There is a particular kind of make-believe woman who floods my inbox every time I post to Craigslist’s 18-plus section, which I’ve been doing more often recently in my search for the actual women who use the site.
This fembot of Casual Encounters tells me she’s the discreet, undersexed wife of a cheating husband. She’s nervous because she’s never done this b4. She wants me to come over while her partner is at work, and usually she wants me to prove with a pic that I’m real. (All the spam emails begin, quite disingenuously, with “I’m real.”)
She’s the lowest common denominator, as far as transgressive fantasies go: the female casual sex enthusiast as imagined by a sweaty Skinemax focus group. The real women seeking men on Craigslist, of course, tend to have far more interesting demands and desires—as do most women interested in fucking around with no strings attached. But our current mood, for all the choices facilitated by online dating, isn’t sympathetic to authentic expressions of female raunch.
Since the early 2000s, when Craigslist first started listing its demurely named Casual Encounters, the online dating industry has mainstreamed, and along with it agitation over loose morals and the devaluation of romance. In large part, the online dating industry has blossomed by anticipating these criticisms and being everything Craigslist is not: familiar, seamless, neutered of anything but the most coy sex references.
Today the industry generates about $2 billion a year, and like everything profitable, it’s refracted endlessly. If you’re a woman looking for a heterosexual tryst the options are overwhelming: For completists and lonely hearts there’s OkCupid, for women who like to be in charge there’s Bumble. There are apps for the illuminati-level rich, dating sites for Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists and gluten-free singles. But what none of these dating sites promise to answer is how a mutual interest in Chemtrails translates into something chemically satisfying. Even Feeld, ostensibly an app for the more casually inclined, by virtue of its 18 possible sexual orientations and neo-Berkeley copy about “being free,” surfaces choices from a likeminded pool.
Sex is a bizarre and messy business, full of false starts and uncomfortable surprises. The web, as imagined by Silicon Valley’s designers and CEOs, is not. It’s fluid and easy to navigate with a literal wave of the hand, verified and sorted into concentric circles based on preference, taste, and demographic. The concession of online dating and its various Tinders-for-X is that we know what we want in bed the way we know our favorite bands, that the correct alchemy of constraint and choice can lead us directly to the online profile of the best lay (or love) we’ll ever have.
Comfort with the idea of ordering sex in the way we order everything else has led us full circle, to apps that look exactly like other apps, but with people who just want to bone—the digital equivalent of the perfect singles club, stocked with only your types, all wearing color-coded T-shirts corresponding to “likes” in bed and out.
I have my doubts that this arrangement is the transformative sexual utopia it promised to be. But by using one of the older and most disparaged personals sites on the internet, I have found myself in shockingly agreeable situations with people I would have never even known to look for.
If you’re trying to get laid using one of the hundreds of dating apps available, this is what you might do: You’ll sign up using an email address, perhaps connecting your Facebook (for verification) or your Instagram (so a potential suitor is familiar with your brand). You’ll create a digital version of yourself, projecting a careful—or at least self-consciously careless—image of what you think your ideal audience wants to see. You’ll flip through other profiles. When you like one you’ll send an in-app message that’ll in the best of scenarios lead to a text that’ll lead to a date.
Or you could visit Craigslist.com, the design of which has barely changed since the ‘90s, and you’ll be greeted by an anarchic jumble of links requesting wildly disparate kinds of companionship. There’s “Hung, just looking for fun in Flushing” or “Seeking BBC to host fwd smoke and smash.” Sometimes it’s “Just wanna chat?” If you post your own ad, be as specific or open-ended as you care to be: You’re working with a blank text box. You can add an image of whatever you like.
The timeline on Craigslist is generally “right now,” but a dick pic captioned “wanna fuk” will sit next to an 800-word rundown of a poster’s specific erotic desires, demands, and scheduled availability. In one post out of California recently, a woman writes that she’ll be at the local airport’s terminal A between 9:30 and 10 tomorrow morning, if anyone’s interested in a quick bathroom tryst. On New York’s Upper East Side a man wants to know if any “ladies are into MFM threesomes.” There’s some pretty kinky shit on there—to be clear, this is not for the faint of heart or the prudes. But there’s also quite a bit of run-of-the-mill let’s-just-get-it-in sex.
The media’s attitude towards Casual Encounters has always been either skeptical or luridly confessional. Since its launch the site has garnered a reputation for being a “dank, smoky basement where the druggies and sluts party till dawn,” or a reckless extension of sex clubs and bathhouses, the “erotic underbelly of society.” In one of those rare articles about the service, an addiction treatment professional says people who use Casual Encounters “have a narcissistic, sociopathic side where they don’t have a lot of empathy for other people.” In a more recent xoJane essay, a woman warns of the seductive promise of a conveyor belt of disembodied torsos, hard dicks in hand: “For someone with low self-esteem, who had rarely gotten any kind of sexual attention in real life, going online [for sex] was like falling down a rabbit hole.”
But when I started asking other women about their experiences with Craigslist Casual Encounters, I found people whose sense of self was just fine. A number expressed a relief from the pressure of long, banal message exchanges and filling out extensive profiles. “It’s literally exhausting,” one Austin woman who just wants a casual, ongoing fuck buddy told me. Another still uses OKCupid when she’s looking for a “substantial, ongoing connection” but prefers Craigslist when she’s more immediately horny. On Craigslist, she can disclose more sensitive details about her needs than she would if she had a photo and an identity attached.
The site, unlike more goal-oriented apps or services, is also comfortable with the gray area between the digital and the “real,” and many who use it are just as down to trade emails or tell you something nasty on the phone as they are to have you over. That’s been the case for Cee, a 38-year-old single mother, who treats her Craigslist cruises with a kind of shocked bemusement. Cee’s got a full-time job and two kids; she isn’t looking for love, but getting laid is pretty fun. Agonizing over a dating profile or filling out surveys, when she has Craigslist, seems beside the point—she likes that there’s no signup and that it’s always being updated. Plus, it had been her impression that’s where the weirdos were.
She’ll scan the site when she has a free night, scrolling through the m4w (men for women) section until she picks up on something she likes. She’s been entertained and sometimes delighted by what she’s found: “Men are great, so blunt and sometimes funny,” she admits. “Even if you don’t find anything,” she says, “at least it’s an interesting time.”
But when she does find something that intrigues her she sends a message. Sometimes she and the man in question talk on the phone or swap stories of past encounters—”It gets pretty graphic and dirty, which gets you in the mood, and kind of loosens you up.” Sometimes it’ll just stop there: Cee likes the stories. But if the impulse strikes her, maybe they’ll meet up, always in a location of her choosing. She tells one trusted friend where she’s going (a friend who thinks she’s completely out of her mind, by the way).
Cee has met a lot of men like this. They’re a mix, she tells me, of lonely guys looking for someone to chat with, men who want to exchange pictures, one-night stands, cheaters, “storytellers,” men who are looking for a friends-with-benefits type thing. Most have been just as nervous as she was, she says, and she treats the whole thing with an attitude bordering on wonder. “It’s all in good fun and seems safe,” she says. “I rarely have full-blown all-three-holes sex with a stranger, but I have. No regrets!”
There is a concept popular with the men who created services like Tinder and Match.com called the “clean, well-lighted space.” Conceptualized in the ‘70s as a sex-positive feminist alternative to seedy, male-dominated places like porn theaters and peep shows, it’s come to be the defining marketing strategy for modern online dating. In her book Future Sex, Emily Witt explains how, in practice, this “clean, well-lighted space” attempts to appeal to women’s sexuality by sanitizing it, verifying its players, and stripping it of most mentions of actual bodily behaviours. As Witt recounts, in 1995, one of the first online dating listservs removed the word “sex” from its tagline out of fear of alienating the all-important female demographic. Almost two decades later, Sean Radd, one of Tinder’s founders, rejected the idea that his service was intended for “dating around.” “Girls aren’t wired that way,” he said.
If the people guiding the online dating industry truly believe women don’t enjoy sex, perhaps that’s how we got here, with so much cognitive dissonance around the idea of actually using the web to get laid. Because despite the hand-wringing editorials about hookup culture and the end of dating, most of today’s apps and services geared toward heterosexual people are where you go when you want to have a drink with a stranger and play-act at courtship. Craigslist, however, is where you go when you want to fuck one. And its innumerable menu of choices—bizarre, earnest, or freaky—are highly slanted in favor of its female users.
Aided in no small part by the cliche of the “Craigslist killer”—a terrifying, if statistically unlikely scenario—the Casual Encounter section has a reputation for being unfriendly to women. And judging by who’s posting it’s easy to see why they’d be put off; there are far more ads in the m4w section than in any other part of the site, and the language of the men posting can lean towards less palpable pornographic stock, with entreaties for “creampies” or asks for you to “take this big black dick you freaky bitch.”
But looking at who’s posting rather than who’s cruising misses a fairly large portion of people who use Casual Encounters. In the last month I’ve been posting ads of my own, requesting interviews with women who might happen to see me sandwiched in between more pointed asks. I got messages from a huge number of lurkers, women who’ve found it fruitful to select men out of the available on-demand pool.
And the women who do write their own requests screen aggressively. One San Francisco-based woman in her early twenties tells me that over the years she’s met a dozen or so people from the Craigslist posts she writes, but she’s picky and very patient: “I often don’t accept any of the 300-plus offers I receive.” Another woman, posting on 4/20 looking for someone to “smoke a blunt and smash,” said she got more than 200 hits in an hour.
Of course, it’s no surprise that men would want to have sex, particularly with women who are so direct. But sorting through such a firehose of free-form, explicit requests can be instructive in itself. For all my own vanity, having been a young girl in a culture that encourages women to groom themselves exhaustively into objects of male affection, I was shocked to discover just how low-value and abundant the dick, divorced from the customs of courtship, could be—or how easy a simple request could be fulfilled.
In Witt’s book, she similarly describes, with admiration, a friend who used Casual Encounters through her twenties. The practice made her fantastic at having sex, the friend claimed, through its sheer repetition and a mandate to articulate, in detail, exactly what she wanted. Even the occasional awkward or depressing meet-up was worth it: She learned that if she expressed a desire to have no-strings-attached sex with men, they would respond positively—and that she found this revelation flattering, comforting even, when she was the one dictating the terms.
Crystal, a 31-year-old nurse based in California is convinced Casual Encounters “is seen as seedy or undesirable” only “because it’s the most successful as fas as legit hookups go.” (She blames the media and spurned cheaters for its reputation.) When Crystal looks for dudes to sleep with she never posts herself. She finds what she wants and goes for it. She used to use paid sites, but had far more luck on Craigslist, so she ditched everything else. She tells me her experiences have been, almost without exception, excellent.
Granted, there are a few concessions in using Craigslist’s Casual Encounters, the first and most glaring of which is that romance, sex, and friendship are acceptable both as a package and a la carte. It requires an understanding of your own tastes and desires, and a level of comfort when it comes to articulating them. A high tolerance for awkwardness and the occasional misstep helps, too.
And while there’s a tendency to look back on the older, wilder parts of the web with nostalgia, gross come-ons and bad situations still happen on Craigslist, as they happen everywhere on the internet, all the time. One woman told me about the rants she gets in response to her occasional post about preferring black and Latino men. “Angry is actually an understatement,” she says: “violent is probably a better description.” (Her personal favorite: a blank email that simply read MAGA, for Make America Great Again, in the subject line.)
A clean, well-lighted space Craiglist certainly isn’t, and the vibe isn’t for everyone. But when the promise of experimentation and unmediated expression has been all but sand-blasted from dating online in the service of IPOs and targeted advertising, it’s nice to know an alternative still exists. And that, contrary to what’s on the Valley’s marketing slide decks, there are women interested in a good, truly casual encounter.