What Are the Psychological Effects of Casual Sex?
Intriguing new research reveals who benefits, and who doesn't.
Posted Jun 08, 2015
In a previous post, I wrote about Ashley Madison, a website and app designed to help married people engage in sexual infidelity. I got the same basic response that I get whenever I speak or write about that site, or about sexual infidelity in general: Many are appalled that infidelity is so prevalent and that it has been so thoroughly monetized, while others simply shrug their shoulders and say, “People have been cheating since the beginning of time. What’s the big deal?”
When I speak and write about casual sex among single people, I get a similar reaction. Many worry that society is crumbling because of "hookup apps" like Tinder, Blendr, Grindr, etc. They seem to feel that sexual activity without emotional connection and long-term commitment (such as marriage) is an E-Ticket to eternal damnation, depression, or low self-esteem. Meanwhile, others think the current digital hookup culture is a great way to be sexually active while single, and maybe even a good way to meet someone who might become a longer-term partner.
So which is it?
In the post-Kinsey world, there is not a lot of research looking at the psychological effects of casual sex on those who do (or don’t) engage in it. In the research that does exist, the primary focus is generally limited to the question: Are the people who engage in casual sex more depressed, and do they have lower self-esteem, than the people who aren’t having casual sex?
Only rarely do these studies account for other possible causes of diminished psychological wellbeing. For instance, a test subject might be depressed because he or she just lost a great job, not because he or she is having casual sex and feels badly about that. Similarly, pre-existing depression and self-esteem issues (perhaps the result of early-life abuse or neglect) might cause a person to engage in casual sex in an effort to feel wanted and desired, if only for a few moments. For that individual, is casual sex the cause or the result of depression and diminished self-esteem?
Of the studies that look specifically at the relationship between casual sexual activity and psychological wellbeing, most hypothesize a negative correlation—as casual sex increases, psychological wellbeing decreases.
However, the actual results are more of a mixed bag:
- A 2009 study published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health looked at sexually active young adults (mean age 20.5). Approximately 20% said that their most recent sexual encounter was casual in nature. More men (29%) than women (14%) reported this. Ultimately, the research team found no significant differences in the psychological wellbeing of those who engaged in casual sex versus those who engaged in sex with a more serious partner, regardless of gender. They 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.”
- In 2014, a study published in the Journal of Sex Research looked at single, heterosexual college students age 18 to 25. The research found that a greater proportion of men (18.6%) than women (7.4%) said they’d had casual sex in the past month. Unlike the 2009 study, researchers found that, regardless of gender, casual sex was negatively associated with psychological wellbeing and positively correlated with psychological distress. Based on this, the research team concluded, “For emerging-adult college students, engaging in casual sex may elevate risk for negative psychological outcomes.”
- Another 2014 study, this one published in Social Psychological & Personality Science, hypothesized that the mixed results of earlier research suggest multiple moderating factors in terms of how casual sex does (or does not) affect psychological wellbeing. Based on that, the research team chose to isolate the influence of what they referred to as “sociosexuality” among single college students. The study found that after having casual sex, sociosexually unrestricted students (those who were generally interested in and eager to have casual sex) typically reported improvements in psychological wellbeing afterward, while the psychological wellbeing of sociosexually restricted students was generally unaffected. Once again, gender did not influence the findings.
- A study published in 2015 in Archives of Sexual Behavior also operated on the idea that there may be multiple moderating factors in terms of how casual sexual activity affects people. Researchers again chose to isolate one particular variable, in this case differences between “autonomous” and “non-autonomous” casual sexual behaviors. (Autonomous reasons for casual sex included things like: the subject was highly attracted to the other person; the subject wanted to experiment and explore his or her sexuality; the subject felt this would be a valuable learning experience, etc. Non-autonomous reasons included things like: the subject was drunk; the subject was hoping it would be more than just a casual encounter; the subject was seeking revenge on an ex, etc. The study found that, regardless of gender, the people having casual sex for autonomous reasons were for the most part unaffected by this activity, whereas those who engaged in casual sex for non-autonomous reasons typically experienced a decrease in psychological wellbeing.
Of note: None of the four studies found a significant difference between males and females. Prior to this research, it was generally assumed that the psychological wellbeing of women was more likely to be negatively impacted by casual sex than that of men, primarily because the potential consequences (social shaming, feeling used/abused, pregnancy, etc.) would seem to be much higher. Nevertheless, the findings of each study were consistent by gender. Except for one thing: More males than females reported that they’d recently engaged in casual sex (double the number in the first study, and more than double in the second). One rather simple explanation, other than that some of the test subjects might be fibbing, is that women define “casual sex” differently than men—primarily because they are more likely to seek and feel an emotional connection in addition to the physical experience.
The Bottom Line: Is Casual Sex Good or Bad?
Research on the psychological effects of casual sexual encounters is in its infancy, and scientists are just beginning to scratch the surface. A true understanding of what casual sex does and does not do to a person’s psychological wellbeing is a long way off. Nevertheless, people do have opinions on the topic, and here is mine (based on existing research along with more than two decades working as a psychotherapist with a specialization in sex and intimacy issues):
If casual sexual activity doesn’t violate your moral code, your sense of integrity, or the commitments you have made to yourself and/or others, then it’s probably not going to be a problem for you in terms of your psychological wellbeing. That said, you may face related issues like STDs, unwanted pregnancy, partners who see your relationship as more than just casual, etc. And you should understand that these related factors could adversely affect your psychological wellbeing even if the sex itself does not.
Conversely, if you are by nature or upbringing socially and/or sexually conservative, or you have a strict religious belief system, or you tend to attach emotionally to anyone with whom you are physically intimate (regardless of whether the other person reciprocates), then casual sex may well cause you to experience shame, depression, lowered self-esteem and the like. This may be especially true if you engage in casual sex for “non-autonomous” reasons like getting drunk, seeking revenge, trying to fit in, etc.
One’s social situation is likely to play into the desire for and the psychological effects of casual sexual activity. In young adulthood, for instance, casual sex tends to be more common and more easily accepted than later in life, especially if one gets married and starts a family. What feels right at 20 may feel wrong at 40.
At the end of the day, there is no undisputed right or wrong answer when it comes to casual sex and its effects on psychological wellbeing. For some people, it is probably fine, and for others it is probably not. Each person is an individual, with a unique life history and emotional makeup, so each person is likely to respond differently to casual sexual behavior.
If you find that you are questioning your sexual behavior (or lack thereof), perhaps the best guide is your own conscience. If you feel comfortable with your sexual life and your sexual behavior is not harming yourself or anyone else, then your sex life is probably not going to cause you to feel depressed, deeply anxious, or otherwise troubled, and you can stop worrying. Conversely, if you feel uncomfortable about what you’ve been doing and/or your behavior causes discomfort to someone else, then you may want to discuss your thoughts, feelings and sexual activity with a trusted friend or, better yet, a therapist who specializes in sexual issues.