V felt a deep sense of connection and attachment with a sexual partner in 2017. They often met for sex over a week and found a space where they could be vulnerable with a stranger.
"This is where my identity also plays in as someone who is from a marginalised identity—not just a sexual minority but also a Dalit person who is anyway feeling alienated and alone in this world—to have that brief moment of respite from the world," says the 28-year-old teacher from Bangalore.
While V wanted to proceed with the connection, it was only physical for their partner, which led them to parting ways. It still hurts V when they think about this experience.
Sex is a complex activity involving various personal and interpersonal factors, and it can often be an overwhelming experience. With the emergence of dating apps and the commodification of pleasure, it has become easier for us to meet new people by downloading an app, sharing locations, and forming sexual relationships. But what happens postsex can often leave us bewildered and wondering about our choices. It is especially so when we develop feelings of attachment towards our casual sex or no-strings-attached partners. In a society where sex remains taboo, and there lies discomfort in discussing these experiences, it may often make us feel alone.
Developing such a connection is not unique.
A 2021 research published in the Sexual Medicine journal developed a Postsex Experience Scale (P-SES) to signify the diversity of these experiences. Though the scale was developed based on the binary of males and females, there were significant overlaps, with "feeling connected to a partner" being a common factor on both scales. According to the study, feeling connected with a partner is an interpersonal dimension related to a sense of closeness and emotional connection with the other and satisfaction found through physical intimacy. For women, it comes with a sense of being loved. The study suggests that these experiences can be diverse, complex, and sometimes dysphoric.
What are the reasons behind these feelings of connection and attachment after sex? How can we manage it when they are not reciprocated?
"Oxytocin is released into the body during sex and is associated with bonding, connection, loyalty, and trust. It is also known as the 'love hormone,'" says Gurugram-based clinical psychologist Shevantika Nanda. She clarifies, however, that not all sexual experiences lead to its release; in cases of assault, for instance, it does not happen. She adds that sex also leads to dopamine release and triggers the brain's reward centre, making the experience seem very positive and associating that positivity with our sexual partner.
So, is it only to do with our biology and is it totally out of our control? Nanda does not think so. She suggests that the feeling of attachment may also arise as we are conditioned to see it that way. "Culture, society, and media all contribute to our views about sex. Until recently, the narrative was centred on saving yourself for marriage [and] sex being pleasurable when you have found the one or when you are emotionally involved. Such thought processes influence how we perceive sex and attachment," explains Nanda.
Along with the biological factors and cultural and moral notions associated with sex, another factor that may affect how we respond to it is our motivation or intent behind sex. Pallavi Barnwal is an intimacy coach who helps people navigate sexuality and intimate relationships. The founder of Get Intimacy, a resource for intimacy and pleasure, says that there can be different motivations for casual sex. Some people may seek a sense of adventure or thrill, and they may bring a similar streak in sexuality. Other reasons may be related to building their self-esteem by being desired or something to kill their loneliness. Unfortunately, the instant gratification available through dating apps makes it difficult for people to understand or recognise what they want from them.
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"Not many people have a clear understanding or have self-talk with themselves about what casual means to them. And are they okay with that?" she says. Communication and clarity are clearly key to navigating casual sexual relationships. "The conversation should include what casual sex means (to you)," she says. Also, does it mean the same for your casual sex partner?
When you have not given much thought to these things, feelings of attachment can be confusing. To avoid or at least manage it, we need to understand our intent behind sleeping with someone. Barnwal wants us to consider what we mean by respect, pleasure, and motivation when making our choices. Also, it is a must to discuss sexual health, as many people still do not know that sexually transmitted diseases and infections can be spread through oral sex, kissing, and even skin to skin touch. "Just because it is casual does not mean your health is casual. So, you need to talk about your sexual health status," she says.
Alongside self-realisation and understanding, Nanda suggests clearly understanding the frequency of sex, boundaries, and expectations if you are engaging in casual sex with the same person repeatedly. "If you are certain you have feelings for them, it is probably a good idea to check in with where they are, let them know how you are feeling, and decide your course of action. Clear communication is key," adds Nanda.
Both sex and feelings attached to it can still be complicated. It took V some time to reflect on it as well. They sat on it and cried about it and felt enraged with the emotions they were feeling. "Unpacking [it] over the years, it was not easy. But engaging in this self-reflexive activity helped me grow," they said.
Anmol is an independent journalist and writer. They report and write ongender, health, wellness, food and culture, among other things.