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."