Most people have a pretty solid opinion about casual sex. However, these attitudes change in most people with relationship status as well. Depending on the situation, casual sex is enjoyed, frowned upon, envied or stigmatized. Some take it almost philosophically serious, making all sorts of psychologically beneficial or disadvantageous arguments for or against casual sex. Others just have sex.
Whether you are for it or against it, let’s look at the cultural concepts about and potential psychological effects of casual sex. After this, you can decide for yourself.
What is casual sex?
Casual sex can mean very different things to people. By and large, it’s about consensual sex outside of a committed relationship with no obligations or exclusivity whatsoever. Depending on the environment, it is also called hook-up, one-night stand, date, towing or friendship plus, among many other paraphrases.
Occasional sex can occur once or regularly, between close friends, ex-partners, casual acquaintances, dating app partners, colleagues or strangers – planned or unplanned. It is always about gaining pleasure from physical intimacy without an emotional or romantic bond. Some have more or less informal sexual relationships, while others may have one or more partners with whom they date more regularly.
As with sex in general, there is more than just intercourse: kissing, touching, caressing, oral sex, mutual masturbation and penetration.
Who has casual sex?
While exact figures on the frequency of casual sex are difficult to obtain, the behaviour in the West seems generally widespread and increasingly socially accepted. Interestingly, many teenagers and young adults prefer casual relationships as precursors to potential romantic relationships. In essence, sex then appears as a physical need and an opportunity to test potential romantic partners.
Research has shown that casual sex is pervasive in adolescence, young adulthood and whenever adults are not in a committed relationship.
In surveys, religious beliefs, high self-esteem, and married parents reduced the likelihood of casual sex. In contrast, factors such as race, socioeconomic status, and the romantic relationship did not influence the frequency of casual sex. In addition, the number of previous sexual partners, level of education, alcohol and drug use and the perceived acceptance of the behaviour also affect the number of sexual experiences. Additionally, individual bad (or good) casual sex dates can drastically change our perspective on casual sex.
Casual sex in our culture
When it comes to casual sex in our culture, next to ethics, there are also a lot of stereotypes, assumptions. Personal experience, and convictions come into play. The sex industry also has a significant impact on our expectations, ideas and longings. In addition to reducing social ostracism for noncommittal sex, the rise of dating apps such as Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, OkCupid and Coffe Meets Bagel creates many more opportunities for dating and casual sex with like-minded partners.
There are historical, religious, and cultural prejudices against casual sex. In some traditions, sex is only allowed for procreation. Sex for pleasure, on the other hand, is taboo, even in marriage. These “rules” were often disregarded in all societies, with taboo casual sex mostly kept secret.
Society measured it with two standards. Men enjoyed significantly more freedom. Casual sex by women has been outlawed in the past (and in some cases today). The women were devalued as whores and sluts. It is clear that such stereotypes are harmful and reinforce sexist ideas that generally deny women sexual pleasure inside and outside of romantic love or the bonds of marriage.
The introduction of safe and effective birth control in the 1960s and the sexual revolution of “free love” overturned the power of these stereotypes. Many, including the LGBTQ + community, have shaken off or altered these traditional ideals, greatly expanding the possibilities for sexual or romantic relationships. Noncommittal dates are increasingly seen as a possibility. Many find that everyone should define what types of sexual relationships they would like to enter. Even so, more conservative ideas about sexual freedom, gender identity, and sexual preference still have a powerful impact on the hearts and minds of many people.
Some subjectively view casual sex as a measure to maintain health, such as similar to regular exercise, or simply as a pleasant physical experience.
Occasional sex is seductive to others, but they fear that unrequited longings could lead to hurt or feelings of being taken advantage of.
Still, others find the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, disappointment or violent assault too great.
Sometimes these encounters can represent a breach of trust when one or both partners are in a relationship.
Some find sex outside of emotional attachment immoral and, therefore, an unmistakable sign of moral decline.
Finally, even today, ethical and/or religious beliefs allow sexuality only in a stable relationship or marriage.
In movies, casual sex often comes as a hot, uncommitted adventure that sometimes turns into romance. Other scripts feature disappointment, remorse, and broken hearts. But how is it in real life? Casual sex can be anything from fantastic to awful.
Casual sex: pros and cons
The pros or cons of casual sex depend on the circumstances. Casual sex offers sexual satisfaction, attractiveness, or meeting, potential partners. On the other hand, the constant desire for more sex causes stress or frustration. What prevails in each case depends on our attitudes towards dates, our biography and our expectations.
Our social environment also has a decisive impact. It can reject or accept casual sex or even become enthusiastic about it. Everyone needs to be clear about whether they expose themselves to shame or other negative feelings through casual sex and whether their beliefs reinforce it or expose them open to rejection. How likely are we to be comfortable before, during, and after the experience?
Many people expect casual sex to be just plain fun and end up in disappointment, depression, anger, or guilt. The situation becomes complicated when we engage in casual sex to suppress our feelings or run away from them. Others are surprised by their experience and the ability to experience a simple physical intimacy.
We all agree that casual sex carries the risk of unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and physical (or emotional) injury. But in addition to health and moral issues, there are also mental health implications to consider when deciding whether or not to advocate casual sex.
Casual sex and mental health
As teenagers, we have to learn to combine our need for affection and our romantic longings with our sexual desires. The more emotions and the experience of physical intimacy are naturally intertwined, the more difficult it becomes to deal with casual sex casually. Research shows that men tend to separate emotions and sexuality more often, while women feel more frequently used, depressed, disappointed or embarrassed after casual sex.
Sometimes we succumb to the magic of a moment without really worrying about how we will feel afterwards, only to find that more comes of it, or that the experience leaves us unfulfilled. It can be easy to convince ourselves that it’s just sex, just for fun, and we find it difficult to control our emotions afterwards.
Other people may have the opposite problem. Pure sex can become an obstacle to lasting, deep relationships. Then deep longings for security or love remain unfulfilled.
After all, there are “hunters” who thoroughly enjoy the fair thrill of preying.
The only thing that helps is being honest with yourself.
In addition, studies show that regrets and concerns are more likely after unprotected sex, as well as when an encounter goes further than intended or when a partner feels pressured to accept rejected sexual practices. The transition to sexual relationships, which are designed to support a one-sided power dynamic, is fluid here: a partner with repressed longing for support and security, for example, through self-hatred, subdues his partner to his sexual needs, devalues and uses him consciously or forces him into emotional dependence. The losing partner pays in that power dynamic with damaged self-esteem, stress, anxiety, self-doubt or even depression. This situation shows how fuzzy the boundaries to emotional abuse can be.
Casual sex can be liberating but disappointing or even traumatic to others.
Casual sex: what the research says
Overall, research on the psychological consequences of casual sex is contradicting. On the one hand, because the experience is highly personal. On the other hand, because many factors influence our experience. Some studies have found a link between casual sex and various adverse psychological outcomes, such as fear, guilty conscience, regret, depression, and poor self-esteem. Many others, however, have found positive effects such as an increase in self-esteem, relaxation, sexual pleasure, and self-esteem. Most people experience casual sexual encounters positively. However, alcohol consumption, not knowing the partner and a lack of sexual satisfaction can lead to an adverse emotional reaction.
Ultimately, our personal experiences and beliefs about sexuality, gender roles, identity, romance, religion, morality, purpose in life and happiness will determine how we experience and judge casual sex. Everyone experiences sexuality differently, and only we can decide what is suitable for us.
Casual Sex: what about you now?
Casual sex can feel like a gift, necessary pleasure, indulgence, venial sin, or deep shame to each of us. Whether or not we engage in casual sex is a personal decision that depends heavily on our life experiences, beliefs and relationship status, as well as our attitudes towards casual sex ourselves and our respective partners.
There can be no right or wrong answer to the question: “Casual sex – yes or no?” We have to honestly decide for ourselves what feels best for us. In doing so, we need to understand the difference or the overlap between sex and love for us – and whether we want to (or can) separate them.
Trial and error can teach us how to feel about it. It is better to think about our sexuality and our sexual desires and find out what is best for us on a deep level.
If the thought of casual sex arouses and inspires us rather than evoking shame or guilt, that would indicate that we are into casual sexual encounters.
The type of casual sex we consider will also affect our enjoyment and wellbeing. Anonymous sex can feel hot or lonely – or demeaning and dirty. When we get involved with an ex or close friend, we may feel comfortable and secure, but we may also feel bored – or excitingly naughty.
Alternatively, sleeping with a platonic friend can become embarrassing, especially if one has romantic feelings that the other won’t reciprocate. Sex with the ex can open a can of worms that would have been better left unopened.
If casual sex runs counter to your moral convictions, you will hardly enjoy it. On the other hand, you may well change your beliefs about noncommittal sex throughout life.
To make casual sex a positive experience, be sure that what you are doing is what you want. Don’t be pressured or pressure yourself into doing something you don’t want. The key is sincerity in assessing the subject and your expectations for the experience. Casual sex may be suitable for anyone looking to gain sexual experience before deciding to go into a monogamous relationship. Maybe you would like to explore your sexuality and desires and feel more comfortable in a casual environment. Or perhaps you just enjoy making contacts?
Casual sex can be a wonderful thing, or it can make us feel guilty, empty, or unsatisfied. You have to decide if it is emotionally healthy for you, and you will know when it makes you feel good. If not, you might not be in the right mood to enjoy the experience either. Everyone has their own beliefs, which also change over time, and that’s fine. There is no right or wrong here, just what kind of sexuality we want to live.
Vanbuskirk, Sarah: What Is the Impact of Casual Sex on Mental Health?