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

October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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