Hollywood films are littered with casual sex. It is easy to think of on-screen examples of handsome leading men seducing a starlet they have just met or of a sultry heroine heading home with her newfound beau after only a few hours.
The real world is likewise full of casual flings.
Humans are sexual creatures and the urge to get together can be tempting. According to surveys, 75 percent of Americans and Europeans have had sex by age 20, long before people generally commit to long-term relationships.
Nowhere is this truer than on college campuses. Psychologists refer to the years from age 18 to 29 as “emerging adulthood” and it is characterized by a sense of possibility—and unprecedented social freedom. The collision of possibility and freedom gives rise to ideas like “sowing your wild oats,” connoting a youthful string of sexual partners.
But is casual sex among college students healthy?
On the one hand, there's the case that hook-ups are regrettable experiences that often happen in a haze of drunken disregard. This side of the argument might point to the concept of “the walk of shame” (heading home the next morning in the previous night’s clothes) as emblematic of the downside of casual sex. (There are also important problems with consent and sexual assault on college campuses.)
On the other hand, casual sex, it might be argued, is all about pleasure: At least one study found that, at least for males, hooking up was associated with a boost in well-being, perhaps because sexual congress can be a significant status symbol and source of confidence for young men. In a 2004 study, psychologist Mark Leary found that 8 percent of college students reported having unprotected sex precisely because they wanted to be viewed as risk-taking or laid back.
In a more recent study, Melina Bersamin and colleagues examined the well-being of nearly 4,000 multiethnic heterosexual college students. They asked participants about their recent experiences with casual sex—defined as having had sex in the previous 30 days with a person the participant had known for a week or less. The research team found that 11 percent of the students had casually hooked up—18.6 percent of the males and 7.4 percent of the females.
Interestingly, when the researchers then explored the well-being of the “oat sowers," they discovered higher levels of distress and lower levels of happiness. Casual sex was related to lower levels of life satisfaction and self-esteem, and higher levels of depression and anxiety. Using statistical controls, the researchers also found that this general trend held true for both young men and women. The astute reader will understand that these are correlations and not causation: It might be that people in distress are more likely to seek a convenient sexual encounter, or that a casual hookup is more likely to lead to feelings of regret.
A separate study by researchers Jesse Owen and Frank Fincham is suggestive of the latter possibility. Their study examined factors leading to sexual regret. They discovered that among young people, alcohol played an important role in hooking up. When sex happened in the context of a drunken evening, participants were more likely to regret it. But when a one-night stand was associated with the hope for a future relationship, there appeared to be less regret. Thus, casual sex entered into intentionally—and not drunkenly—and seen as the first step in a longer relationship appeared to be less psychologically damaging.
To return to romanticized Hollywood portrayals of hooking up, it's interesting to note that these silver-screen depictions of casual sex are often undertaken by completely sober people. Frequently, as in films in which the heroine goes home with her savior, there is a clear suggestion that the implied sex is just the beginning of what will certainly be a longer term relationship. In the notable instances in which casual sex is shown in the context of drunkenness—The Hangover comes quickly to mind—it is often portrayed in less than flattering terms.
Perhaps popular media isn’t as bad an influence as people suspect.
Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is the author of The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self — Not Just Your “Good” Self — Drives Success and Fulfillment.