5 Things We Still Don’t Know About Casual Sex

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Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev; Photo: Shutterstock

As Science of Us reported last week, a new study lends some empirical weight to a commonsense notion: Casual sex confers certain psychological benefits upon the folks who seek it out. Since psychologists are still early on in their attempts to shake off the puritanism that has draped conversations about casual sex in favor of actual studies and legitimate data, Science of Us asked Zhana Vrangalova, an NYU researcher and the study's lead author, to name the remaining big unanswered questions about casual sex. Here are five of them.

1. How does aging affect the benefits of casual sex? Vrangalova's study and many others focus on college students, and, as a whole, society tends to talk about "hookup culture" as being mostly about twentysomethings. "We know very little about casual sex past college age and how it's related to mental health or anything else, really," wrote Vrangalova in an email. When all your friends are married and your own sexual relationships are still casual, does the social stigma against sleeping around at an older age reduce the benefits you might otherwise accrue? Is it less enjoyable simply because of the biological effects of aging? We don't yet know.

2. Are all casual-sex arrangements created equal? Casual sex can mean different things in different contexts. Sometimes it's an ongoing friends-with-benefits arrangements; other times, it's a one-time drunken hookup. Do different sorts of casual-sex encounters have different impacts on the participants' well-being? It's unclear.

3. What are the long-term benefits or drawbacks of casual sex? "Thus far, most studies, even longitudinal ones, have examined relatively short-term effects: from a week to a year," wrote Vrangalova, whose own study fits in this category. "More research is needed on what happens over several years or longer." 

4. What accounts for the gender gaps in casual sex? Men desire casual sex more than women, "but whether that's due to cultural or biological reasons remains a contested debate," as Vrangalova told us. "Also, there's a huge orgasm gap during hookups, with female college students orgasming about 40 percent of their hookups compared to over 70 percent of male students." That, too, likely has to do with a combination of biological factors and socialized ideas about the "proper" ways to act and communicate during casual sex.

5. Are there big race- or class-related differences? For researchers on college campuses, there's no easier, bigger group of potential study subjects than middle- and upper-class white kids. And while there's nothing wrong with studying their sex lives, doing so, Vrangalova pointed out, provides only a limited view, and ignores early evidence of important race- and class-related differences. "There is some qualitative and a bit of quantitative research suggesting that class and race... interact with gender such that gender differences in desiring and engaging in casual sex are much greater at lower [socioeconomic status] than higher SES," she said. "In other words, lower class and non-white (esp Black and Latina) women are less likely to desire casual sex than their higher SES counterparts, as if such desires are a luxury of those who are better off."