The Pros and Cons of Gay ‘NSA’
“No strings attached” isn’t the stuff of true romance, but wait …
I’m not sure if three’s company or a crowd, but when it comes to letters, I tend to be a reluctant bedfellow with these three: NSA, aka no strings attached.
Even if I weren’t completely over acronyms, I’d probably never use that one in everyday conversations — not even the ones that begin on gay dating/hook-up apps like Grindr and Scruff. In the gay lexicon of lust, NSA is something considerably colder and less romantic than the straight version of it that inspired the 2011 Ashton Kutcher-Natalie Portman rom-com No Strings Attached, which was not about puppet love.
In the cinematic version of NSA (and, by extension, the straight one), there’s more of a human element to sex without emotional attachment. It’s a lot like the FWB thing also documented in a 2011 movie, Friends with Benefits (starring Justin Timberlake, whose former group NSYNC once released an album called No Strings Attached, and Kutcher’s future wife and Portman’s Black Swan costar, Mila Kunis).
Gay NSA is generally less personal and personable and also kind of preemptively rules out sequels — at least as I understand it in Grindr-speak. Size (“Hung?”) and preferred position (“Top or bottom?”) are far more important than pesky details like names. Yes, it’s as unromantic as it sounds, but when you wake up horny craving sex for breakfast, it’s a pretty expedient way to satisfy morning hunger.
“NSA” by every other name
Remember the “one-night stand,” that old, antiquated precursor of “NSA”? It doesn’t seem to apply anymore in a gay hook-up culture where you no longer have to go out or wait until dark to get lucky. Online, our peak “looking” hours tend to be right before and after dawn when those of us who are awake seem to be at our horniest.
The “one-night stand” apparently has gone the way of picking up in bars and clubs. But even in its heyday, the ONS differed from its replacement acronym in one crucial way: A tryst usually became a “one-night stand” in hindsight. “NSA” is typically planned in advance, before the two people involved are even face-to-face.
“Anonymous sex” is apparently also passe, probably because it sounded too clinical and unfeeling, even for the Grindr generation, and the similarly quaint “casual sex” implies that you’re watching a ball game or engaging in some other mindless activity at the same time. “NSA” may be direct and a little lazy (which doesn’t necessarily bode well for the sex), but it’s vague enough to almost pass for something people do in polite company.
“NSA” may be direct and a little lazy (which doesn’t necessarily bode well for the sex), but it’s vague enough to almost pass for something people do in polite company.
I spent many years being wary of NSA under all of its names, and I still cringe a little every time I see those three letters on Grindr. Would it kill guys to pursue it without spelling it? Shouldn’t it be understood that if you have sex with a stranger there won’t be strings attached?
What un-deluded gay man is dreaming of a white picket fence and mentally picking out matching wedding bands while riding home in an Uber with the boy he just met — or answering the door to the one who texted him 30 minutes earlier on Grindr. Even in Buenos Aires, where porteño guys would sometimes drop “Te quiero” (I love you) 10 minutes in, I always knew better than to take them seriously.
A change of mind
All that said, I used to pride myself on never hooking up with anyone I wouldn’t be open to seeing again, even ones I met on holiday — or ones who were on holiday when I met them. Paolo, one of the two great loves of my life, was visiting New York City from Milan when he and I met in 2000. That our relationship (doomed as it was) ended up unfolding on three different continents over the course of nearly a decade is proof that anything can happen between two strangers in the night if both are open to it.
Then one depressing birthday (incidentally, the one after I saw Paolo for the final time), I decided to throw caution, moralizing, and every single thought about the future to the wind and take the NSA plunge with a man I met at a club in Buenos Aires. I’m terrible at names anyway, and I rarely remember them, so it’s not like it was going to kill me not to ask for his.
I decided to throw caution, moralizing, and every single thought about the future to the wind and take the NSA plunge with a man I met at a club in Buenos Aires.
The experience itself was unmemorable, but I’ll never forget the way it made me feel — not cheap and dirty, as I was expecting, but strangely liberated and, well, clean. There were no messy emotions. I was able to turn off my brain in a way I couldn’t before when I was half-thinking about the future. If I was never going to see him again, who cared what he thought about me? I could go way out of character for once and just live in the moment.
But once the moment was over, there was nothing — no future prospect, not even afterglow, which has always been my second-favorite movement in the extended sex suite (my favorite being the dance leading up to the first kiss). That’s the downside of NSA for me, and being that I’m a cuddler/spooner, it’s a pretty major one. Although I was proud of myself for giving it a go, and I could finally say I understood why people do it, it wasn’t really me.
Hearts in armor
It’s still not, but I have an even better understanding of NSA today than I did right after that mind-opening birthday sex. I think that for some, it’s almost a form of armor, especially in big cities, where, to quote the guy at the 2:19 point in this clip, nothing means anything.
A friend in Sydney once described it as “transactional,” which perfectly captures the meat-market aspect of NSA. If he’s just a body, not a person, he might dirty your sheets, but he can’t hurt you.
And if you’re after instant gratification — and in the Grindr age, nearly everyone seems to be — NSA is the uncomplicated way to get it. You can turn off your mind and just enjoy now.
Who cares if you don’t remember it an hour later? There can be another new NSA session soon enough, if you want it, because there’s always another hot guy “looking.” And for me, “hot” is key to NSA because if personality isn’t going to be a factor, the NSA prospect has only the physical to work in his favor.
It’ll probably never be my thing because my brain is too pivotal to my turn-on process and living in the future is just part of my character. But once I understood NSA, it became easier to live with it. (I’m still a bit uneasy co-existing with its first cousin “fun,” a wimpy Grindr euphemism for one-time-only sex.)
I’ve gone there a number of times since that birthday in Buenos Aires, and, to be honest, the sex has rarely been worth the non-effort. The upside, though, is that once I take the NSA plunge, I know I won’t have to worry about making awkward conversation or how to delicately usher him out the door when it’s over.
By the time I think of an excuse for why he can’t stay, he’ll probably be already gone.
Love Me and Leave Me: Five NSA Anthems
“Johnny One Time” Brenda Lee
“Angel of the Morning” Juice Newton
“Insensitive” Jann Arden
“Fastlove” George Michael
“Get Mine, Get Yours” Christina Aguilera
“I’ve Got No Strings” Pinocchio