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Casual sex doesn’t have to be second rate: 7 rules to make it safe and fulfilling

Use a condom, meet in a familiar environment, use your intuition, and other security measures to make the most out of a spontaneous encounter

Lakshmana temple, Khajuraho group of Monuments (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1986)
Erotic sculptures from the temples of Khajuraho (India).DEA / M. BORCHI (De Agostini via Getty Images)

Traveling on vacation can lead to one-off sexual encounters. But such momentary trysts —as respectable as any other— should follow certain rules to ensure they don’t end in bitter memories.

1. The condom is non-negotiable

Having unprotected sex with a stranger, with an unknown sexual history and state of health, can mean playing Russian roulette when it comes to sexually transmitted infections. While sex always involves risks, and total safety doesn’t exist, the correct use of a condom will prevent many STIs, including HIV, gonorrhea and chlamydia.

If you’re traveling and anticipate having sexual encounters, there’s nothing wrong with packing condoms in your luggage. It’s better to bring them from home, from a known, trustworthy brand, then to buy them at your destination and risk using cheap ones that break easily or cause irritation or allergies. It is important to use them not only during intercourse, but also for oral and anal sex. And it doesn’t hurt to check that they’re still in place when changing positions: some have the unfortunate practice of removing them discreetly.

2. Sex and rock & roll, but save the drugs for another time

When we travel, we are in a vulnerable position. We are in an unknown place with foreign customs. In many cases, the people speak a language we may not fully understand. In that context, overdoing it with alcohol or trying drugs, even if they aren’t the hardest, can put us at a disadvantage. Our reflexes in an emergency decrease, our intuition can be disrupted, we become more trusting and our senses blur. Being under the effects of substances can make us more likely to do things we could regret the next day, including foregoing the condom.

We may want to experience the fusion of sex and drugs at some point in our lives, but it is important to do so with people who we trust and in safe spaces. The combination of geographic trips and drug trips has often ended poorly, as seen in the show The Serpent, about serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who kidnapped and killed young people on the hippie route through Southeast Asia in the seventies.

Emmanuelle 3
Still from the film 'Farewell Emmanuelle' (1977), by François Leterrier.IFA Film (United Archives / Cordon Press)

3. Stay in familiar territory

Your place or mine? In this case, the answer should be “mine.” Risks are reduced when we are in familiar environments. In our hotel room, on our own territory, we face fewer surprises than if we go to a local’s house.

A stranger’s house is full of unknowns. Do they live alone or with others? How will their roommates react? If you decide to return to your place, will you have transportation? Will the house be located in a safe neighborhood? On the other hand, the other’s insistence on taking us to their place should raise suspicions. It never hurts to let your travel buddies know that you have a date and where you will be.

It’s also not the best time to have sex outside, on beaches, in the woods or in nature, as it could add another level of vulnerability.

4. Local culture and consent

Sex has a lot to do with instinct and biology, but culture and lifestyle also determine how we interpret it. It’s important to inform ourselves about our destination’s perspective on sex. Are we, for example, in a machista country where women have fewer rights and are second-class citizens? Is it commonly believed that foreign women who travel alone are easy? Will locals understand that, once in bed, a sexual partner can decide to stop the encounter, or will they assume that there’s no turning back? No one necessarily subscribes to all their society’s beliefs, but it’s important to reflect on those elements before sleeping with someone from a totally different culture.

When it comes to consent, we should be clear about what we are and aren’t willing to do and our intentions and expectations, leaving open the possibility of canceling the encounter if either party wishes. We should learn from practitioners of BDSM when it comes to establishing clear, specific and firm rules.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac by Lars von Trier
Scene from the film 'Nymphomaniac' (2013), Lars von Trier.©Magnolia Pictures / Everett Collection / Cordon Press

5. Compromising photos? No, thanks

Most people will agree that a casual sexual encounter, while traveling, isn’t the best time to make a sex tape. It may be common sense, but it doesn’t hurt to remember that requests for intimate videos or photos (“just to remember you!”) should always be denied. Sensitive material plus social media is a dangerous combination. You never know where those images will end up.

It is better to avoid giving the one-time lover too much specific information about your life, such as your address, workplace and other concrete details. There’s always time to share more information, but going back isn’t always possible.

6. Emotional intelligence: Distinguish between love and a good time

In an idyllic landscape, whether a Norwegian fjord or a coconut-studded beach, without work obligations or a schedule, it’s easy to see the glass half-full. That can be risky for those who tend to let their imaginations run free in romantic situations. On the other hand, some people can act like sex robots, trying to limit the relationship only to the physical plane and repressing their emotions.

But casual sex is as valid, satisfactory and deserving of recognition as any other, as a 2018 study in Cambridge University Press reveals. The article concludes that people who have sporadic sex have similar behaviors as those in a relationship.

For a night to become a good memory, be sure to make your decisions based on pleasure. Ensure you feel safe and not pressured. A 2020 study published in The Journal of Sex Research recognized that casual sexual encounters are more likely to leave their participants feeling empty, used and depressed when they occur under the effects of alcohol.

7. Observation and intuition

The frequency of our non-personal interactions —calls, emails, social media messages— may have already diminished our intuitive ability to know if someone is a good or bad person shortly after meeting them. But if we observe them carefully, we can get a sense of whether we are dealing with someone reliable, unless they’re a professional con with excellent acting skills. Generally, good people are thoughtful, treat others —especially service workers— well, listen more than they talk, maintain eye contact and smile, and their personal story is coherent and believable.

Sex tourism exists, even if you do not practice it. Money or social position do not always put us at advantage when we travel. Avoid having casual sex out of pity or a bad conscience, particularly when in a poor and needy country: it won’t work out well, and no matter how much money you have, you are no better than anyone else.

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