Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Between the Sheets

casual-sex

(Photo: Patricia Chumillas/Shutterstock)

Casual Sex Is Actually Excellent for You, If You Love Casual Sex

• June 20, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Patricia Chumillas/Shutterstock)

New research suggests that not all casual sex is bad. For those legitimately interested, it can boost life satisfaction and self-esteem and lessen anxiety.

A lot of psychology researchers are giant prudes. In previous studies of bedding strangers, some have suggested that pretty much all casual sex is detrimental to your psychological well-being. As a new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science notes, they’ll rattle off negatives like “less enjoyment and nurturance than romantic sex, frequent regret, unwanted emotional attachment, substance use, and social stigma.” There are others, too, of course: cheap wine and awkward conversation in a smelly apartment, haphazardly setting off stairwell fire exit alarms as you sneak out into the night, or a long and lonely morning walk or taxi ride of shame.

But research that has attempted to measure the overall effects of one-night stands and “fuck buddies” on psychological health hasn’t been totally decisive. “[P]ast findings on the main effects of casual sex on well-being range from negative to positive with a preponderance of nonsignificant results,” the new study, led by sex researcher Zhana Vrangalova, notes. In other words, the inconsistencies might mean that the true effect is context- and personality-dependent.

All-negative or all-positive findings don’t really account for the strange and nuanced spectrum of opinion about casual sex, and they especially exclude those who can’t wait to engage in their next coital misadventure with a complete stranger they just met while grinding on a dance floor of a sweaty club.

As we all know, these people do exist. They lurk in our bar’s backrooms, on our gym’s racquetball courts, on cruises and in airplanes, and on every street in the city of Miami. And, Vranglalova figured, they should be accounted for in statistical analysis.

“The vast majority of unrestricted people desire, enjoy, and form relationships; they just also enjoy and desire casual sex.”

In social science parlance, the personality trait that measures degrees of interest in casual sex is termed “sociosexuality.” “Sociosexual orientation is a relatively stable tendency toward or away from casual sex, determined by a combination of heritable factors, sociocultural learning, and past experiences, and reflected in three key components: motivation for, attitudes toward, and past experience with casual sex,” the authors write.

Other research has shown there are positive psychological benefits when someone acts authentically, or in accordance with their personality. The authors argue that there would be no reason to believe that this effect wouldn’t extend to casual sex. If you are “sociosexually unrestricted,” or you desire casual sex, you might derive psychological benefits from feeling like you’re acting authentically while having it. If you’re “sociosexually restricted,” it might work the opposite way.

The researchers tested their theory by surveying 371 college students about baseline sociosexuality and then asking about their sexual behavior and psychological well-being over a period of nine months. “Participants were considered to have had penetrative casual sex on a given week if any of their oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse partners were reported as one-night stands, friends with benefits, fuck buddies, casually hanging out, just friends, ex-partners, or unclear/complicated,” the researchers explain.

By the end of the study, 42 percent of subjects reported having sex outside a relationship. When it came to those who were sociosexually unrestricted, having casual sex was associated with higher self-esteem and life satisfaction and lower depression and anxiety. “Typically, sociosexually unrestricted individuals (i.e., those highly oriented toward casual sex) reported lower distress and higher thriving following casual sex, suggesting that high sociosexuality may both buffer against any potentially harmful consequences of casual sex and allow access to its potential benefits,” the researchers write. Additionally, feelings of authenticity “amplified” the beneficial psychological effects, but did not spur them, as hypothesized. Surprisingly, the researchers did not find any negative effects on well-being in those who were sociosexually restricted but had casual sex anyway. This might be due to limited sample size, though, since not very many restricted subjects did this.

“This study certainly seems to suggest that casual sex can be a good thing for people who are open to it, desire it, and have positive attitudes towards it,” Vrangalova says in an email to Pacific Standard. “And it is always a good idea to be safe while doing it and not get too wasted – other research shows that a lot of the guilt following casual sex comes from failure to [use] condoms or getting too drunk.”

Still, these findings do not imply that “casual sex is better than relationship sex, even for unrestricted people,” Vrangalova cautions. “The vast majority of unrestricted people desire, enjoy, and form relationships; they just also enjoy and desire casual sex.”

Not unexpectedly, the types of people who constantly desire casual sex sound a bit insufferable. They are generally “extroverted,” sensation-seeking, “impulsive,” “avoidantly attached” males, who “also invest less in romantic relationships and are more likely to have cheated on a romantic partner (perhaps because monogamous arrangements are less well-suited for them),” Vrangalova says. “Among men, they are also more likely to be physically strong, and especially among college men, also more sexist, manipulative, coercive and narcissistic.” They also tend to be “unconventional, attractive, [and] politically liberal.”

Crucially, the study proves that casual sex is much more textured and complex than previous research has let on. “This study and a previous study of mine are some of the first studies to show that hooking up is not always bad or good for everyone, that it depends on various personal, interpersonal and situational factors,” Vrangalova says. “And we need more research that will examine these various factors, and move the discourse away from the black-and-white picture often painted and toward these more useful nuances.” Pushing past the binary, Vrangalova is now investigating what influence getting wasted and forgetting to use a condom might have on casual sex’s overall psychological effects.

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

More From Ryan Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


Follow us


Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.