Is "casual sex" unhealthy?

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Someone on Facebook recently stated that they think casual sex is universally unhealthy.

I think that not only is this belief factually incorrect, but damaging.

This post will summarize and link to what I believe is a representative sample of the empirical research on casual sex.

But first, I want to go over why I care.

I grew up in a very anti-science, shame-based culture, especially in regards to sex and sexuality. So it’s very important to me that these conversations be based on good data and not shame or superstition.

Making sweeping claims about sex that don’t align with the credible evidence we have is harmful. When people universalize their individual experiences it can make people who experience the world differently feel like they’re broken or doing it wrong. It can dissuade people from having the kind of sex they want, for no reason. And it can lead people to believe they’re justified in shaming others for behavior that isn’t wrong.

Over and over again I find that unnecessary shame and stigma around sex are far more damaging than sex itself.

There’s tons of shame around casual sex, especially directed towards women who engage in it. For example, one recent study showed that Americans believe women (but not men) who have casual sex have low self-esteem. This belief is pervasive, robust, and unfounded.

I think it’s worth asking whether everyone experiences casual sex the same way (no). And, how might people experience “casual” sex in a social context in which slut-shaming didn’t exist?

But first,

What makes sex “casual?”

The word “promiscuous” doesn’t have a concrete definition. In practice, people use it to mean “has more sexual parters than I do.” Similarly, the term “casual sex” means different things to different people.

It could mean anything from any remotely sexual physical contact before monogamous marriage to glory hole participation.

I also want to note that “hook-up culture” is a classic moral panic. Despite claims otherwise, there’s no evidence that most people are having way more sex partners than previous generations. If anything, we have fewer. Most Americans have between four and six sex partners in their whole lives. Even on college campuses, which are supposed hotbeds of “hookup culture,” just 19% of men and 8% of women said they’d had “casual” sex in the past month. The average person kisses 20 people their whole lives.

But, even so, enough people are having sex that either they or researchers describe as casual that we have some evidence about the impacts of that sex on the participants’ well-being.

The empirical evidence on casual sex

I think we should begin by talking about the empirical benefits of casual sex. For those who aren’t in a committed relationship, casual sex is the only way to reap the benefits associated with having sex, including better health and more happiness. People who have regular sex are actually smarter than those who don’t.

Anecdotally, casual sex has many benefits, including:

  • Helping people meet their sexual needs without having to stay in relationships which may not serve them

  • Saving people time sussing out whether a potential partner is sexually compatible

  • Helping people quickly learn what they like and dislike in bed

If we’re going to argue that people who aren’t in committed relationships shouldn’t benefit from sex, we need good evidence that casual sex is bad for you.

TL;DR: That’s not what the evidence says.

This Psychology Today article does a good job summarizing the empirical research on the effects of casual sex on well-being. In all, the research is mixed. Some studies show a clear link between casual sex and things like depression. Other studies show no impact.

One not-shocking finding from multiple studies: Casual sex impacts different people differently.

For instance, one study showed that students who are more comfortable with and approving of casual sex benefitted from casual sex, which students who dislike casual sex but had it anyway didn’t benefit but also weren’t harmed.

Another study found that students who had casual sex for reasons like horniness or attraction were mostly unaffected by it but students who had sex for reasons like being drunk or getting back at an ex felt worse afterwards. Similarly, women who initiated their casual sex were less likely to regret it than women who merely said yes.

The author of the article summed up the research and his clinical experience thusly: “If casual sexual activity doesn’t violate your moral code, your sense of integrity, or the commitments you have made to yourself and/or others, then it’s probably not going to be a problem for you in terms of your psychological wellbeing. Conversely, if you are by nature or upbringing socially and/or sexually conservative, or you have a strict religious belief system, or you tend to attach emotionally to anyone with whom you are physically intimate (regardless of whether the other person reciprocates), then casual sex may well cause you to experience shame, depression, lowered self-esteem and the like. This may be especially true if you engage in casual sex for ‘non-autonomous’ reasons like getting drunk, seeking revenge, trying to fit in, etc.”

The anecdotal evidence on casual sex backs up this conclusion. For some, especially those who feel shame around casual sex or are doing it for reasons other than sexual pleasure, casual sex can be harmful. For most people, casual sex doesn’t cause any measurable harm.

Obviously the more sex you have the greater your risk of unwanted pregnancy, but that risk is the same whether that sex is casual or committed. More sex partners also puts you at greater risk of STIs. But committed sex is no guarantee against those either. Most sexually active Americans have HPV, for instance. And up to 80% have HSV1. So even one lifetime sexual partner puts you at significant risk for at least two STIs. And just because you’re not having casual sex doesn’t mean your partner isn’t. So the best way to prevent STIs is barriers and frequent testing, regardless of how casual your sex is.

My conclusion:

Sex is demonstrably good for most people.

The evidence that casual sex is harmful to most people is mixed.

To the extent that casual sex is harmful to people, it’s due to one or more of the following:

  1. People who aren’t cut out for it are doing it

  2. People are doing it for the wrong reasons

  3. People have been taught that it’s shameful

The idea that casual sex is inherently or necessarily universally harmful is not supported. What is supported is the idea that pressure, shame, and stigma around casual sex are harmful and should be eliminated.

By all objective measures, I’ve had a lot of casual sex in my life. And I have benefitted from it tremendously. It’s helped me learn to love the way my body looks and moves. It’s helped me learn what I like and dislike in bed. It’s helped me understand what other people think is normal during sex. Coming out of my marriage, I had a lot of curiosity around sex (to say the least). Having lots of partners of varying degrees of emotional intimacy has been a great way for me to learn. My experiences have been overwhelmingly positive, with a good bit of neutral and very little negative.

But my experience isn’t universal, by any means.

Sexuality isn’t a spectrum. It’s many specrums. Homosexual to heterosexual. Sexually open to sexually closed. High libido to low libido. Demisexuality is another sexual spectrum. Some people only want to have sex with people they’re very close to emotionally. Others enjoy sex with people whose names they don’t know. Both of these types of people, and everyone in-between, is equally valid.

Casual sex has been positive for me because, in part, because I have consciously rejected shame narratives around it.

I grew up believing that any sex outside a monogamous, heterosexual marriage would upset God and ruin my life. Newsflash: God doesn’t care what you do with your nethers as long as its consensual and on the list of ways I’ve ruined my life, casual sex ranks near the very bottom. Today I believe that as long as everyone is consenting and you’re taking appropriate precautions it simply doesn’t really matter in any universal, moral, or cosmic sense, except to the extent that it matters to you personally.

Plus, I’m bisexual, have extremely high sexual openness, a very high libido, and very low levels of demisexuality.

Sex with people I have feelings for is different, for me, than sex with people I don’t know well or care deeply for. It’s not necessarily better or worse. I still enjoy the excitement of a new partner. But lately I’ve been trying to have more of the former and less of the latter. In part, this is just because the former requires more effort for me than the latter. But also because I find the former more interesting and potentially more rewarding. At a certain point, the benefits from having more partners starts to drop off.

The only advice I would give anyone is that if you think casual sex is bad for you, don’t have casual sex. But don’t go around telling other people what casual sex is for them.

Let people decide for themselves, based on their own preferences, rather than universalizing your own experience for everyone else.