Questions remain unanswered about the link between casual sex and mental …

Behavioral researchers have been starting to ask what psychological consequences, if any,
may be in store for young adults who engage in casual sex, in an era when concepts of a “hook-up” culture are taking center stage in popular media. A new study which has been published in The Journal of Sex Research has found higher levels of general anxiety, social anxiety, and depression occur among students who recently had casual sex. Entitled, Risky Business: Is There an Association between Casual Sex and Mental Health among Emerging Adults,? this study surveyed over 3,900 heterosexual college students from across the United States about their casual sex behaviors along with their mental well-being.

In this study “casual sex” was defined as having intercourse with a partner which one has known for less than a week. On an average, about 11 percent of students reported having a casual sex encounter during the month prior to the survey, the majority of these being men. Dr. Melina M. Bersamin of California State University, Sacramento, who led the study, has
said, “It is premature to conclude that casual sexual encounters pose no harmful psychological risks for young adults.” The results “suggest that among heterosexual college students, casual sex was negatively associated with well-being and positively associated with psychological distress.”

The role of gender in determining mental distress linked to casual sex was also studied by the researchers. Previous studies have found that women respond more negatively to casual sex than men do. This may be due to double standards that allow men to have more sexual encounters with a greater number of partners than women. However, in this study gender did not have an effect on outcomes. “Risky Business” has opened the door to future research about causal links which may exist between sexual behavior and mental health. It has not yet been determined by researchers whether casual sex leads to psychological distress, or if the existence of mental health problems causes young adults to engage in riskier sexual behaviors.

Photograph courtesy of Simon Howden at

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