Casual sex: Depending on whom you ask, it’s a screaming signal of impending societal collapse, or a fun way to spend a Friday night. But from a psychological perspective, we actually don’t know a huge amount about its possible benefits and drawbacks; past research hasn’t led to a lot of rigorous, conclusive results. (Instead, we get a lot of panicky essays about “hookup culture.”) A new study in Social Psychology and Personality Science fills in some of the gaps, and it shows that casual sex can have psychological benefits … if you like casual sex.
The researchers had a bunch of undergraduates take a survey that revealed whether they had so-called restricted or unrestricted “sociosexual orientations” — that is, whether or not they viewed casual sex in a positive light and had a tendency to seek it out. (How someone’s sociosexual orientation develops is complicated — it’s “determined by a combination of heritable factors, sociocultural learning, and past experiences,” the researchers write.) Then they tracked the participants’ sexual activity via self-reporting over the course of an academic year.
Undergrads who viewed casual sex in a positive light “typically reported higher well-being after having casual sex compared to not having casual sex” — “well-being” meaning higher self-esteem and lower depression and anxiety. Those with negative attutides toward casual sex reported a hit to their well-being, but this wasn’t statistically significant. (The researchers didn’t have a lot of data to work with because, unsurprisingly, people who don’t like casual sex don’t tend to have a lot of casual sex.) There were no identifiable gender differences.
So casual sex makes some people feel better about stuff. On one level: Well, duh. We’ve known for awhile that sex offers all sorts of benefits when it comes to stress and overall well-being (insert your standard caveats about safe sex and the importance of consent), and it’s obvious that a subset of the population enjoys casual sex enough to seek it out pretty consistently.
But there’s a reason we’re at the duh phase of casual-sex research findings: It’s a tough thing to study, partially because it’s been draped for a long time in a lot of puritanical pseudoscience, much of it with a decidedly sexist tinge. And past studies, the researchers noted, have tended not to take individuals’ dispositions into account, instead acting as though casual sex will have a one-size-fits-all positive or negative impact on everyone. That could explain the lack of substantive findings in the past.
Now, this study had a bunch of limitations stemming from its small, undergrads-only sample, so we can’t draw all that much from it. But its method of studying casual sex makes sense, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the underlying, obvious-sounding message here turned out to be true: “If you’re the sort of person who likes casual sex, then having casual sex will probably make you feel better about things. If you’re not, it won’t.”