HUS: Busting the myths about casual sex one study at a time.

Yet another study has found that casual sex is linked to anxiety and depression. For both sexes.

A new study, Risky Business: Is There an Association between Casual Sex and Mental Health among Emerging Adults?asked 3,900 college students from 30 colleges across the U.S. whether they’d had sex during the last month with someone they’d known less than a week. 18.6% of males and 7.4% of females reported having done so.

The researchers also investigated the role of gender in determining mental distress linked to casual sex. Prior studies have found that women respond more negatively to casual sex than men, possibly because of double standards that allow men to have more sexual encounters with a greater number of partners than women. In this study, however, gender did not have an effect on outcomes.


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It should be noted that while a small percentage of students hook up regularly, about 30% have had casual sexual intercourse in college and 48% have had a sexually intimate encounter with a stranger or brief acquaintance. Past work in this area has found that men and women experience casual sex differently, but that may be changing.

[Past] research suggests that gender is a significant consideration when understanding the associations between casual sex and psychological outcomes. Men and women report persistently divergent attitudes toward casual sex in both late adolescence and young adulthood (Oliver & Hyde, 1993).

In general, women have more negative attitudes toward casual sex than men do. Although a majority of studies have found that men are significantly more likely than women to report having had casual sex (Eisenberg et al., 2009; Grello, Welsh, & Harper, 2006; Paik, 2010; Paul et al., 2000), a recent study among college students found no such differences (Owen et al., 2010).

…Compared to men, women report more feelings of guilt and regret, and less enjoyment of sexual intercourse, with a relative stranger (Fisher, Worth, Garcia, & Meredith, 2012; Herold & Mewhinney, 1993).

In addition, among college students who reported hooking up in the past year, a significantly lower percent of women (26%) reported a positive reaction than males (50%; Owen, et al., 2010). Another study similarly found that women evaluated one-night stands more negatively compared with men (Campbell, 2008).


There are two schools of thought that explain gender differences in attitudes about casual sex:

Evolutionary Theory

“Defines hookups, casual sex, and friends with benefits as short-term mating strategies, and suggests that attitudes and behaviors, particularly those that are sexual in nature, have an adaptive function. Because men and women encounter different reproductive constraints (e.g., paternity confidence, identifying men that will provide resources), one would expect gender differences in the psychological mechanisms and behaviors around short-term and long-term mating strategies (Buss & Schmidt, 1993; Trivers, 1972).”

Social Cognitive Theory

“Behavior is learned through exposure to or observation of behaviors (Bandura, 1985). For example, positive attitudes and affect toward casual sex may be due to positive images and attitudes depicted in the media, which rarely depict emotional or physical consequences (Fisher et al., 2004). In fact, increased exposure to sexual media is associated with more permissive sexual attitudes and behaviors (Bersamin, Bourdeau, Fisher, & Grube, 2010; Ward & Rivadeneyra, 1999; Zurbriggen & Morgan, 2006).”

The authors refer to the power of popular culture to affect perceptions, which accounts for the prevalence of Pluralistic Ignorance on college campuses:

Given colleges as environments that promote socialization to similar values, the media influences previously noted may increase acceptance of hookups by men and women on college campuses, and still only a minority of this population may engage in the behavior.

Taking both these theories into account may resolve many of the conflicts in the literature. “Although these perspectives are sometimes treated as diametric opposites in the oft-debated nature–nurture polemic, some recent approaches use dynamic cultural processes to integrate these views and better account for conflicting findings in the literature (Agocha, Asencio, & Decena, in press).”

The authors hypothesized the following:

  1. Men would report higher rates of casual sex than women.
  2. Casual sex would be positively associated with psychological distress and negatively associated with psychological well-being.
  3. The relationship between psychological distress, well-being, and casual sex would be stronger for women than for men.


The Expected

Mean comparisons indicated that college students who had recently engaged in casual sex reported lower levels of self-esteem, life-satisfaction, and happiness compared to those students who had not had casual sex in the past 30 days.

College students who had recently engaged in casual sex reported higher levels of general anxiety, social anxiety, and depression compared to college students who had not had recent casual sex.


  Casual Sex No Casual Sex
Self-esteem 34.97 37.76
Life satisfaction 18.66 20.39
Psychological well-being 71.49 80.19
Eudaimonic well-being 70.06 75.40
Depression 59.93 53.96
General Anxiety 49.17 40.37
Social Anxiety 52.87 50.16











  1. Psychological well-being refers to a general level of positive functioning.
  2. Eudaimonic well-being refers to the belief that one has begun to actualize one’s potential.

The Unexpected

In the present study, we hypothesized and found that men were more likely than women to report a casual sexual encounter. As expected, latent variable modeling indicated a positive correlation between casual sex and psychological distress and diminished well-being—an association that, unexpectedly, appeared to be similar for men and for women.

The results of the present study, therefore, argue that involvement in casual sex among college students is similarly associated with mental health outcomes for men and women. The lack of a gender interaction is surprising. Whereas a large meta-analysis found small gender differences in sexual attitudes and behaviors between 1993 and 2007, gender differences did emerge around attitudes toward casual sex, casual sex, and fear, anxiety and guilt toward sex (Petersen & Hyde, 2010).

Possible Explanations

1. The observed results may to some extent operate through the phenomenon of sexual regret. For example, one study found that having sexual intercourse with someone only once or having sexual intercourse with someone known for less than 24 hours was significantly associated with feelings of sexual regret (Eshbaugh & Gute, 2008).

2. Sex with a relative stranger is actually an exemplar of problem behavior as conceptualized within problem behavior theory (Jessor & Jessor, 1977). In support of this assertion, we note that the vast majority of participants (89%) in the present study did not report engaging in casual sex within the 30 days prior to assessment, suggesting that the activity itself is somewhat atypical in this sample of college students.

Why Results Differ From Previous Studies

Past studies have included an extensive subset of sexual activity when operationalizing casual sex. This category of behavior is too broad to be useful, as, from both a psychological and public health perspective, kissing someone is not likely to have the same correlates as intercourse with a stranger.

The current study allowed for a more precise understanding of the hypothesized association. Specifically, we examined whether the prevalence of casual sex behavior, having intercourse with someone known for less than a week, differs significantly by gender, and whether casual sex was associated with psychological distress and wellbeing.

In addition, we controlled for socioeconomic status because, in previous research, parental income was positively associated with hooking up (Owen et al.,2010).

It is not yet understood whether casual sex leads to psychological distress, or whether negative psychological health precedes casual sex. I suspect both occur, as evidenced by the large number of students who try hooking up compared with the small percentage of students who hook up regularly.

Casual sex (as defined here) might, therefore, be one aspect of a general constellation of symptoms linked with unconventionality and problematic behavior. (In fact, results from our previous study found that…the number of sexual partners in the past month was associated with both danger invulnerability and sensation seeking.)

If your objective is a long-term relationship or marriage, the implication of these findings is clear. Reject any potential partner who has cultivated a habit of engaging in casual sex. (There really aren’t that many of them anyway.) Whether they were damaged goods before or after the sex is immaterial, as the negative psychological outcome is the same. And if they somehow can have casual sex without feelings of anxiety of regret? Those are the most unsuitable partners of all, as they lack the capacity for healthy emotional responses and relationships.