Casual sex vs. a serious relationship: What if you don’t want either?

Tri Vo/Mic
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A recurring feature for Mic staff to explore a particular theme in depth.

In a recent essay penned for Glamour, Reese Witherspoon discussed the importance of cultivating women’s ambition and gave some solid advice: “Run away from a man who can’t handle your ambition. So many men think ambition is sexy.”

This is great in theory, but most women would say it’s easier said than done (plus, she’s Reese Witherspoon — she’s got options). For women who date men, connecting with someone you get along with and who isn’t intimidated by your intelligence or your success is not always easy. Women’s “ambitions” are often blamed for an inability to find a partner and settle down. And to a certain extent, there is truth in this: We no longer live in a world where women have to marry a man to survive. Women go to college at higher rates than men, women earn more than they did in previous generations, and Americans are waiting longer to get married.

In this new relationship economy, our parents’ advice is often tragically outdated. I’ve spent years thinking about this question: How do women date men while maintaining their sense of self, their feminism and their professional and personal ambitions?

Women’s lives may have changed, but sexism still exists in intimate relationships with men, from the division of labor when it comes to household chores, to pay gaps, to women still being responsible for most of the child rearing. I know one reason I’m not married is because I’ve had a hard time finding someone to navigate and negotiate these expectations around gendered roles while building a partnership.

However, at 39, I’ve seen the expectations and pressures for women to settle down loosen — there is a historic gap between dating and marriage. So what is it like to try to date today when most young women know they probably won’t settle down for a while, either because they don’t have to or because they are manifesting their own ambitions?

“Most women I know don’t want anything serious because they want to focus on their career, but even more than their current career, they want to feel they can be open to different options in their future, in terms of their career and otherwise.”

I asked a younger woman. Julie Zeilinger and I used to work together at Mic. A serious and ambitious writer and reporter, currently at MTV News, Zeilinger is 24 years old and has already written two books (the first one at 17). She’s a young star with, no doubt, a robust career ahead of her.

“Yes this is like the central existential question of my life right now … and know so many women who are in that exact spot — essentially wanting monogamy but not necessarily anything ‘serious.’”

She believes this tension is one of the biggest roadblocks young women face when it comes to dating men.

“We don’t have any language or cultural scripts to draw on when it comes to this desire and it doesn’t seem to be a thing most men are really aware of. Our dating culture right now is pretty binary in terms of hooking up or being in a relationship.”

We’ve seen a lot of hemming and hawing about young women and hookup culture in the last few years, especially with the proliferation and normalization of dating apps like Tinder and Bumble. But most of the arguments critical of hookup culture are cynical and rest on fairly retrograde ideas about women’s sexuality: Women should “save” themselves or will simply be “used” for sex. These criticisms may address the bigger issue that hooking up doesn’t always satisfy a deeper desire to connect, but they also ignore women’s individual sexual desires and suggest a more serious commitment or marriage is the only end goal for absolute fulfillment.

“Most women I know don’t want anything serious because they want to focus on their career, but even more than their current career, they want to feel they can be open to different options in their future, in terms of their career and otherwise,” Zeilinger said. “They don’t want to feel like they’re tied to another person who could potentially control or limit their options.”

In my conversations with young women on this topic, I’ve been impressed with their realistic perspectives. Often they know the person they are dating is probably not “the one,” but they are excited about the journey of self-discovery they are on together. It’s a pivot from a traditional way of looking at relationships: that every step is a check mark on a list that ends with them in the suburbs living the now-dead American dream.

But it can also be pipe dream. If men are still invested in the idea that there are only two ways of looking at sex and relationships — a casual relationship or a long-term, serious one, it doesn’t give women a ton of room to negotiate.

In dealing with this, Zeilinger tells me she thinks many women “end up participating in hookup culture, but feeling unsatisfied and devalued because it’s not actually what they want.” Oddly enough, it’s a similar conclusion critics of hookup culture come to, but for completely different reasons. For these women, it’s not that they want to stay with this guy forever; they just don’t want the sex to be casual or feel obligated to suppress any feelings they may have, even if they are complicated.

Honest conversations about insecurities make our relationships stronger. So, while it’s easy to say you will run from a man who is intimidated by your ambitions, in practice, it’s much harder to navigate that space in-between. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, but Zeilinger’s advice to young women is to be honest about where you are at and what you want from the beginning. It could at least save you a lot of confusion and heartbreak down the road.