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Casual Sex: Benefits vs. Problems

How do you feel about one-night stands? Booty calls? Hookup apps?

Key points

  • The research on casual sex is still relatively nascent, but we can still draw some useful conclusions.
  • On study says casual sex is fine, another says it’s debilitating.
  • Use your conscience and your sense of sexual integrity as your guide.
Shutterstock, Photographee
Source: Shutterstock, Photographee

If you’re like most people, you probably have some sort of gut reaction to the idea of casual sex. Maybe you’re appalled by the very idea of these behaviors. Maybe you’re OK with some behaviors but not others. Maybe you’re thinking, “Hmm, I’ve never tried a hookup app.” Or maybe you’re wondering what, if anything, casual sex does to a person’s psyche and emotional well-being.

Unfortunately, there is not a huge amount of research looking at the emotional and psychological effects of casual sexual behaviors on the people who do (and don’t) engage in them. And of the studies that exist, the results have generally been less than conclusive. Consider the following:

  • A study published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health looked at sexually active young adults (mean age 20.5). The study found no significant differences in the psychological well-being of those who engaged in casual sex versus those who engaged in sex with a more serious partner, regardless of gender.
  • A study published in the Journal of Sex Research studied a similar population but reached a different conclusion, finding that casual sex was negatively associated with psychological well-being and positively correlated with psychological distress, regardless of gender.

And so it goes. One study says casual sex is fine, another says it’s debilitating. Other studies have recognized and addressed this mixed bag of findings by looking at secondary factors that might influence a person’s response, with interesting results.

  • A study published in Social Psychological & Personality Science looked at “sociosexuality” among single college students. The study found that, regardless of gender, sociosexually unrestricted students (those who were generally interested in and eager to have sex) tended to feel better about themselves after casual sex, while sociosexually restricted students (those who were less interested in sex) were generally unaffected by casual sex.
  • A study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior looked at the “autonomy” of casual sexual behaviors. Autonomous reasons for casual sex included things like physical attraction, a desire to explore and experiment, etc. Non-autonomous reasons included things like being drunk, hoping for more than just a casual encounter, etc. Those who had autonomous casual sex were generally unaffected by it, while those who had non-autonomous casual sex typically felt a decrease in well-being, regardless of gender.

The research on casual sex is still relatively nascent, but I do think we can draw some useful conclusions from the most recent studies, such as: If casual sex doesn’t violate your sexual integrity, if you’re doing it because you want to do it and expect to enjoy it, and if you are being sexual in “safe” ways (i.e., using a condom to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancy) then casual sex will probably not affect your psyche and emotions in negative ways. However, if you are by nature sexually conservative, or if you tend to attach emotionally to any person with whom you are sexual (regardless of how the other person feels) casual sex might not be such a good idea.

At the end of the day, there is no clear answer about the emotional and psychological impacts of casual sex. Each person is different, so each person’s view of and response to casual sexual behaviors will also be different. As such, my best advice is to use your conscience and your sense of sexual integrity as your guide.

Facebook image: Aloha Hawaii/Shutterstock