• Ariel Bartlett

Sex Dolls and 7-Eleven Salad: Navigating Casual when You Want Something Serious

(Content warning: Gender dysphoria, self-harm, and sexual references.)

(Photo sourced from here.)

I climb into the front seat of my car, my hair and makeup an avant-garde interpretation of how they looked three hours earlier, the house’s facade a paler blue than it appeared beneath the darkness concomitant to a ‘You up?’ text. He stands in the doorway, a hand raised in a half-hearted, friend-with-benefits-but-emphasis-on-benefits salutation. To him, my sex-haired, partially zipped departure is the natural conclusion to our time together. As a poetry student with a daily diet of Shakespeare, Éluard, and Teasdale, however, I feel cheated. This moment reads like an unfinished manuscript, like Austen’s ‘Sanditon’. My head should be on his chest. We should be watching the bashful glow of dust torched by daybreak while we feign outrage over each other’s opinions on something neither here nor there, like whether Joyce or Woolf was the better writer. He’d say Joyce, and I’d stifle my genuine horror because the moment is too beautiful to disturb. Instead, I buckle up, wait for Kim Petras to Woo-Ah!* her way out of my speakers, and drive.

I remember being quarantined in 2009 after travelling to the state of Victoria during the peak of the swine flu epidemic. Frankly, I was relieved. I had a maths common test I hadn’t studied for, so an extra week to watch trashy MTV programmes whilst cradling a textbook on my lap was much needed.

Another epidemic is upon us though, and it hasn’t been nearly as kind to me: some sort of allergy to emotion. A lyrical aphasia, if you will. Whenever presented with an opportunity to write anything with a Neruda sensibility, Tinder boys seem stunted, incapable of mustering more than a, ‘Dtf?’ or, ‘Wanna come over?’ Rom coms love to show us couples trying to one-up each other, cooing, ‘I love you,’ and, ‘I love you more,’ but my experience with dating seems more of an exercise in proving who’s more detached, who can take the longest to bother replying to the other, who’s too tired to honour the plans we’d made. Forget flowers or good morning texts, with few exceptions, the closest I’ve encountered to chivalry is a guy agreeing to wear a condom.

There’s no shame in only wanting casual sex. If you’re here for an article moralising or pathologising the sexual practices of those who deviate from the virtues of Commitment™ and/or Monogamy™, you’ve come to the wrong place. Research consistently shows the psychological outcomes of those interested in casual sex are no worse than those interested in a serious relationship. A 2009 paper, based on a survey of 1 710 young adults from Minnesota during 2003 to 2004, found ‘almost no differences in psychological well-being between those with a casual partner and those with a more committed partner’ (Eisenberg et al., p. 234). A more recent 2011 study of 889 participants from ‘a large southeastern university in the U.S.’ (Owen & Fincham, p. 313) found ‘FWB [friends-with-benefits relationships] to be associated with more positive emotional reactions than negative, but these effects were more pronounced for men’ (ibid., p. 316). This is unsurprising considering ‘constraint commitment’ (a fancy term for taking what you can get) was a significant predictor of ‘negative emotional reactions’, and, of their sample, 39.5% of women ‘hoped that their FWB relationship would progress to a committed relationship’ whereas only 24.8% of men hoped the same (ibid., p.317).**

The problem for me is quite simple: I don’t do casual. Casual attire? I once wore a corset to pick up some bread. Casual conversation? I mean the weather’s cool and all, but do you want to hear about my first encounter with death and the crushing realisation of my own mortality? You want to keep our relationship casual? That just sounds like an invitation to change your mind.

‘For someone who doesn’t want casual sex, you have more of it than people I know who actively avoid serious relationships,’ observed a friend on the phone recently. So why put myself through it? Like my justification for most things in life: sheer, unbridled desperation. As a trans girl, most days, it’s nearly impossible to see myself as anything even approaching womanly or desirable. In 2018 (and this first stretch of 2019), sex was the anecdote to this. Having someone exclusively attracted to women want to experience my body in the most physically intimate way possible helped me, for those moments at least, feel womanly, to feel desirable. It helped me to feel like my body wasn’t a mistake, like my transition wasn’t some botched salvage job. The desperation doesn’t end there though. In some cases, I actually just really like the guy.

On the 3rd of December last year, I received a message from a boy who lived in Sydney, saying he had the ‘best time’ with me, and he’d like our relationship to progress to something serious. I was dumbfounded, but not because he was the aforementioned boy I actually just really like. I wouldn’t be writing this article if he was. As sweet and attentive as this boy had been, once more, the shambolic apparatus of desire had misfired. If catching feelings were a sport, I’d be a pro athlete. Why, then, did people only ever seem to catch feelings for me in the rare instances when I was the phlegmatic one? When I’d left my catchers’ mitt at home? My mind was cast back to this passage from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake:

‘How much misery,’ Crake said one lunchtime — this must’ve been when they were in their early twenties […] — ‘how much needless despair has been caused by a series of biological mismatches, a misalignment of the hormones and pheromones? Resulting in the fact that the one you love so passionately won’t or can’t love you. As a species we’re pathetic in that way: imperfectly monogamous. If we could only pair-bond for life, like gibbons, or else opt for total guilt-free promiscuity, there’d be no more sexual torment. Better plan — make it cyclical and also inevitable, as in the other mammals. You’d never want someone you couldn’t have’ (2013, p. 195).

‘Have you broken his heart yet?’ asked another Tinder boy I’d been talking to for five weeks. Let’s call him Addison.

‘No,’ I typed back, adding the emoji that’s smiling through a cold sweat (i.e. a pictogrammatic self-portrait). ‘I’m going to see him tonight; then, I’ll send him a 3 500-word text when I get home tomorrow.’

‘Are we still on for tomorrow?’ he asked.

‘Of course!’

The next morning, after a night of 7-Eleven salad I’d bought on the drive to Sydney, sex I’d consented to out of some dubious notion of politeness, and a Kevin Hart film that kept me awake for maybe half an hour tops, Addison messaged again. ‘Have you sent that 3 500-word text?’

‘Not yet. I’m really stressed. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. I’ll try to do it before I go to sleep tonight.’ This time, I used the emoji that looks like a pained smile — the sort of smile Chuck Palahniuk probably imagined when he wrote, ‘You can only hold a smile for so long, after that it's just teeth’ (1999, p. 164). I knew all too well romantic rejection could hurt — especially when the ambiguous territory of casual but affectionate sex can seem such an organic progenitor to something more. And as someone who could teach a masterclass in playing the victim, the executioner was not a role that came naturally to me.

‘It sounds like you have a tough night of breaking heart ahead of you,’ he wrote back. ‘I won’t be upset if you want to reschedule with me for another time.’

‘Thanks. I appreciate that.’

I woke up the next morning on the bathroom floor beside a broken plate, a thin trail of blood, and five pages I’d wrenched from a pile of books that sat at the end of the bath. I read over the quotes I’d underlined in black ink. One of them was from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, the bible for martyrs of unrequited love.

The lad came back to Werther with the pistols, and the latter took them from him with delight upon hearing that Lotte had handed them to him. He had bread and wine brought, bade the lad go and eat, and sat down to write.
They have passed through your hands, you wiped the dust off them, and I kiss them a thousand times, for you have touched them, and you, spirit of heaven, favour my resolve! And you, Lotte, hand me the instrument, you, from whose hands I have wished to receive my death, and, ah! receive it now (2015, pp. 127 - 128).

I returned the pages to their respective books and laughed at my theatricality. I’d seen more life-threatening paper cuts than the scratch my haemophobic self had made on my wrist. Nevertheless, I deleted Tinder and OkCupid and composed a message to Addison. It was long and messy (much like this blog post), but could be reduced to, ‘I can’t cope with people looking at me in the grocery store right now, let alone with opening up to strangers or having sex without emotional security. I’m sorry. You seem like an awesome guy, and I wish I felt well enough to hang out with you, but I’m just really a complete and total mess of a person.’

‘It looks like that 3 500-word message was for me,’ started his response. ‘I was looking forward to seeing where we went, but I understand. I hope you are okay. I take it you’re going with the guy from Sydney.’

I was surprised. I was expecting a half-hearted, ‘No worries,’ because, after all, I assumed I was just a flesh-and-bone upgrade from whatever open-mouthed silicone monstrosity he could’ve found at his local sex shop. But, in some ways, he seemed to almost — dare I say it? — care.

I assured him I wasn’t going with the guy from Sydney, and with some trepidation, agreed to meet him that night.

In many ways, this exchange set the tone for all that has followed. Any sense he cares has always been trailed by that pesky almost. When I dropped him home after our first night together, I thought, ‘Well, that was nice, but I'll probably never hear from him again now that we’ve fucked.’ Before I even arrived home though, he messaged me to thank me for the lift, and the next day he asked me how I was and what I’d been up to at least ten times. We spent New Years together; we’ve shared take-away more than once; and one morning, he filled my car with thirty dollar’s worth of petrol and hobbled on his broken foot in the rain to pay for it. He calls me darling and kisses me in public, and he’s recently taken to sending me goodnight messages punctuated with an x. But all this set to the soundtrack of, ‘I’m not after anything serious right now,’ and, ‘We’ll see what happens,’ and, ‘After the year I had, I’m just afraid committing will only hurt me again.’

So, here I am: the sex-haired, partially zipped sideshow, living from message to message, hesitating to make plans in case he calls, manufacturing any opportunity I can to work him into conversation. I’m the would-be wife harnessing years of wrenching poetic resonance from the least poetic of places to construct a narrative worth believing in. All these almosts are him carving space for me, learning to let me in, building the trust he needs to surrender to the feelings I know he must have for me. I’m not just a warmblooded placeholder. He won’t cut ties with me when he finds someone abundant in everything I’ve not. This won’t go to shit like every other time I’ve caught feelings for someone, right? Even after my mum told me Santa wasn’t real, I managed to convince myself he was. I told myself he worked in ways too mysterious for even my mum to comprehend. My brain is a warehouse for false hope. It’s equipped with some seriously cutting-edge, innovative technology. There is no amount of truth it can’t mount a delusional defence against.

On Friday night, I experienced a sense of all-consuming dread I haven’t felt since the night that drove me to eviscerate my copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther.*** As if a premonition, the next morning, I woke up to a message from Addison informing me we should stop seeing each other. He explained he couldn’t offer me what I wanted and spending any time together would only be complicating something that had already grown too complex.

Before the day could even end though, before I could even ‘worry the stars into meaning’ (Davis 1997, p. 77), he was back in my bed, our bodies and voices a language I’d assumed extinct.

Was he merely using me for physical intimacy because he knew I was too lovelorn to say no? Or did his attempt to end things help him to appreciate what he had? I know those reading this will be screaming at me that it’s the former, and even if the evidence to support this may be more compelling, no one but Addison really knows. Perhaps even he hasn’t yet untangled the wires that sparked him into action. Whenever I would discuss my self-described ‘delusional fantasies’ with my former (and unfortunately now-retired) psychologist, she would caution against attachment to anything ephemeral or uncertain, whilst also acknowledging that after decades of counselling, she had learned to never tell a client their hopes were unrealistic. She once told me a story of some ‘ludicrous advice’ she’d offered a patient. She said she lost sleep, convinced she’d set him up for profound disappointment. In their next session, she had to hide her bewilderment when he informed her the advice she’d given had paid off.

When Addison visited earlier last week, he saw my copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther on my bedside table, that resected page since returned to its Bethlehem. ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther,’ he read to himself. ‘What’s that about?’

I could’ve said, ‘You,’ and prematurely cried all I would’ve following his leave-taking and the inevitable comedown. Instead, I settled for the sort of vague synopsis you’d write in an English exam you hadn’t studied for.

He recommended a fantasy series, his accent rendering my nasal ‘fairntasy’ into ‘funtasy’, and I went online and ordered all twelve books after he left. ‘They’re probably not as sophisticated as the sort of thing you normally read,’ he warned.

I objected to this and told him I read all sorts — ‘even some commercial fiction,’ I said, cringing at the elitism that must’ve slipped through the back door of my vocabulary.

He was right though. The books don’t seem like the sort of thing I normally read. His description of them coupled with their synopses signal that they’re narrative driven, that they’re teleological in their construction, that nothing is deployed that isn’t neatly resolved. My shelves are dominated by metafiction, by books that undermine their own structure, books that challenge our conception of plot, books that revel in ambiguity, that favour the rhizomatic over the arborescent.

Right now though, I could use resolutions. I could use neat endings. I could use the assurance that what I’m experiencing is actually heading somewhere. For isn’t that the greatest frustration of an ambiguous relationship with someone from whom you crave commitment? The recognition that maybe your late-night shenanigans, early-morning texts, and shared Maccas chips aren’t act one but the whole story? That maybe there isn’t some great pay-off? That the Lacanian lack motivating your desire will forever be just that — an unfilled absence?

To call a casual relationship an ‘ambiguous relationship’, however, creates a false dichotomy. By the end of last century, it was predicted 43% to 47% of marriages would end in divorce (Amato 2010, p. 651). I’ve seen my parents separate, I’ve seen my brother’s wedding called off, I’ve stayed on the phone for hours while friends have mourned something that seemed limitless. When my go-to beautician was performing a skin treatment a few weeks back, she asked if marriage is something I aspire to. I said it was and asked if she herself was married. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but he fled the country years ago, and I don’t know where he is.’ If the promise of ‘till death do us part,’ isn’t enough to assure stability and undying commitment, is anything?

I’m not suggesting love isn’t real, that meaningful connections can’t be found. But maybe the rituals of marriage, of carving your initials into a tree, and of saying those three words aren’t all that different from the narratives I’ve constructed out of Addison’s almosts. Maybe these things are just another part of humankind’s ancient tradition of constructing defences against the unknowable.

Addison has indicated he’d like to see me again this week, and whether reckless or sensible, I’m going to let him. Perhaps, like those books that populate my shelf, the greatest any of us can aspire to is sitting in the not-knowing and, for the time being at least, wanting to stay.

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Notes: * The battle cry of trans icon and popstar Kim Petras and, consequently, every trans girl with a Spotify account.

** I kind of feel bad for how much I simplified that study. Make sure to check it out for a far more nuanced discussion of the effects demographic and psychosocial factors have on friends-with-benefits relationships.

*** Shoutout to my dear friend, Caitie, for helping me through the worst of it.


Amato, PR 2010, ‘Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments’, Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 72, no. 3, pp. 650 - 666

Atwood, M 2013 [2009], Oryx and Crake, Virago Press, London

Davis, OK 1997, And Her Soul Out of Nothing, The University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin

Eisenberg, M; Ackard, D; Resnick, M; & Neumark-Sztainer, D 2009, ‘Casual Sex and Psychological Health Among Young Adults: Is Having "Friends with Benefits" Emotionally Damaging?’, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 231 - 237

Goethe, JWv 2015 [1774], The Sorrows of Young Werther, trans J Calder, Alma Classics Ltd., London

Owen, J & Fincham, F 2011, ‘Effects of Gender and Psychosocial Factors on ‘‘Friends with Benefits’’ Relationships Among Young Adults’, Archives of Sexual Behaviour, vol. 40, n. 2, pp. 311 - 320

© 2020 Ariel Bartlett