Summer Guide 2011
In (the) heat
The psychology, anthropology and politics of the summer fling
Published: June 15, 2011
We're lust hungry. Scientifically, biblically, whatever excuse. We've been that way ever since some protohuman mounted another and they thrusted till something happened. And something did happen. It felt good. Nothing's changed. Nor will it. Look no further than your own kinky family, the celeb gossip feed, and scandalous political headlines for proof.
Some believe we're genetically inclined to fling, swing, and do the mess-around. What if some of us are? Can we deal with that?
We form intense bonds, emotionally deep and severely erotic. Sometimes for a lifetime. Sometimes a semester abroad, a long weekend at the cottage, or just a few minutes behind the bar. We are animals. Some of us even roar.
And it seems especially true in the summer.
According to psychologist and Sex at Dawn co-author Chris Ryan, (a familiar name for avid Savage Love readers) the summer fling isn't just pop song fodder, rather it's an innately human impulse. Written with his wife and co-author psychologist Cacilda Jetha, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, which was published last year, proposes short-term relationships as a staple in the human sexual diet.
Why take the time to enter into a relationship we know won't last? "Why not?" asks Ryan from his home in Barcelona. "The underlying premise is that only long-term relationships have value," he says. "But a fling offers pleasure, friendship, experience and escape from boredom. That's value."
While a fling can occur while single, attached or married, Ryan argues that marriage and morality are both mainly economic considerations that have little to do with our evolutionary predispositions: "Human beings evolved as promiscuous, casual sexual beings, much like chimpanzees and bonobos, our two closest primates," says Ryan, offering a string of primatological, anthropological and anatomical evidence. For instance: "That the testicles and penis are external points to the way our ancestors lived, that they had several consecutive and ongoing sexual relationships."
The cultural miscue, Ryan continues, is that many people think of the act of sex as primarily a means for reproduction. "Think about the ratio of sex acts to births for most human beings," he says. "A thousand to one? More? Just because you don't want to buy the restaurant doesn't mean you don't enjoy eating there once in a while."
For Ryan, we tryst instinctually. As long as nobody's getting hurt, we should all do the damn fling.
Other experts raise a warning sign.
Before her work at the Relationship Institute in Royal Oak, psychologist Stephanie Scott held a private practice in New York City, working with a hospital-based program to help people with personality disorders navigate relationships. Personality disorder or not, Scott cautions against the fling.
"The summer fling is an escape from reality and it feels good, but I can't condone it," she says. "Typically, somebody ends up getting hurt."
Scott believes most people who think they can set their emotions aside for a fling are only fooling themselves. "It's a euphoric feeling to go out and find someone attractive who is attracted to you. In the short term, it can give a strong boost of self-confidence," she says. "But once you have sex, the brain releases chemicals that promote bonding. Long-term, you're not obtaining the tools necessary to sustain a committed, emotionally intimate relationship."
Scott is also concerned that people who seek out flings are doing so out of fear of intimacy or in an attempt to re-create something that happened to them in the past. Either way, she's afraid they're not allowing themselves to invest in anything truly nurturing. "Or maybe they're trying to recapture the excitement felt in that early stage of love," she says, "But it's never fair to compare that short, euphoric period to the complicated realities of a committed relationship."
Ryan argues that there's nothing inherently exploitative about a fling. "In any type of relationship, if someone feels disrespected or abused, then it's obviously unhealthy," he says.
And as far as getting emotionally injured goes, Ryan points to the painful effects of people committing to something they can't actually commit to. "It might be because of the stage of life they're in or it just might be the nature of their own sexuality, but if you're not comfortable in a long-term, monogamous relationship and you're lying to yourself and someone else that you are, that's when people are going to get hurt."
Beth Hedva, a Canadian psychologist who specializes in sexology, is the author of Betrayal, Trust, and Forgiveness. She says that if a person is centered and understands their sexual nature, a condom and blunt communication can solve most issues that might arise around a fling.
"First, you must be very clear on what your intentions are. That must happen up front. Get it all out there. Second, you have to stress safe sex," says Hedva. "I think there's room for those conversations even within the moment of heat, lust, passion and desire," she adds. "When you're in that state of consciousness that conversation has the opportunity to be very erotic. The energy of intent behind asking this questions can actually build the desire as opposed to dampening it."
But she also warns that it's not uncommon for one partner to be more vulnerable.
"Deep down, one person might be seeking a true pair-bonding relationship where one won't be available. So when the fling comes to an end, they'll go through detachment, loss and, to a degree, mourning. In that sense, what can be a fine thing has the potential to be devastating."
It's possible that a person might be engaged in a fling and not even know it. Scott offers some red flags to look for:
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