How Does Casual Sex Actually Affect Your Emotional Health?

Photo: Gabriel Nunes

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

If you’re like most people, you probably had some sort of gut reaction to the questions posed above. Maybe you’re appalled by the very idea of these things. Maybe you’re OK with some things but not others. Maybe you’re thinking, "Hmm, I’ve never tried that one." Or maybe you’re wondering what, if anything, casual sex does to a person’s psyche and emotional well-being.

There's 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 2009 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 2014 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 not. Two relatively recent 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 2014 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 2015 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 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 whether casual sex is OK. 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.

Want more insight into your relationship? Find out the five things couples who stay together do every day and the ways your sex life can show you what's wrong in your relationship.

This article is based, in part, on research conducted for the books Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction.

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