Casual sex is a controversial issue. Whilst some believe it to be the best way to spend a Saturday night, others condemn the morality of it as well as the physical and psychological dangers. Generally, casual sex has a bit of a bad reputation and that reputation can easily stick to those who regularly partake in it. That said, a great number of people find themselves involved with casual sex at one point in their lives. In fact, around 80% of undergraduate students admit to having casual sex, and by the age of 25, around 70% of the population will have ‘hooked up’ at least once. With such a large amount of the population having had some experience of casual sex, even on a small scale, it seems bizarre that there should be a negative feeling around it, but perhaps there are reasons for that. Putting aside the more obvious ones, such as the risk of sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies, many are beginning to question whether casual sex is actually bad for your wellbeing.
The Dangers of Casual Sex
Relationship sex and casual sex are without a doubt different. Whilst the former is believed to increase cardiovascular strength and reduce depression, the latter is said to lead to regret and lower self-esteem. One study of 832 university students discovered that after casual sex, over 50% of women and 26% of men experience negative feelings or a reduction in wellbeing. Another study of 192 Canadian students, likewise, discovered that men were more likely to experience feelings of physical regret, such as having sex with someone they are not particularly attracted to, whilst women were more likely to have feelings of shame and guilt. With research such as this, it’s not surprising that casual sex has a developed a negative reputation, but there are undoubtedly many who have had positive experiences as well. Can we then say that casual sex is bad for our wellbeing, or is there more to it?
Zhana Vranglova, professor of psychology at Cornell University in New York and founder of the Casual Sex Project, claims that there is absolutely more to it. In fact, she claims, casual sex isn’t necessarily a negative thing at all. “It can improve wellbeing,” she says, “by increasing confidence, sexual pleasure, and making people feel desirable”. It’s impossible to deny that some people have negative experiences, but it is just as difficult to deny the positive ones people have too, and Vranglova argues that the effect on wellbeing is not to do with whether you have casual sex, but why you do it.
The Self-Determination Theory
In a study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vranglova applies the psychological theory of self-determination to casual sex. In its most basic form, the theory looks at the motivation behind an action – if we perform an action for the right reasons, our wellbeing increases, but exactly the same action performed for the wrong reasons will ultimately see our wellbeing reduced. It’s this self-determination theory, Vrangalova claims, that leads to such a disparity of views when it comes to the judgement of casual sex and to prove it, she conducted a study of 530 students.
Tying the theory to the problem, Vrangalova argues that the right reasons are autonomous – they are self-directed and they reflect our values. It could be because you want the fun or enjoyment of hooking up, or perhaps you want to explore your sexuality. The wrong reasons, on the other hand, are non-autonomous – they are based upon reward or punishment and there is a lack of motivation. You’re doing it to try to feel better about yourself and increase your self-esteem, you’re trying to impress someone or get revenge, perhaps alcohol and drugs are involved, or you were coerced in some way.
Of the students who participated in the story, those with autonomous—or right—reasons for having casual sex experienced no effect on their wellbeing whatsoever, whereas those with non-autonomous—or wrong—reasons reported a decline in their wellbeing. Interestingly, Vrangalova found that gender made little difference – men and women experienced an altered state of wellbeing based on their motivations for action as opposed to their gender.
Another study, published in Social Psychology and Personal Science found similar results. 371 students were given a questionnaire to determine their ‘socio-sexual orientation’, or in other words, their attitude towards casual sex, and any genetic or cultural factors that may play a part. The participants then kept a journal for nine months, detailing their sex lives and their feelings towards their experiences. Contrary to Vrangalova, the researchers discovered that those who were rated as more sexually open reported higher self-esteem and lower depression and anxiety after casual sex, suggesting that hooking up can actually have a positive effect on wellbeing too.
A Minefield of Information
Of course, none of these studies are conclusive. In fact, there has been so little research conducted in this area that it’s hard to come up with any judgement at all. Of the studies that have been undertaken, they all involve American, heterosexual students, and few firmly define ‘hooking up’ or ‘casual sex’ (does it refer to one-night-stands only? How about friends with benefits?). None of the current research has taken age into consideration either – perhaps casual sex at college will affect wellbeing in one way, but what about casual sex at the age of 50? Few studies consider other potential reasons for the impact too – perhaps the increased anxiety someone feels is not related to the casual sex at all, but rather another aspect of their lives.
One thing is for sure though – nobody has the right to judge what you believe, and at the most basic level, there is no right and wrong when it comes to casual sex. It will be a positive experience for some but a negative experience for others. The most important thing to remember is that should you choose to ‘hook-up’, make sure you’re doing for the right, autonomous reasons or it could seriously damage your mental health.
 Luisa Dillner, 2016, Is casual sex bad for your wellbeing? [online], available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/oct/10/casual-sex-one-night-stand-self-esteem-psychological-distress, accessed 11.29.2016
 Leh Miller, 2015, Is Casual Sex Bad For You? [online], available at: http://www.lehmiller.com/blog/2015/7/16/is-casual-sex-bad-for-you, accessed 11.29.2016
 Luisa Dillner, op cit.
 Zhana Vrangalova, 2014, Is Casual Sex Hazardous to Your Mental Health? [online], available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/strictly-casual/201402/is-casual-sex-hazardous-your-mental-health, accessed11.29.2016
 Zhana Vrangalova, op cit.
 Kristen Sollee, 2014, Is Casual Sex ALWAYS a Bad Idea? [online], available at: http://www.womenshealthmag.com/sex-and-love/benefits-of-casual-sex, accessed 11.29.2016
 Robert Weiss, 2014, Is Casual Sex Healthy? [online], available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-weiss/is-casual-sex-healthy_b_5591593.html, accessed 11/29/2016