Arts & Culture » Culture

In (the) heat

The psychology, anthropology and politics of the summer fling



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:

"Look for a lack of consistency and follow-up. Are you staying in or are they taking you out on dates? Are they introducing you to their family and friends? The hard part, though, is that people are very good at lying, they'll too conveniently keep people out of their life if that's what they want."

So, it is in our nature to fling for fun. And like most fun things, this kinky kind comes with its own set of consequences. And maybe it's not for everybody, though Ryan would disagree.

Still, why is it the summer fling and not the winter tryst?

For starters, it's a sensually charged time of year. "There's skin showing and the skin is warm from the sun. Maybe it's wet, too," Ryan says. "And flowers are blossoming like crazy. What are flowers but the genitals of plants? Every time you smell a flower, you're picking up a sexual cue from another being."

Scott's approach is a tad more pragmatic: "There's less focus on work and responsibilities, especially if you're a student," she says. "Summertime, a summer job, or vacationing to a hot place, you're wearing revealing clothing and you're partying, drinking, which lends itself to spontaneity. You're more likely to act out your fantasies." These geographic circumstances, she says, can lend to a sense of anonymity, which turns us on. "Depending on the situation, you can take on a different persona and pretend to be something you're not," she says, warning that with Facebook and Twitter "that lie might be hard to maintain."

Ryan says we can't help ourselves, that the summer brings about engrained impulses to engage in erotically charged rituals. "You find it in large scale societies and you'll find it in hunter-gatherer societies, too," he says, noting socially acceptable fling arenas such as Mardi Gras, Carnival in Rio, American college frat parties and spring break vacations:

"Our modern sexual structures are in direct conflict with our sexual predisposition. We need look no further than the mild-mannered girl who finds herself in Cancun for spring break and enters the wet T-shirt contest. We find ourselves in these constrained and sexually conflicted social situations all the time, so any opportunity to break out of that, for a week or just one night, is welcomed."

So, that's why girls go wild? Sort of. But alcohol plays a significant and undeniable role. Anyone who's ever seen an infomercial for those sexually exploitative soft-porn DVDs featuring college co-eds knows this. And what happens the next day? You've heard it before: "I was drunk so it doesn't count."

"This leads to alcohol abuse," Ryan says. "It's common among repressed gay or bi-sexual men who get wasted and seek out homosexual encounters," Ryan says. They were drunk. They had fun but couldn't reconcile their actions and emotions the next morning.

"That gives them the excuse to go get drunk again. A free pass in their minds," Ryan says. "The alcohol only enables them to evade social constraints instead of confronting them, which in turn retards social progress."

And who wants to spend their summer retarding social progress?

Maybe it's the people who don't understand or are afraid of the power of a free body. As Ryan sees it:

Boxing from the left, the libidinal liberals. In the right corner, we have repressed Republicans (including the radical right terrorists who condone killing abortion doctors).

But wait: Isn't this supposed to be an article about summer flings? How'd we end up on politics, you ask?

It comes back to understanding ourselves and being tolerant of others, Ryan and Hedva say.

"In the last decade, there's been huge acceptance for gay rights, an incredible push for gay marriage, and the acceptance of the legitimacy of homosexuality as a biological reality, not some central decision that people make. I think polyamory is the next gay," says Ryan.

Hedva agrees: "Our culture has a lot of moral judgment about people who have multiple partners, who don't settle down, who are not interested in having children. That all goes against the grain. Somebody who is gay can kiss somebody from the opposite sex, but won't be erotically stimulating for them. Likewise, somebody who prefers serial flings or a polyamorous lifestyle might find their sexual energy in having the freedom of sexual expression in multiple partners."

Never more so than when the days are long and the nights are warm.

And for those so inclined, Ryan offers a final bit of guidance:

"When it comes to a fling, it's important to keep in mind Dan Savage's campsite rule, which he usually applies to people who engaged in sexual relationships with someone younger: Leave them in better shape than you found them, no diseases and no drama. Don't leave your garbage behind and stamp out any fires. A fling can be a true win-win scenario. And one more thing: Young men need to learn that the best way to get into a woman's pants is to respect her."

What's sun got to do with it?
It's in the stars

Looking at the astrology of the summer fling from the perspective of the Northern Hemisphere, July is mainly Cancer, and August is mainly Leo. Cancer is an emotional time. We're looking for a sense of connection, comfort and belonging. And Leo expresses individuality, creativity, unbridled affection and sexuality. We can look at both of those signs at play and see exactly what happens in the short-term fling: There's the desire to feel connectivity, fostered by Cancerian energy. And that quest for freedom and self-expression comes through romantic play fostered by Leo. Leo also promotes risk-taking and gambling. If the fling is an affair, that's a big risk, gambling on whether or not your primary partner is going to find out, and if they do find out, whether they're going to stick around. Astrologically, that's all solar energy at play. But there are always other forces, like the moon, influencing what motivates and moves us. And the moon goes through each sign of the zodiac every month. The weeks it moves through Cancer and Leo, during the months of July and August, present a powerful alignment that could foster a summer fling. —Dr. Beth Hedva, from an interview with Travis R. Wright


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