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Is Casual Sex Really So Bad?

Recent findings suggest there may be some real benefits.

Key points

  • There is value in enduring, profound love, but recent studies suggest that casual sexual relationships can also provide benefits.
  • Variety, spontaneity, and a change of perspective are crucial to a rich life, and social contact with strangers enhances well-being.
  • People view their casual sexual relationships and experiences more positively than negatively, according to research.
oneinchpunch/Shutterstock
Source: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

“I need more sex, OK? Before I die I wanna taste everyone in the world.” —Angelina Jolie

“My marriage is pretty great. But I think about other guys all the time.” —A married woman

The value of enduring, profound love is obvious. However, recent studies imply that superficial romantic encounters are equally important. One study has argued that variety, spontaneity and a change of perspective are crucial in enriching our lives, essential for living a good life. A second study suggests that superficial contact with strangers increases our well-being. And a third study has found that people view their casual sexual encounters more positively than negatively. Do these studies imply the advantage of casual sex over enduring love?

Casual sex and profound love

“I want to have sex all night long, just not with my husband!” —A married woman

“Sex is a momentary itch; love never lets you go.” —Kingsley Amis

Casual sex and profound love fall on opposite sides of the romantic spectrum, and both come in many different flavors. Casual sex is high in romantic intensity, while enduring love often involves romantic profundity. Romantic intensity is a snapshot of a momentary peak of passionate, often sexual, desire. Romantic profundity goes beyond mere romantic intensity, where a deeper and longer-term relationship develops.

External change is highly significant in generating romantic intensity; in order to develop romantic depth, familiarity, stability and development are tremendously important. While novelty is useful in staving off boredom, familiarity is essential for a romantic relationship to flourish. Profundity involves certain types of activities that evolve over time and as a result, is absent in casual sex (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).

Richness in a good life

“Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go it’s pretty damn good.” —Woody Allen

“I know a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex, and rich food. He was healthy right up to the day he killed himself.” —Johnny Carson

Happiness and meaningfulness are frequently discussed when characterizing a good life. Shgehiro Oishi and Erin Westgate (2021) persuasively suggest the addition of another dimension: richness. Oishi and Westgate claim that whereas a happy life is characterized by comfort, joy, and stability, and a meaningful life by purpose, significance, and coherence, a psychologically rich life is portrayed by variety, interesting experiences, and change in perspective. They argue that stable relationships, time, money and positive mindsets facilitate a happy life; strong moral principles and religiosity facilitate a meaningful life; and curiosity, spontaneity, and energy facilitate a psychologically rich life.

Oishi and Westgate argue that since openness to new experiences and curiosity encourage individuals to pursue and appreciate novel, complex, challenging, potentially perspective-changing experiences, and willingness to defy traditional attitudes, they constitute dispositional factors that facilitate the psychologically rich life (see also DePaul, 2021).

How do these three dimensions of the good life relate to the romantic realm? It is apparent that meaningfulness is centrally present in enduring profound love. The major features of meaningfulness, that is, significance, coherence and purpose are indeed more dominant in enduring, profound love. In addition, happiness, characterized by comfort, joy and stability, is more typical in profound love, though short-term intense joys can be found more in casual sex.

Developing richness in the romantic realm is more complex. A psychologically rich life involves variety, interesting experiences, a change in perspective, curiosity, an openness to experience, and a willingness to defy systems and so seems closer to casual sex than to enduring profound love. No doubt, enduring love can be psychologically rich, for it includes a wide variety of experiences and a change in perspective — such as taking into account one’s partner’s perspective. However, the degree of richness in casual sex is greater.

Social contact with strangers

“There are things so deeply personal that they can be revealed only to strangers.” —Richard Rodriguez

“Good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere.” —Mae West

In his recent book, The Power of Strangers, Joe Keohane (2021) argues that coping with unfamiliar outsiders not only civilizes us but that it might be the key to our survival and thriving. Similarly, Paul Van Lange and Simon Columbus (2021) claim that our well-being is not merely served by the quality of close relationships, but also through social contact with people who we know less well, even strangers. They show that most strangers are benign, and most interactions with them are positive and enhance our well-being.

They further claim that situations with strangers often represent a low conflict of interest and that in interactions with strangers, most people exhibit minimal efforts, and if the need is urgent, more effort is available (Van Lange & Columbus, 2021).

If we are to apply these claims to the romantic realm, it seems that casual sexual relationships, rather than enduring profound love, have the above advantages that strangers can provide.

Subjective evaluations of casual sexual encounters

“My wife wants sex in the back of the car — and she wants me to drive.” —Rodney Dangerfield

Rose Wesche and colleagues (2020) found that people evaluate their casual sexual encounters more positively than negatively. These encounters have often been associated with short-term declines in emotional health, though there is little evidence that they are detrimental in the long term. They further found that women and individuals with less permissive attitudes toward casual sex experienced worse emotional outcomes as a result.

Most people realize that casual sex can be sexually pleasurable but is seldom emotionally intimate. Those familiar with their casual sex partner generally have more positive emotional outcomes. Having a "friends-with-benefits" relationship can be a good and healthy solution for some. If the encounter involved penetrative contact, it was more likely to be a negative experience (Wesche et al., 2021; Savin-Williams, 2021).

What do we need to do now?

“Give me chastity and continence, but not yet!” —Saint Augustine

The fact that we wish to thrive over time does not mean that we cannot enjoy the moment. After all, we live in the present moment and it is typically worthwhile to make each moment as pleasurable and meaningful as possible. But to give priority to the moment over lasting flourishing is to neglect other key dimensions in the good life. We do not merely live in the present but are shaped by the past and dream about the future. These different temporal dimensions imbue our lives with meaning and ongoing happiness.

The above thought-provoking studies imply that causal sexual relationships may, in some circumstances, create antigens that are a kind of booster to the good life. Another study further supports this idea in its examination of the dating app Tinder. Though Tinder has a reputation for generating mainly casual sex relationships, in 2020 it was responsible for pairing nearly a quarter of newlyweds who met online, making it the most successful dating app for lasting relationships.

The advantages of casual relationships do not diminish the great value of enduring profound love, which is clearly expressed, for example, in happy marriages. Indeed, a robust literature links being happily married to better physical and mental health outcomes (e.g., Huntington, et al., 2021).

In our society, diversity and flexibility are becoming more dominant. A major task of this society is how to integrate the romantic enduring and casual experiences in a way that they will complement each other. There is no one rigid school solution for this vital issue — the nature and depth of the given enduring relationship are most important in this regard. The romantic show can go on, as long as we remember that there is an after-party and the morning after, in which to live and to thrive.

Facebook image: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

References

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love. University of Chicago Press.

DePaulo, B. (2021). Beyond Happiness: A Psychologically Rich Life Is a Good Life. Psychology Today, August 28, 2021.

Huntington, C., Stanley, S. M., Doss, B. D., & Rhoades, G. K. (2021). Happy, healthy, and wedded? How the transition to marriage affects mental and physical health. Journal of Family Psychology.

Keohane, J. (2021). The power of strangers. Random House.

Oishi, S., & Westgate, E. C. (2021). A psychologically rich life: Beyond happiness and meaning. Psychological Review.

Savin-Williams, R. C. (2021) Is casual sex emotionally healthy for men and women? Psychology Today, January 4, 2021.

Van Lange, P. A., & Columbus, S. (2021). Vitamin S: Why Is Social Contact, Even With Strangers, So Important to Well-Being?. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Wesche, R., Shannon E. Claxton, S. E., & Waterman, E. A. (2020) Emotional outcomes of casual sexual relationships and experiences: A systematic review. Journal of Sex Research.

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