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Casual Sex: The Hidden Truth

Those who engage in it fit no set psychological profile.

Key points

  • Historically frowned upon, casual sex has become integrated into the culture’s lore and sexual repertoire as an acceptable sexual choice.
  • Those who partake in casual sex do not share the same psychological profile, defy crude stereotypes, and are not fated toward similar futures.
  • Women express less interest in casual sex than men in part because the casual sex they get is often bad.
  • In general, casual sex is not a strong predictor of life outcome.

American culture has a complex relationship with casual sex. Historically frowned upon, particularly for women, it has become increasingly integrated into the culture’s lore and sexual repertoire as an acceptable, widely practiced choice.

Predictably, the subject has been attracting increasing scientific attention. One rather consistent finding in the casual sex literature concerns an apparent gender gap: Women tend to report lower motivation for—and lower satisfaction with—casual sex encounters.

Evolutionary psychologists have argued that this gap is innate—the product of women’s evolved tendency toward sexual selectivity. In our evolutionary past, having sex meant having babies, and having a baby entails heavy investment and higher risk for women. Thus for them, sex is best considered seriously, not casually.

Yet evolution tends to select for strategic diversity, rather than uniformity, the better to assure a species' survival over changing conditions. A casual sex preference may therefore prove adaptive for some women in certain contexts, such as when looking to acquire needed resources or switch to a better mate.

In addition, we have also evolved to construct complex cultures, the dictates of which may override those of our biological program. To wit: Sex has evolved as a reproductive strategy, yet most of the sex happening right now around the world is not for the purpose of reproduction. In fact, most people having sex right now have taken intentional steps—through the use of cultural technology—to avoid reproduction. Thus, while biology may have a say, people’s attitudes about casual sex are bound to also be influenced by the social context in which they reside.

For example, most people find that pleasurable sex is preferable to non-pleasurable sex. People who find casual sex unpleasant are less likely to want or benefit from it. The prevalent cultural script for casual sex involves behaviors likely to produce orgasm in men (e.g., fellatio) but not those more likely to produce orgasm in women (e.g., cunnilingus).

Indeed, research suggests that this orgasm gap may account for the gender difference in people's attitudes about casual sex. Psychologist Jennifer Piemonte of the University of Michigan and colleagues, in a set of three studies involving more than 1,500 participants, found that "men are more likely to orgasm during casual sex, and people who orgasm during casual sex are more likely to experience positive reactions afterward. Therefore, while gender may be one way to describe the discrepancy in how positive people feel following casual sex, orgasm explains it.”

In a recent (2022) paper, the researchers Terri Conley and Verena Klein of the University of Michigan argue that a central reason for gender differences in this area is that "women and men are treated to different experiences of what is called 'sexuality' and 'having sex.'” Women, more specifically, "experience substantially worse sex than men do."

The authors note that women face several unique barriers to sexual enjoyment. First, the structure of the clitoris (mostly hidden) and vagina (an internal organ) along with traditional social mores (“good girls don’t”) make girls less likely to become familiar and comfortable with their genitalia and its pleasure functions. Women are more likely to be judged negatively for their sexual appetites and face a higher threat of both social stigma and sexual violence. These myriad structural and social obstacles may increase women’s sexual apprehension and serve to reduce sexual trust and desire.

By way of analogy, the construct of "sex" may resonate differently for women and men in the same way that the construct of "police" resonates differently in black vs. white communities—a consequence of systematically divergent social experiences.

Another line of inquiry has sought to discover the consequences and implications of casual sex in the lives of participants. Contrary to early fears, research suggests that current engagement in casual sex is not associated with people’s expectations for involvement in future committed relationships and marriage. Casual sex activity does not patently denote a rejection of committed sex.

Research on the costs and benefits of casual sex has yielded mixed results. For example, Rose Wesche of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and colleagues recently (2021) reviewed 71 studies examining emotional outcomes of casual sex relationships (CSREs), including emotional reactions (excitement, regret) and emotional health (depression, self-esteem). “Overall, people evaluated their CSREs more positively than negatively. In contrast, CSREs were associated with short-term declines in emotional health in most studies examining changes in emotional health within a year of CSRE involvement.”

Overall, research suggests that regardless of gender, casual sex does not reliably predict life outcomes. For example, a 2009 longitudinal study by Marla Eisenberg of the University of Minnesota and colleagues analyzed a diverse sample of 1,311 sexually active young adults, finding that “scores of psychological well-being were generally consistent across sex partner categories, and no significant associations between partner type and well-being were found in adjusted analyses.” The authors concluded: “Young adults who engage in casual sexual encounters do not appear to be at greater risk for harmful psychological outcomes than sexually active young adults in more committed relationships.”

Summarizing the research on the issue, Zhana Vrangalova, a casual sex researcher at New York University, wrote: “The most frequent finding for both sexes is one of no significant relationship” between casual sex and wellbeing.

This is not entirely surprising. Individual wellbeing is multiply determined, and the effects of any one factor may easily be drowned out over time by many others. Life is also contextual; the meaning and effects of any event depend heavily on the individual characteristics of the players and the environmental conditions in which they operate.

This general truth appears to hold here. When casual sex is found to predict future outcomes, it predicts different consequences for different people depending on several variables. One potent variable in this equation is a person’s motivation. For example, research suggests that having casual sex for “non-autonomous” reasons (i.e., due to self-imposed pressures, external contingencies and controls, or complete lack of intentionality) predicts lower self-esteem, higher depression and anxiety, and more physical symptoms. Those who report “autonomous motivation,” on the other hand (i.e., emanating from one’s self) do not tend to suffer adverse consequences.

Another factor at play is sociosexuality, a dimension of personality that describes people’s comfort with and preference for sexual activity in the absence of love or commitment. Research has shown that those with "unrestricted" orientation, regardless of gender, typically report higher well being after having casual sex while restricted individuals show no such differences

Despite its growing prevalence and acceptance, casual sex is still associated with certain negative cultural myths. One of these regards the notion that women pursuing casual sex have low self-esteem.

Recently (2020), the researcher Jaimie Krems of Oklahoma State University and colleagues set out to test the truth-value of this notion. Across six experiments with U.S. participants (N = 1,469), they found that “both men and women stereotype women (but not men) who have casual sex as having low self-esteem.” Alas, across experiments, the participants’ own sexual behavior was uncorrelated with their self-esteem. In other words, the participants' self-reports in effect refuted the validity of their own stereotyped beliefs.

In sum, it appears that casual sex is not here to replace emotionally committed sex in the lives of most people. Those who partake in casual sex do not share the same psychological profile, can not be fitted usefully into crude stereotypes, and are not fated toward similar futures. Casual sex is good when it’s good casual sex: freely chosen, in alignment with one’s authentic values, and involving a competent partner.

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