No Ghost Friends: 9 Feminist Tips for Casual Dating and Phantom-Free Hook-Ups

Young couple enjoying a meal and a drink in a restaurant.

Young couple enjoying a meal and a drink in a restaurant.

Happy All Hallows Eve!

Have you ever found yourself shaking before making an online dating profile? Or felt your stomach lurch at the prospect of asking someone on a date? Why?

Well, dating is scary! But casual dating and hooking up, like Frankenstein, is a very misunderstood monster.

Half of what is scary about dates is systemic oppression. Society holds hierarchies for body desirability, among other things. Ever seen a personal ad that says “No femmes, no fats, no Blacks?” This is someone who has drunk the Kool-Aid about who is hot and who is not.

This is why it’s important to practice feminism and anti-oppression on a date with someone, and also to take into consideration what kinds of people you find desirable and why.

And for us whose bodies are deemed less attractive than others, deep anxiety around romantic and/or sexual connection is understandable.

In dating, all people can harm one another. People who experience misogyny, racism, and ableism – among other oppressions – often experience the brunt of this. 

“Casual” cannot mean “unaccountable.”

It’s not the desires and practices enacting those desires that are anti-feminist – it’s the side effects of oppressive societal messaging about dating and the people we date that can make an NSA (no strings attached) lifestyle hazardous.

Familiar with that ghost emoji? I find her adorable, but I have seen her deployed as a pictoral one-word response to an ask of a date’s availability. “Ghosting,” literally. Clever, but so mean! 

“Scream Queens” says there are different definitions of “ghosting.” While not saying goodbye when you leave a party might not be hurtful, deciding to stop responding to someone you have been dating or flirting with when you decide they’re unattractive to you, or you don’t get what they are communicating, is harmful.

Ghosting is often exercised as a privilege, and it’s not even that fun when you’re a ghost!

Dating is as complicated as the people who do it, but rolling with the complexity doesn’t mean that our relationship statuses change to “It’s Complicated.” In an ideal world, when engaging with one another, we would be able to bring our full selves to the table (or couch).

If you’ve been longing to revolutionize your dating life, or have been afraid to attempt casual dating because you’ve been burned before, I’ve got you covered. Here is a festive, choose-your-own-adventure guide to approaching your sexy style of choice in an intersectionally feminist manner, that doesn’t leave anybody haunted or possessed.

1. What’s Your Flavor?

When it comes to dating or hooking up, I’ve tried many things. But never have I been as intentional as at this time in my life. One advantage that I have is that I have a great collaborator to work with – my partner.

I am a black, disabled, queer, genderqueer femme. He is a white, disabled, queer, transmasculine person. I am outgoing, and he is a little shy. I have insecurities about my body that he doesn’t have, and vice versa. We both have to explain our bodies to people sometimes.

In the course of our relationship, we have grown exponentially. He’s gotten better at checking his privilege without disregarding his trauma, and I’ve gotten better at feeling confident in asking for what I want, while tending to my anxiety. We’ve both learned to engage with different people in different ways.

I’ve done things I regret when it comes to casual dating, but I’ve done things I’m proud of, too. I’m inconsistent when it comes to what I want – sometimes I want spontaneous passion, sometimes I want to take it slow, with a lot of intellectual foreplay.

Have you ever hurt someone you were dating without meaning to, or gotten hurt by them? How did internalized oppression and communication play into this?

Whether you’re in a partnership will influence how you approach the question of where you’re at when it comes to dating.

Remember: You’re your own person, you’re allowed to want different things from other people, and you’re allowed to advocate for what you want in a partnership or as a single person!

Ask yourself questions about what you want.

2. What Can You Imagine?

No matter how brief the encounter, a casual date is an opportunity to create an experience with another person. You both have the power to ask, attempt, bask in something nice, and learn what you want to do next time.

Feel free to read this entire article, skip around, try it more than once!

Wanna go on dates?

The difference in my book between a date and a hookup is that a date involves some amount of pretense. Even if there isn’t love in the air, there is romance, there is flirtation, there is tension building. If you think you’re interested in the twinkly world of dates, go to #3.

Wanna hook up?

Like dates, hookups are DIY, but unlike dates, they can happen on the fly. Especially as a single person, if you make yourself available for a hookup, you never know when they might happen.

There are many sexist and homophobic tropes that would tell you that hooking up NSA is dangerous, callous, and something only men with no feelings do. But that just isn’t true!

Casual sex can be fun. Whether or not barriers (and other methods of birth control) are used is something that should always be agreed upon by all consenting parties.

I do not speak for users of Grindr or Scruff, but I respect them. But keep in mind: No strings attached does not, and cannot mean, no feelings attached. Human beings have feelings, whether or not we promised not to have them avant rendezvous.

The potential of NSA is that we might exercise the feminist muscle that teaches our bodies that Flight of the Concords wisdom, “A kiss is not a promise, but it is very, very nice.”

If you think you want to try hooking up, skip to #6.

Wanna play it by ear?

You are allowed to not know what you want. And what you want might change from person to person. It’s okay to have someone that you would like to go on dates with once a week, and someone who you would like to have sex with on every first Saturday if the moon is right.

No matter what, be honest. If you think you are liable to change it up, or you don’t know what you want, skip to #9.

3. How to Make a Move Without Feeling Like a Creep

Welcome to the wonderful world of dating! I’m your host, The Sext Master. Most people that I have asked out were wooed via text. By text, I am including phone, Facebook, e-mail, OKCupid, and even notes on napkins.

It’s perfectly reasonable, and playfully sexy, to leave a note when you’re on your way out of a place. Maybe someone will read it just as you are passing the window nearest their cheekbone, and you’ll be able to see it lift as they smirk, reading your note.

Don’t forget to leave to your number! Lest you’re resigned to communicate via napkins forever.

One could ask someone out anywhere and get a “no thanks” or a “fuck yes!”

If you get a no, pat yourself on the back for being brave, and try again with a different person, in a different setting. If you get a yes, make a follow up plan for your new date.

4. Explore Possibilities While Keeping It Sweet

Once you’re on your date, enjoy the ride! If the conversation doesn’t naturally open to “Where are you at? What are you into?” steer it that way. It’s important to understand what you and your date are bringing.

Because this is an article encouraging direct communication, I’m addressing the reader as the person being the conversational top. Whether or not this is usually the role you get tasked with, know that communicating directly about what you want is nothing to be ashamed of. You’re doing a beautiful job.

Once you’re on a date with someone, it’s not out of bounds to let the person know that sexy times are on your mind – so long as they’re consenting to the conversation. Such conversations are within your power.

Maybe you and your date discover that you want complementary things. Maybe you discover that you want contradictory things. Is there room for compromise or collaboration? If not, maybe this person is not your new lover.

I encourage you to empower yourself. Know what’s going on with you and your new date as early on as feels appropriate to both of you. If you don’t know what either of you wants by that time, you’re not casually dating – you might be torturing yourself. There are other mermaids in the sea!

5. Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

As a disabled femme, a girl-socialized person, and a survivor, I have internalized that I should be gracious when I receive sexualized attention. I have been told that I should smile and shake my head demurely if I don’t want something, but be sure not to hurt somebody’s feelings.

Girls were not supposed to do the asking out, and they were certainly not supposed to do the dumping, lest they be named an ungrateful bitch. Have you ever really listened to “Poison?” These are the misogynist expectations of heterosexual situations, right?

What happens when we’re queer? Or straight feminists?

Traumatic absorption of society’s expectations about our sexual behavior doesn’t evaporate when we embrace a different way of life.

Let this be a loving reminder to all of you: You are allowed to say no.

You are allowed to go on a date with someone, and then decide that you don’t want to be involved with them in a sexy way.

You are allowed to want something, and then not want it anymore.

It’s not just privilege that makes ghosts of us – sometimes the fear of hurting someone’s feelings, or of being punished, will keep us from letting someone know that we don’t want to keep smooching them.

For this article, I am not addressing those who are trying to break up with someone because they have experienced abuse from them.

If you want to break up with someone, direct communication is the feminist thing to do. It can be painful to bumble through a breakup, but you are not doing anyone any favors by staying in a situation you no longer enjoy, or by backing off with zero or passive communication.

Remember the date with the eyebrows Buffy has in season four, who woos her into thinking he’s sensitive, doesn’t communicate his intentions, and drops her after sex? Nobody deserves that.

Other people have feelings that matter, even if society has taught you that either you don’t have feelings, or nobody but you has feelings.

If you are direct and humble, allow someone to have their reactions and space, you might even find yourself with a friend in the end.

6. Making Hookups Happen

Halloween season is one of the best for hooking up. It’s a time of reverence and risk taking! If you grew up in the country like me, hay wagon rides were a sexy place. Especially because you had to wait in a really long line in the cold. Like do you have a sweatshirt or should I put my hands in your pockets?

Now that I’m grown and live around more human beings, the methods for meeting people and making things happen have diversified. The most popular hookup methods tend to be The Club and The App.

Apps and sites are a way to meet people who have already outlined what they’re looking for when it comes to dating and sex.

The more intersectional someone’s profile – while being direct and explicit about one’s desires and boundaries – the better of a hookup experience they might be.

As Matt McGorry says, just because someone name drops feminism in their description doesn’t mean they know what’s up.

There’s a lot to be said for the time-honored tradition of clubs. Not like country clubs, but the proverbial clubs – groups organized around bringing together like-minded individuals to share in an activity. Like dancing.

A great makeout or roll in the hay could be literally anywhere. So keep an open mind, an open heart, and a little baggie in your purse full of sex gloves.

7. Keeping Consent in Mind and Practice

So you think you’re about to shake bones with somebody sexy.

Maybe this is because you “growled” at them, and they “winked” back at you and told you where they would be waiting. Maybe you’ve been dancing with a stilettoed stranger, and you don’t think you can sweat anymore and remain solid. Maybe Mx. Jack-O-Lantern Cardigan followed you into the bathroom.

Even if you’re psychic, ask. You’re going to feel annoying at first, but every time you’re less than completely sure, check in. And check in with yourself about how much it makes sense to ever feel completely sure about what a person you have known for three minutes wants.

Consent isn’t just about yes or no, it’s also about the in-betweens. The hesitation. The needing a break.

The enthusiastic sounds in between words! There’s this Hollywood trope that makes all hook-ups seem spontaneous, fast as wild foxes, and silent. This makes no sense. Expect to laugh.

Expect to ask questions and be asked questions. Expect to stop if you need to stop, and even start up again if you want to regain the mood. Expect to answer questions you hadn’t considered before.

8. To Hook Up Again, or Try Something Else?

Did you like that? If hooking up is a new experience for you, you might feel shame or self-doubt. Call a friend. Get some perspective. If you liked it, tell the person you hooked up with! Chances are, a nice thing just happened. Why not do it again?

If you’re feeling extra nice about hooking up with that person, maybe even the blush of a crush, go up to #3, tiger.

If you’re feeling mehh about the hookup – or nice, but not in a way you need repeated – let the person know. For tips on how to do this, go up to #5.

There are circumstances in which you don’t need to let them know:

  • you met on an app, and it was strictly an NSA situation
  • you hooked up at the party you met at and then said goodbye at the same party
  • they are your friend and both of you just needed a sweet weird night

If you might want to hook up again but you’re not sure, go to #9.

9. Playing It by Ear Doesn’t Have to Be Flaky

If you’ve found your way here, it’s because you might want to do a mixture of dating and NSA hookups until you find your flow, you meet the love of your life, or you realize that anarchy polyamory is your style.

Even if you don’t identify as polyamorous, or don’t feel that you have made a commitment to anyone, telling one person one story about where you’re at, and another person a different story, will come back to haunt you.

Being allowed to play things by ear (is the most anti-ableist way) to make plans. 

The beautiful thing about dating casually, and being flexible and open about the manner and method by which you date, is that you end up making friends you can communicate with and express affection towards in amazing ways.

Dating, like Halloween, is fun and terrifying. But most of the ways that it’s scary are the perpetuation of myth and misunderstanding. Don’t let stereotypes or fear run the show.

If you practice casual dating with an open heart – with clear, accountable communication, and respect for anyone you touch – you’ll find you have great options for handholding during a haunted house, rather than turning your own sex life into a haunted attraction.

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Neve Be is an Oakland- and Seattle-based disability justice activist, writer, performer, and educator. They are a staff writer at HARLOT Magazine and a columnist at maximumrocknroll. Other writing can be found on Model View Culture and Plentitude Magazine. They also co-facilitate a contact improvisation jam for all women and queer spectrum people, and organize with Sins Invalid. Neve is always down to mutually share stories, analyze pop/punk culture, and collaborate with artists throughout the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest. You can find them on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram.