never seen any porn. One of the options they have for homework, in my class, is to watch porn for the first time. And many of the girls do that for the first time ever. I’d say about two-thirds of the girls in my class have never seen porn. And most of my students are girls.

Where do the girls get their sex education?
Nowhere. This year, half of my class is virgins. They’re mostly 20 and 21-one year-olds. They’re juniors and seniors. Some of them have had sex ed in high school. Last semester one of my students filled out a questionnaire, and she wrote, ‘I’m Christian, I’m a virgin, I went to Catholic school, and I’ve never had sex ed before, and until I took this class I didn’t know exactly where the penis went in the vagina.’

(STUNNED SILENCE)

Yes. Exactly.

When you scroll through the Casual Sex Project, it seems as if there are more women submitting stories. Do you have any sense of the user numbers, according to gender?
I’d estimate that 60-70 percent of the stories are from women. I think women need more of an outlet to share because maybe they don’t want to tell their friends about their sex life. Also, writing about anything, you give meaning to it, for yourself. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to start this project. As you write about an event, and this is equally true for traumatic events as well as good events, you have to conceptualize it. You have to ask yourself, ‘What did I do? Why did I do that? What happened? What were the circumstances that made me do this versus that? Did I enjoy that?’ You end up learning from that process.

Your sample set is impressive, especially, when it comes to age. You have all ages, even elderly people posting.
Also different cultures and countries. It’s not limited to America. I’ve certainly heard from other researchers studying casual sex that they think my project is awesome, and they’re really glad that someone’s doing this. We’ll see how the science community responds to my attempts to analyze the data and write papers using this database.

As a sex researcher, if you could give your younger self one piece of advice about sex, what would it be?
Due to gender roles around sex, we tend to think the guy always know what to do, right? He’s the one who’s going to initiate. And not just initiate the sexual encounter but he’s the one who’s…

He’s driving the bed.
Yes, exactly! A guy will be like, ‘This is the position we’re going to have sex in. Now this position.’ Too often women won’t initiate things or communicate what positions they like. I’m assertive now about what I want in sexual encounters. But I certainly didn’t start out that way. I think that would be the one thing I would tell a younger Zhana: ‘Most of the time your sexual partners want to please you. They just don’t know how. But if you tell them how it’s better for everyone.’ And that’s the same advice I would give all women: ‘Let your partners know what you want and how they can please you.’


Zaron Burnett III is a roving contributor for Playboy.com.


RELATED STORY:
Zhana Vrangalova on Why Bros’ Slut-Shaming is Backfiring


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