New Study Debunks What You Were Told About Having Casual Sex


It's no secret that many members of older generations are fascinated — and somewhat repulsed — by millennial hookup culture.

The allegedly increasing normativity of casual sex among young people was the impetus behind a new study in the Social Psychological & Personality Science, which dives into the psychological effects of these encounters and reaches a surprising conclusion: Having sex with no strings attached actually can do some great things for people's well-being — depending on their personality. These findings echo sex positive activists' frequent assertions that, when it comes to sex, the most important thing is to do what makes you feel most comfortable.

The researchers' conclusions also are a breath of fresh air when compared with previous studies, many of which have suggested that all casual sex is bad for your mental health. But, as the Pacific Standard's Ryan Jacobs writes in his summary of the findings, "A lot of psychology researchers are giant prudes." 

The new study differs in that it takes into account subjects' "sociosexuality," or how inclined they are to want casual sex in the first place, before gauging its effects on their emotional state. Sociosexual orientation is "determined by a combination of heritable factors, sociocultural learning, and past experiences, and reflected in three key components: motivation for, attitudes toward, and past experience with casual sex," the study authors write. 

Researchers surveyed 371 college students over nine months regarding their baseline sociosexuality, sexual behaviors and subsequent psychological well-being, and found that "sociosexually unrestricted individuals" (i.e., those who enjoy casual sex) reported a boost in self-esteem and life satisfaction, as well as lowered levels of distress and anxiety, following encounters described as "one-night stands, friends with benefits, fuck buddies, casually hanging out, just friends, ex-partners, or unclear/complicated." Because "there were no such differences among restricted individuals," the study suggests that "high sociosexuality may both buffer against any potentially harmful consequences of casual sex and allow access to its potential benefits." 

The main takeaway here isn't that casual sex is unequivocally awesome, but rather that people are likely happiest when being true to themselves in the bedroom. 

"This study certainly seems to suggest that casual sex can be a good thing for people who are open to it, desire it, and have positive attitudes towards it," lead researcher Zhana Vrangalova told the Pacific Standard. "And it is always a good idea to be safe while doing it and not get too wasted — other research shows that a lot of the guilt following casual sex comes from failure to [use] condoms or getting too drunk."

Of course, although there was little difference found between genders' experiences with casual sex, subjects classified as sociosexually unrestricted were more likely to be "sexist, manipulative, coercive and narcissistic" males. The lower number of women with such proclivities is likely due to the social stigma they continue to face surrounding promiscuity. As I've written before, "Gendered differences in desire have been shown to diminish over time with more progressive generations, in countries with more equitable distributions of power and when the perceived stigma of being slut-shamed is controlled for in female subjects."

Vrangalova continues, "This study and a previous study of mine are some of the first studies to show that hooking up is not always bad or good for everyone, that it depends on various personal, interpersonal and situational factors."

This is really something we should have known all along: When it comes to sex, you should do whatever works for you. 

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