Impact of Casual Sex on Mental Health?

Depending on the context, casual sex may be celebrated, relished, derided, envied, or stigmatized. Some people consider the activity in a serious way, evaluating all the possible ramifications (emotionally and physically) along with the potential benefits and drawbacks when thinking about having casual sex. Others take the idea of casual sex, well, a bit more casually.

 Casual Sex

That said, many people have strong opinions about whether or not it's a good idea, although these attitudes tend to shift as life circumstances—and relationship statuses—change. However, whether you're inclined to go with the flow or to consider the topic down to the nitty-gritty, it can be helpful to take a look at the cultural context and potential mental health effects (both positive and negative) that casual sex can have when deciding if it's right for you.

What Is Casual Sex?

Casual sex can be defined in a variety of ways and may mean very different things to different people. However, by and large, casual sex is consensual sex outside of a romantic relationship or marriage, usually without any strings of attachment or expectation of commitment or exclusivity. Depending on the situation, the activity is also known as hook-ups, one-night-stands, trysts, booty calls, or friends-with-benefits, among many other euphemisms.

Casual sex might happen between partners just once or regularly. It may occur between close friends, exes, casual acquaintances, uncommitted dating partners, colleagues, or complete strangers, and might be planned or scheduled in advance or occur spontaneously. In essence, causal sex is a way of having the physical intimacy of sex, outside of the emotional, practical, or romantic components of love or a committed relationship.

Some people form casual sex relationships periodically, while others do so more frequently and may have one or many partners that they hook up with over the same period of time as a normal part of their lives.

What Constitutes Casual Sex?

Casual sex doesn't necessarily always include intercourse. It might comprise any range of physically intimate activities, such as kissing, oral sex, mutual masturbation, and penetration.

Casual Sex in Context

Some people consider casual sex a healthy sexual outlet, akin to regular exercise, or simply as an enjoyable physical experience, possibly enjoyed even more without the expectations, accountability, or pressures of a traditional romantic relationship.

When it's engaged in in an emotionally healthy manner, casual sex provides the carnal pleasures of sexual intimacy without the emotional entanglements of a full-fledged relationship.

For others, casual sex has appeal but managing the emotions, as in not getting attached or feeling dejected or used, or judgments of others gets complicated—and can result in hurt feelings or unrequited longing. Still others find the risks (like getting an infection, sexual assault, or disappointment) are too great and/or feel sex should only occur in a committed or married relationship.

Cautionary, often sexist, tales are often told, particularly to girls and women. Not too long ago, girls were warned with age-old adages like "they won't by the cow if you give away the milk for free," meant to deter them from compromising their "virtue."

In movies, casual sex is often portrayed as fun, no-strings-attached romps resulting in a cheerful, exuberant glow—sometimes leading to romance. Other portrayals end in disappointment, regret, and heartbreak. But how does it play out in real life?

The truth is that casual can be fantastic or terrible and everything in between.

For some, sex outside of commitment is considered immoral—or only appropriate for men or "loose" women. Sometimes, these encounters may constitute cheating, as in one or both of the participants is in another relationship. Clearly, stereotypes, assumptions, ethics, experience, and personal beliefs are all at play. Additionally, a few bad (or good) casual sex encounters may drastically skew a person's perspective on the activity.

What we can all agree on is that casual (or any) sex carries with it the risks of unplanned pregnancy, contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and physical (or emotional) harm from your partner, particularly one that is not well-known to you. But, in addition to taking stock of moral issues and risk factors, there are mental health ramifications to consider when deciding if casual sex is emotionally healthy for you.

Beliefs and Stereotypes

There are historical, religious, and cultural prejudices against casual sex, especially for women, that promote marriage or committed relationships as the most (or only) acceptable venues for sex. In some traditions, sex is considered only appropriate for reproductive purposes, and/or sex for pleasure is taboo. Often, these "rules" have been flouted, with casual sex kept secret, particularly for men, with a variety of repercussions possible (like ruined reputations or ostracization) for those that get caught.

Women who engage in casual sex have historically (and in some communities, continue to be) demonized for the behavior, labeled as sluts, whores, trash, easy, or worse. Clearly, buying into these harmful, oppressive stereotypes is damaging whether or not you engage in casual sex—and serves to reinforce the sexist idea that it's wrong for women to enjoy sexual pleasure and experiment sexually outside of romantic love or the bonds of marriage.

However, with the introduction of safe and effective birth control in the 1960s and the "free love" sexual revolution that followed, the power of these archetypes began to fall away. Still, more conservative notions about sexual freedom and experimentation—as well as traditional views on gender identity and sexual preference—still hold powerful sway among the hearts and minds of some.

Today, though, many have shaken off, rejected, or modified those traditional ideals to embrace a more expansive range of possible sexual or romantic relationships, including the LGBTQ+ community. Increasingly, noncommitted rendezvouses are viewed as a rite of passage or simply as an enticing sexual outlet. It's more common, too, to believe that everyone should get to define for themselves the types of sexual relationships they want to engage in.

Potential Benefits and Drawbacks

The pluses or minuses of causal sex are relative to the situation in question. There may be as many potential benefits (like sexual satisfaction, feeling attractive, or meeting a potential future partner) to casual sex as there are issues to give you pause. Possible drawbacks, such as emotional distress due to wanting more or sexual regret, will vary dramatically from person to person, essentially based on your mindset going into the encounter and personal history and expectations.

Some groups attach a lot of societal stigma to casual sex while others are more accepting or enthusiastic about the practice. Each person should consider any underlying shame or other negative feelings they personally might feel or be exposed to and whether those beliefs resonate with them as something to embrace or reject. How likely you are to feel good about the experience before, during, and after is important to consider as well.

Of course, as noted above, there are notable physical risks of engaging in casual sex, particularly if safe sex practices are not followed, of STIs, unplanned pregnancy, and sexual assault. But the emotional fallout, sometimes completely unexpectedly, can be huge as well, particularly if you are engaging in casual sex as a way to avoid or bury your feelings.

Anecdotally, we know that many people enter into these encounters thinking it will all be in good fun, only to end up attached, deflated, upset, or feeling misguided. On the flip side, there are many others who end up pleasantly surprised by their experiences and their ability to enjoy a simply physical liaison.

Mental Health Effects

Essentially, some people may be better than others at compartmentalizing their romantic longings from their sexual desires. For others, emotions and touch naturally entwine, making causal sex harder to keep casual, even if that was your intention. Research shows that women tend to have a harder time than men with preventing emotional attachment, and when this happens they are more prone to feeling used, depressed, regretful, or embarrassed after the fact.4

People may jump in without really thinking about how they'll feel afterward, only to find they're left with hurt feelings, remorse, wishing there was more to the relationship, or feeling unfulfilled by the experience. It can be easy to tell yourself that it's just sex, just for fun, but for some people, it may turn out to be very hard to keep your feelings in check. So, it's vital to assess expectations honestly.

Other people may have the opposite issue, where they focus so intently on just keeping the relationship on a physical level, telling themselves that there is nothing else there (or that they don't want a romantic entanglement), that they may miss the potential for a more lasting, deeper relationship—possibly ending up disappointed later that they didn't pursue one when they had the chance. Then, there are others who fully relish the just physical thrills of a booty call.

Sometimes, casual sex relationships exist in a lopsided power dynamic that leaves one or the other partner longing for more (whether simply in frequency or in the type of commitment), while the other keeps it casual. Clearly, this situation is likely to take a toll on the person wanting more. In these cases, there is a bigger potential for self-esteem to take a big hit and for stress, anxiety, self-doubt, or even, depression to occur.

Additionally, studies show that post-hookup distress and misgivings are more likely with unprotected sex as well as if an encounter goes further than intended or if either person felt pressured to perform sexual acts that they didn't want to do.

Acting outside more conservative beliefs on causal sex might be liberating for some but end up disappointing, or even traumatic, for others.

What the Research Says

Overall, likely because this issue is so personal and influenced by so many factors, research on the mental health effects of causal sex is mixed. Some studies have found a correlation between casual sex and a variety of negative mental health consequences like anxiety, sadness, feeling bad about oneself, regret, depression, and poor self-esteem. However, many others have found positive impacts, such as a boost in self-esteem, relaxation, sexual pleasure, and self-awareness.

In fact, a comprehensive 2020 review of 71 studies generally found a positive emotional outcome from casual sex experiences for most people. However, the researchers note that beneficial mental health impacts are not universal and that factors like using alcohol, not knowing one's partner, and not being sexually satisfied from the encounter can make a negative emotional response more likely.

Tellingly, many studies have found a stronger positive correlation of negative emotional outcomes for women who engage in more frequent hookups, while men tend to experience the opposite—more casual sex creating more positive feelings.5

Ultimately, your personal experiences and beliefs on sexuality, gender roles, identity, romance, religion, morality, life purpose, and happiness will inform how you experience and think about casual sex.

Your own emotional baggage about sex, touch, romance, and sexual identity has the power to turn what might be a positive encounter for one person into a guilt-laden mistake for another. Essentially, it's different for everyone, and only you can decide what's right for you.

Who Is Having Casual Sex?

While it's challenging to get exact numbers on the prevalence of casual sex, studies show that the behavior is very common and increasingly socially accepted. Interestingly, many teens and young adults seem to favor more casual hookups as a precursor to potential romantic relationships rather than engaging in traditional dating practices. Essentially, experiencing sex as a physical need and a way to vet potential romantic partners.

Research has found that casual sex is particularly common in adolescence, emerging adulthood, and any time adults are outside of committed relationships. In one study, 40% of respondents in their early 20s reported a recent casual sex encounter. Other research has found that over 50% of 18 to 24-year-olds have indulged in the activity and that of sexually active teens, almost 40% were hooking up rather than within exclusive relationships.

Other studies put the rates at over 70% of young adults having casual sex.4 Interestingly, the number of prior sexual partners, level of completed education, alcohol and drug use, and perception of the acceptability of the behavior impact the number of casual sex experiences a person is likely to have. For example, those pursuing college degrees engaged in casual sex less often than those that didn't finish high school.

Another review found that religious belief, high self-esteem, and having married parents decreased the likelihood of the behavior, but that factors like race, socioeconomic status, depression, and being in a romantic relationship did not affect rates of casual sex.

In addition to reduced stigma about non-committed sex, the rise of dating apps like Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, OkCupid, and Coffe Meets Bagel, has given people many more options for dating and casual sex—and to find like-minded partners.

Is It Right for You?

Depending on the person, casual sex may feel like a gift, necessary pleasure, happy indulgence, minor regret, or a deep shame. Whether or not you pursue casual sex is a personal choice that is heavily dependent on your life experiences, beliefs, and relationship status as well as how you feel about casual sex itself—and your prospective partner.

Ultimately, the important thing to know is that there is no right or wrong answer, just what feels best for you. It can help to have an understanding of what the difference or overlap between sex and love is for you—and whether or not you want (or can) keep them separate.

Sometimes, you might discover how you feel about hookups through trial and error, but even better is to think about what you want and believe regarding your sexuality and sexual activities in order to really know on a deep level what is best for you.

A good indication that casual sex might be something you'd like is if you feel more excitement and empowerment rather than shame or guilt when thinking of it. Taking proper consent and safe sex precautions is also imperative.

The type of casual sex you are considering also may impact your enjoyment and comfort level with it as well. For example, anonymous sex might feel hot or lonely—or dirty, in a bad way. Hooking up with an ex or close friend might feel comfortable and safe or boring—or naughty, in a good way. It's vital to think about consent, too. For casual sex to be a positive experience, you want to be sure that you are doing what you want to do and aren't feeling pressured (or forced) to engage in anything you don't.

Alternatively, sleeping with a platonic friend might get awkward, especially if one of you ends up with romantic feelings that the other doesn't reciprocate, and sex with a former flame may open a can of worms you'd rather keep shut. Also, if casual sex feels in opposition to your moral beliefs then you may have trouble enjoying it, although you might also discover that your beliefs on uncommitted sex bend as you evolve as a person and as a sexual being.

The key is honestly assessing how you really feel about the idea of casual sex and what are you truly hoping to get out of the experience. Casual sex might be right for those that want to experience an array of sexual behaviors and relationships before deciding to commit to a monogamous relationship. You may want to explore your own sexuality and desires and might feel more comfortable doing so in a casual setting. If you just simply enjoy hookups (or want to), then go ahead and enjoy.

Some people's sexuality is tied tighter to intimate relationships than others who are more comfortable separating their sexual needs and desires from being in love and/or a relationship—and either way of being can be healthy and something to celebrate.

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