Is Casual Sex Emotionally Healthy?
A review reveals most people evaluate their casual sex as positive.
The sex and romance literatures reinforce the standard perception that casual sex among adults across a number of ages is common. For some individuals, it is an emotionally momentous life event; for others, merely a blip on their sexual landscape. Some people only occasionally dabble, while others utilize casual sex as their primary sexual outlet. The research question for psychologist Rose Wesche and colleagues was not whether adults engage in casual sex but when they do, is it a positive or negative life event, and what factors predict the emotional outcome of casual sex? For example, do the sexes evaluate casual sex in a similar manner? They reviewed over 70 research articles to explore these issues.
Subjective Emotional Reactions
The authors’ primary finding was clear: “In each study where authors tested the difference between positive and negative feelings, participants reported significantly more positive than negative feelings.” It is not possible to assess the magnitude of this difference, but it was consistently found across nearly all studies. Although the preponderance of the evidence was positive, negative casual sex encounters were reported by many individuals who had at least one negative experience. Nearly three-quarters of individuals in several studies experienced regret, negative feelings, or embarrassment. Thus, one cannot necessarily count on having a positive sexual encounter with a casual partner—but the odds are in one’s favor if certain conditions are met (see below). That said, the best sex for many was with one’s romantic partner and not with a casual sex partner, especially if it was with a stranger.
The causation question is difficult to disentangle: Is it that casual sex increases one’s self-esteem and decreases depression and anxiety, or is it that those who already have high self-esteem and are not particularly anxious engage in casual sex? Few studies assess this directionality dilemma because the preconditions of the person (emotionally, physically, sexually) and the context in which casual sex occurs are not always considered. Thus, explicit detail about what causes positive versus negative outcomes is largely unknown. Perhaps some individuals engage in casual sex because they are lonely or depressed; others because they are feeling invigorated and horny; and others because the opportunity was random or unplanned and they went for it. In several longitudinal studies, although engagement in casual sex might have had short-term negative effects on emotional health, there was little evidence that it was detrimental on long-term emotional health.
Five Important Nuances
1. Women more than men were likely to worry about and regret their casual sex encounter; hence, such activities were less emotionally satisfying for women than for men.
2. There were few clear age patterns in the emotional health outcomes of casual sex; they characterized adolescents, young adults, and adults.
3. Individuals with positive and permissive attitudes toward sexuality tended to have better emotional casual sex outcomes. Most realized that casual sex can be sexually pleasurable but is seldom emotionally intimate. That is, having “reasonable” expectations was critical. For example, hoping the casual sex encounter would evolve into a romantic relationship usually led to disappointment and heartbreak.
4. Those familiar with their casual sex partner generally had more positive than negative emotional outcomes. First-time partners, strangers, and one-time partners usually elicited a higher level of negative evaluations. Friends-with-benefits was a good and healthy solution for some.
5. If the encounter involved penetrative (oral, vaginal, and/or anal penetration) rather than nonpenetrative contact (kissing and touching) it was more likely to be a negative experience.
The authors suggested that having positive emotional outcomes when engaging in casual sex encounters can be enhanced if individuals have, prior to the experience, educational guidance regarding sexual decision-making as to whether and under what circumstances such behavior is desired. Teaching about verbal and nonverbal consent practices would also be helpful.
My addition to this advice is to advocate that this instructional process should commence during middle school with an explicit educational program that provides clear and value-free information about casual sex. Maybe we can insert such programs into our curricula during 2021.
Ritch C. Savin-Williams, Ph.D., is Director of the Sex and Gender Lab at Cornell University.