Sexual hookups are becoming an increasingly prominent feature of life in Western culture, particularly for the twenty-something men and women we call “emerging adults.” With the gap between puberty and entry into marriage getting ever wider, these young adults are turning more to casual encounters as a way to express and satisfy their sexual needs. In a comprehensive review of the status of research on casual sex, Kinsey Institute researcher Justin Garcia and his team from SUNY BInghampton (2012) concluded that “Hookups are part of a popular cultural shift that has infiltrated the lives of emerging adults throughout the Westernized world” (p. 171). Yet, hookups pose a significant threat to the physical and psychological health of these young individuals.
In addition to risks of contracting STDs, developing unwanted pregnancies, and being raped or otherwise assaulted, people who engage in casual sex may suffer emotional consequences that persist long past the details of the encounter are but a dim memory. On college campuses, where brief sexual liaisons are as prevalent as parties on a Friday night, the unanticipated results of a hookup can jeopardize a student’s career. In the workplace, the results can be just as disastrous, if not more so.
It’s difficult enough to conduct research on sexual behavior, but even more of a challenge when the topic being investigated concern sexual relationships outside the context of long-term relationships. Regret, faulty memory, and perhaps shame or embarrassment can taint some people’s self-reports but lead others to exaggerate their sexual encounters in the opposite direction.
Despite our 21st century mentality, our social norms about sex seem to remain tied to 20th century sensibilities. The good old double standard still looks down on women but either glorifies or fails to blame the men who make it a habit of having frequent, uncommitted sex. As Garcia and colleagues point out, there may be a biological basis to the greater social acceptance of casual sex in men, but there’s no way to separate biology from sociocultural influences given that the two are so tightly intertwined, and will forever remain so.
Setting aside the issue of sex differences for the moment, what do we know about those unintended emotional consequences of short-term sexual liaisons? As reviewed by Garcia and his co-authors, there are plenty. For one thing, there’s the discomfort factor. Despite the flooding of media with messages that hookups are okay, if not desirable, people may feel that they’re doing something that violates their own internal standards. Feeling perhaps pressured to get involved because everyone else is, they may develop performance anxiety, setting the stage ironically enough for future sexual dysfunction. Other common reactions include regret or disappointment, confusion, and embarrassment, though some individuals report feeling proud, nervous, excited, and desirable or wanted. However, these feelings tended to be more in the positive direction during and in the negative direction after the hookup. Researchers examining the mental health associations with hookup sex also report that participants who were not depressed before, showed more depressive symptoms and loneliness after, engaging in casual sex. Guilt and low self-esteem are other negative consequences reported among some individuals engaging in casual sex.
Another set of risk factors involve nonconsensual sex. In one study reported by Garcia and colleagues, approximately half the young women surveyed said they had a nonconsensual sex encounter; more of these occurred in the context of a hookup than a long-term relationship. Alcohol and other substances were likely to be part of the situation in nonconsensual hookups.
The majority of studies on hookups and well-being reported by Garcia and his team were on small samples, mostly taken from one college campus each. In research to be published in an upcoming Journal of Sex Research article, Sacramento State University psychologist Melina Bersamin headed up a paper based on a multi-campus study led by Miami University psychologist Seth Schwartz (Bersamin et al., in press). I am an author in this very interesting investigation, which included data from over 3900 undergraduates at 30 campuses around the U.S. All of the participants in the Bersamin et al study were heterosexual (as is the case for the majority of research on this topic), and they came from multiple ethnic backgrounds and social classes. We asked participants to indicate how many times, during the past 30 days, they had sex with someone they knew for less than a week. To measure well-being, we asked participants to rate their self-esteem, degree of life satisfaction, general sense of positive functioning (“psychological well-being”), and feelings of self-actualization (“eudaimonic” well-being). To tap into feelings of psychological despair, we asked participants to report on their feelings of depression, general anxiety, and social anxiety.
Our results showed that a relatively high percentage of students engaged in casual sex within the past month (11%), with more men (18.6%) than women (7.4%) stating they had done so. This finding of a sex difference is typical for those reported in the casual sex hookup and could reflect a genuine, biologically-based sex difference. Alternatively, as I mentioned earlier, the sex difference could refelct socialization influences in degree of comfort with admitting to hookup encounters that differ for men and women. I’ll return to the issue of gender in a moment.
As we predicted, people who engaged in more hookups had greater psychological distress. College students who recently engaged in casual sex reported lower levels of self-esteem, life-satisfaction, and happiness compared to those students who did not have casual sex in the past month. On the distress side of the equation, similarly, students who recently engaged in hookups had higher distress scores as indicated by levels of depression and anxiety. In contrast to the notion that men are okay with casual sex but women are not, we did not find sex differences in the relationships between casual sex and either distress or well-being. For both men and women engaging in true hookup sex, meaning with a casual stranger rather than a romantic partner or, even, “friend with benefits,” seemed to bode poorly for mental health and self-esteem. Of course, this was a correlational study. We don’t know whether poor mental health caused individuals to be more likely to engage in casual sex or whether, as was shown in studies reviewed by Garcia, poor health resulted from casual sex. On the positive side, due to the large size of our sample, we were better able than other researchers to institute statistical controls, particularly in terms of the inevitable errors that occur when measuring these sensitive psychological constructs.
The only way to begin to tease out directionality in the casual sex-mental health conundrum is by conducting longitudinal studies, though even those will not be perfect. People who seek out casual sex opportunities, particularly those who do so under the influence of alcohol or drugs, may be fighting off persistent feelings of loneliness, depression, and social anxiety that they hope to eradicate or reduce by repeatedly having brief encounters that grant them momentary closeness.
Our findings suggest that even though gender norms, biology, or some combination of the two may lead men to be more likely to seek (or at least report they seek) casual sex, there are similar connections as for women between hookups and mental health. Moreover, the fact that we defined casual sex in the way that we did (i.e. with a stranger within the past month), it is possible that we were tapping into a population who is at particularly high-risk due to their high levels of impulsivity. At that level, mental health factors may trump socialization and/or biology to wipe out gender effects.
The upshot of the study is that we need to pay more attention to hookups at all levels, from the young men and women who gravitate toward these relationships, to parents, to college administrators, and to mental health professionals. If you’re someone who’s been involved in casual sex our findings, and those reported by Garcia and collaborators, suggest that you might want to think about how your sexual behavior might affect, and be affected by, your psychological well-being. We all seek gratifying and fulfilling intimate partnerships, and by knowing the benefits and risks of short-term encounters, you’ll increase your own chances of making these relationship dreams come true.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Bersamin, M., Zamboanga, B. L, Schwartz, S. J., Donnellan, M. B., Hudson, M., Weisskirch, R. S., Kim, S. Y., Agocha, V. B., Whitbourne, S. K., & Caraway, S. J. (in press). Risky business: Is there an association between casual sex and mental health among young emerging adults? Journal of Sex Research.
Garcia, J. R., Reiber, C., Massey, S. G., & Merriwether, A. M. (2012). Sexual hookup culture: A review. Review Of General Psychology, 16(2), 161-176. doi:10.1037/a0027911