What does ‘casual dating’ mean these days?
What exactly do we mean when we say ‘casual’?
Credit: Zain Awais / Mashable
In our Love App-tually series, Mashable shines a light into the foggy world of online dating.
When it comes to dating in 2023: it’s complicated. There’s a whole host of terms used to describe the nature of
sexual and romantic relationships
, to friends with benefits, and “talking stages.” But even with an entirely new vocabulary to define dating interactions and intentions, there’s one description that still reigns supreme: “casual.”
The term casual isn’t new — it was popularised in the ’90s by TV shows like Sex And The City and Seinfeld, which is why the idea is so recognisable for millennials. But it seems like the idea of casual dating might have been around for much longer than that, with a sexual revolution taking place in the latter half of the 20th century and the introduction of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s, both of which normalised having sex outside marriage with multiple partners. In fact, a study published in 1977(Opens in a new tab) found that the percentage of women who started to partake in premarital sex grew from 29 percent in 1965 to 57 percent in 1975.
But the idea of casual dating has certainly become more prevalent in recent years — a 2014 study(Opens in a new tab) surveying people who were at college in the ’80s and ’90s as well people who were in college in the noughties and 2000s on their views on hookup culture found that the latter group were more likely to report sex with a casual date/pickup or friend, and less likely to report sex with a spouse/regular partner.
Considering that our ideas around sex and romance have evolved so much since the 1960s and communicating specific wants and needs is widely encouraged, it’s surprising that the vague idea of casual relationships is still what many people say they are looking for. In fact, a Student Beans survey conducted in Nov. 2022 found that 21 percent of Gen-Z people in the UK define their relationship status as “casual dating” and a recent study by tech retailer Currys(Opens in a new tab) suggests that one in 10 people who use dating apps do so just to secure casual hook ups, 80 percent of whom are men.
Of course, dating casually might refer to any number of very different things, from a once-a-month booty call to once-a-week-dinners and drinks, simply without the expectation of a committed relationship. Certain dating apps are designed with casual dating in mind — one of the most well-known is Feeld(Opens in a new tab). It’s an “open-minded” dating app where people are encouraged to explore their sexuality, including ethical non-monogamy, kink, and new ways of dating. “Casual” is one of the 26 “desires” people can list on their Feeld profile and the app has become synonymous with this type of dating. Ana Kirova, Feeld’s CEO, says the app defines “casual” as “a physical (and/or emotional) relationship without the commitments and expectations of a more formal, traditionally monogamous relationship.”
The rise of open-minded dating
It’s not just so-called hook-up apps that are embracing the idea of casual relationships — established dating apps like Bumble now offer the option to choose “something casual” when updating your profile on what you’re looking for. This is perhaps part of a wider cultural interest in sexual exploration, as a study of 2,000 Americans from the Kinsey Institute published in 2021(Opens in a new tab) found that 19 percent of respondents felt more inclined to pursue an open relationship since lockdown and 46 percent said they are engaging in more sexual experimentation.
“Since the [COVID] lockdowns, there has been a reconsideration of what it means to date.”
“Since the [COVID] lockdowns, there has been a reconsideration of what it means to date,” Kirova tells Mashable. “‘Casual’ as both a definition and a format for dating certainly isn’t a new concept, but some of our analysis has shown interest in a more fluid approach to dating and that since the pandemic especially, attitudes towards dating have gone through a categorical shift.”
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26-year-old Izzy, who is based in London, explains her views towards casual dating have changed in recent years, specifically that “casual” doesn’t necessarily have to mean something very short-term or meaningless. “I’d define casual dating as the situation where you’re dating one person noncommittally or dating multiple people at once,” she says. “Sometimes casual can be the end goal too — I’ve had casual relationships that have lasted over a year on and off, but that’s because we’re very honest with each other. We both know we’re not going to end up in a committed relationship and are dating other people, but we like seeing each other too, so why not?”
Setting boundaries upfront
A study conducted by Bumble found that 59 percent of users say that they are now more upfront than ever with partners about what they want, prioritising good communication from the get-go. Jack, 28, who also lives in London, has been dating casually for a few years and says, “Honesty and communication are pretty integral to making it a positive experience. If you don’t make an effort when it comes to being honest and communicating what you’re looking for, then you shouldn’t expect others to.”
Plus, putting less pressure on the people you’re dating is likely to make the experience more enjoyable, at least if you’re able to communicate this and set these boundaries before things get complicated. “Setting these boundaries as early as you can ensures that there is no confusion, and can ultimately lead to a better dating experience,” says Dr. Caroline West, Bumble’s sex and relationship expert. “Many relationships start out casually and successfully develop into long-term, serious commitments. They enable people to get to know each other without the added pressure of a relationship status, which is why they can be popular.”
Although your approach might be different if you are looking for a serious relationship, Izzy says that she “always goes in with the assumption that it’s casual unless there’s a discussion otherwise” and that this has led to some very positive experiences.
However, the benefits of casual dating rely on both parties communicating how they define “casual” and what they want from each other, which often isn’t the case. And although dating apps like Feeld, Bumble, and fellow mainstream competitor Hinge have introduced features to encourage people to discuss what they’re looking for, trying to have healthy, productive conversations about sex and romance with someone who is practically a stranger can be tricky.
How fuckboys hijacked the meaning of ‘casual’
Hannah, who is 23 and lives in London, explains she has been dating for about a year and isn’t looking for a long-term relationship, but feels like the term “casual” is often manipulated by the men she dates. “I’ve been in situationships that were defined as ‘casual’ but this basically meant that everything was on the other person’s terms. We’d act out the elements of the relationship that they wanted without them having to do any of the emotional work or commit,” she says, explaining that the lack of communication in these relationships meant that they eventually broke down. 26-year-old Zoe, who is based in Surrey, says she has had similar experiences with men using “casual” as a get-out-of-jail-free card: “I hated the word ‘casual’ as it was so often used as an excuse for men to be fuckboys.”
“I’ve been in situationships that were defined as ‘casual’ but this basically meant that everything was on the other person’s terms.”
“Although casual dating can be an exciting way to date, there can be some not-so-positive outcomes, including feeling unsure, anxious, and confused about what to expect from another person,” explains West. “Whatever you are looking for is fine, as long as you are honest with everyone involved about your intentions from the early stages.”
Ultimately, a successful casual relationship comes down not only to communication, but to respect, too. It’s important to remember that just because you may not want to commit to someone long term, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to take the time of day to respect their wants and needs. If you’re not willing or don’t have time to do that, you either need to make this very clear to the person you’re interested in dating upfront to make sure they’re OK with it, or consider whether you’re in a position to be dating at all.
Because although casual dating and hook-up culture are inextricably linked and the ideas are often used interchangeably, it’s clear that the term “casual” doesn’t only refer to one night stands anymore.
The future of ‘I’m looking for something casual’
The question is: is it time we stopped using this nebulous description altogether when it comes to dating and instead opt for some of the more specific descriptions we have available to us, or create new ones? Kirova says that the description does still have a place on Feeld and can be a useful way to navigate new relationships, when used properly.
“The vagueness of the way we culturally understand the concept of ‘casual’ dating can get in the way of connection if it’s used in a misleading way,” she says. “Seeking a casual encounter is a valid way to date, but there can be baggage with the word, which is a symptom of the overarching dating culture we have seen in recent years.”
If you or someone you’re interested in dating opts to describe a relationship, or the relationship you’re looking for, as “casual,” it’s crucial to expand on what that means for everyone involved. “If you believe that there should still be an element of exclusivity to a casual relationship, for example, and another person does not, this might lead to heartache down the line, so clear communication is essential,” advises West. “This early communication will also show you how this person approaches a potential clash in outlook and values, which can be a great way to spot any red or green relationship flags.”
If you’re not sure what you’re looking for and you’re using the word ‘casual’ to try and communicate that, it’s best to be honest about that too. “Not only can a lack of clarity on what the relationship is lead to unhealthy behaviours, but uncertainty about what you yourself are looking for in a relationship can, too,” says West. “If you’re unsure about what you want, be it casual or otherwise, it could be confusing to others about where they stand — so try and unpick this in the early stages.”
There’s no such thing as a simple relationship, at least not one so uncomplicated that a single adjective can encompass its inevitable complexities. So while there’s nothing wrong with using the word casual, try to make sure you have some other adjectives (and even full sentences) up your sleeve when it comes to expressing what you want and how you feel. After all, it’s 2023 and finally time to accept that communication is sexy.
“There are times where she can hear me doing something around the house and instead of offering help you just hear the scroll of TikTok instead.”
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