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Could a Summer Fling Be Good for Your Mental Health?

It might depend on how good the sex is.

Should you remember what your mama told you?

The idea of casual sex has long been frowned upon by fearful parents everywhere, but what does science say about the connection between mental health and physical pleasure?

Casual sexual relationships and experiences (CSREs) are defined as sexual encounters without either party expecting a relationship—at least on paper, that is.

Sex without commitment is fairly common by adulthood, with 60% to 80% of college students reporting having had a CSRE (aka casual sex) regardless of level of education, sexual identity, and race/ethnicity.

Is casual sex bad for your mental health?

A 2021 study by Wesche, Claxton, & Waterton examined journal articles about CSREs that were published from 1997 to 2019 and found that, when asked to identify the experienced emotions following a casual sexual encounter, participants consistently reported more positive feelings than negative feelings about their most recent casual sexual encounter. However, when asked if they had ever regretted a sexual fling, over half of participants reported negative feelings such as shame and regret.

When you compare a midsummer's night fling to sex with a partner you love, people overwhelmingly feel more emotionally satisfied when they have sex with someone they love.

But sex that isn't emotionally satisfying can still very well be physically satisfying. So how do you decide if you should stay the night or hurry home?

This is where things get a bit tricky in a situation that is supposed to be simple and uncomplicated.

On one hand, research shows that people who engage in casual sex tend to report more psychological distress than their fellow (abstinent) peers. But just because casual sex and psychological distress go hand in hand doesn't mean that one influences the other.

There is no way to know if casual sex causes psychological distress, or if people who are experiencing emotional strain try to soothe their wounds through sex.

There is also research that has found a connection between low self-esteem and emotional distress. Once again, we cannot find a causal relationship, as in we cannot find proof that low self-esteem causes someone to engage in a greater number of casual sex encounters.

How does casual sex affect your mood?

One relationship that was present in several studies is the likelihood of depressive symptoms leading to future casual sexual encounters. Anxiety, on the other hand, lowers the likelihood of someone taking that scary plunge into a fun fling.

For many people, especially women, there is often a short-term dip in mental wellness following CSREs. Women report more worry and disgust than their male counterparts.

Contrary to popular (and slightly sexist) assumptions, there is no difference in how the two sexes experience post-coital regret.

Women report more worry and disgust than their male counterparts do following a CSRE. But women who have an orgasm during a one-night stand are less likely to regret the encounter. Interestingly, and seemingly conflictingly, women are also more likely to experience feelings of self-affirmation regarding their physical self after a no-strings-attached sexual encounter.

Men, on the other hand, are more likely to experience a reduction in psychological distress following a sexual fling.

To have or have not?

Humans were not biologically programmed for casual sex—but we sure tend to have a lot of it.

The argument can be made that we as humans were born to pass on our genetic code to ensure the survival of our family unit as well as the survival of the species. That's part of the reason why our brains release oxytocin during intercourse as well as when a woman breastfeeds: Procreation equals survival.

But sex brings up more than merely a post-coital glow. Intimacy with another human is sexual as well as emotional.

Perhaps the most important issue here is that too much is unknown about sexual satisfaction, emotional satisfaction, and whether the endorphins and hormones released during a sexual counter are enough to countereffect the possible negatives. It is impossible to guarantee that feelings of need, lust, and possibly even love won't arise as a partial result of physical intimacy.

Regardless of what our bodies were made to do, thanks to our own free will and the fact that sex is pleasurable, casual sexual and romantic encounters are likely to continue occurring.

Facebook image: Lomb/Shutterstock


Wesche R, Claxton SE, Waterman EA. Emotional Outcomes of Casual Sexual Relationships and Experiences: A Systematic Review. J Sex Res. 2021 Oct;58(8):1069-1084.

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