Fact: we’re having sex earlier and getting married older. That means there are more years between adolescence and commitment for most of us, leaving more time for sexual adventure and casual hook-ups.
Like it or loathe it, that’s the way of the world we live in. We are a reckless and hedonistic generation, and the fashionable term ‘no-strings sex’, or ‘NSA’, implies that casual sex is just sex without consequence. But is that true? Is it even possible? It’s more important than ever to be clued up on the potential psychological effects of sex as well as the physical ones. Because even with no strings attached, sex still has consequences.
Those of us who engage in casual sex may have to deal with a range of emotional consequences that persist even after the sex itself has faded from memory, quite aside the physical risks of STIs and unwanted pregnancy. In college, or in the workplace, casual sex can negatively impact your day to day life like a drug addiction.
Now, full disclosure, we’re overlooking all the positives of healthy, informed casual sex for this piece. There are many, many benefits from being stable and sexually empowered, so while it might seem like we’re condemning it here, we’re not. We’re just looking at the negatives of it to offer a clearer picture of the mental effects of casual sex, because it’s important to know, and we all deserve to express our sexualities while remaining healthy and happy. We’re not saying don’t do it. We’re just saying, do it intelligently.
Despite the digital age in which we live, many of our cultural sensibilities remain anchored in the 20th century, which in turn took its cues from the 19th century, and so on. The development of our sexual identity and sense of sexual expression is fast outstripping changes in wider social attitudes to them. The time-old sexual double-standard still unfortunately applies: our society condemns women who engage in casual sex, but glorifies – or, at least, fails to blame men to the same extent. Whether or not there’s a biological foundation to this prejudice, it’s impossible to separate it from its cultural preconceptions.
So, what do we actually know about the emotional results of frequent casual liaisons? Well, there are many. First, and perhaps least significantly, there’s an element of discomfort that comes from the sense that by engaging in casual sex, we’ve somehow violated our own internal standards, projected on to us from our environment. There’s a lot of messaging in the media to indicate that casual sex is ok, that it’s normal. Working for a prominent sex toy brand, I’m part of that messaging myself, after all. But that can put a kind of contradictory pressure on a person: to feel free to have casual sex, that it’s something they should be doing because everyone else is, while they’re also internalising media messaging that scorns casual sex. That might contribute to the development of performance anxiety, amongst much else.
Commonly, feelings of regret, disappointment, confusions, shame, guilt, and introspection are reported by those who engage in NSA sex regularly. (Although, it’s equally common to report feelings of nervous excitement, pride, and the feeling of being desires too.)
Most tellingly, though, feelings of depression and loneliness can often be amplified after casual sex, even by those who have no usual depressive tendencies.
Researchers examining the mental health associations of hookup sex also report that participants who were not depressed before showed more depressive symptoms and loneliness after engaging in casual sex.
Let’s take college students as a case study. Let’s assume that we take a group of four thousand college students and study their sex lives. All the students are straight (because I can only find good statistics on heterosexual students, unfortunately. It’s this sex study, if you’re interested), and came from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The base framework for the study is simple: the students are asked how many times in the last 30 days they’d had a sexual encounter with someone they’d known for less than a week. Then, they are asked to rate their self-esteem, level of life satisfaction, and general sense of psychological wellbeing. To measure the negative feelings, they are then asked to report their feelings of depression, general anxiety, and social anxiety.
18.6% of men and 7.4% of women had had sex with a relative stranger at least once in the past month, for an average of 11% of college students.
So what did the study show?
As you might expect, given the nature of this article’s title, those who engaged in more casual sex also experienced more psychological distress, lower self-esteem, life satisfaction and happiness than those who had not recently had sex with a relative stranger. Those who had recently had casual sex also reported higher levels of depression, and higher general and social anxiety.
So far, so predictable. But the study also showed that those feelings were not different across the genders. Male or female, the pattern is the same. This indicates that societal and cultural impulses affect men and women the same when it comes to hook-ups, even if the hookup itself is perceived differently according to gender. There was a definite correlation between casual sex and poor mental health.
That’s not to say casual sex is causative, but we can’t ignore the correlation between the two. It implies that those seeking casual sex compulsively, which also correlates with a higher incidence of alcohol or drug use at the same time, or generally also fighting feelings of loneliness, depression, and social anxiety that they hope to eradicate or reduce through fleeting, no-strings encounters that offer momentary intimacy on their own terms.
I know I’ve made it sound like all of us who engage in casual sex for the sake of casual sex are mentally unhealthy. I know from experience that that isn’t the case in all cases. I’m just raising the point that people who regularly indulge their desire for impulsive, no-strings sex index heavily on the depression and anxiety scale too. We just don’t know why.
What matters is that you become aware of it. Sex is a complicated neuropsychological subject, and it can be confusing and contradictory, blending together all the best bits of us and the worst in a way that nothing else in our psychosocial behavior does. If you’re confused about how you’re feeling about the way your sex life is panning out, then don’t worry too much, you’re not alone. You just need to keep yourself informed, ensure what you’re doing is making you feel good, and if it isn’t, then find a health professional to talk to.