Sex & Relationships

Guess What? Casual Sex Won't Make You Go Insane

Many cling to the notion that casual sex must be damaging. Recent research -- and a little historical perspective and common sense -- shows otherwise.

Casual sex: even the phrase sounds a little suspect. And its connections to STDs, unplanned pregnancy, depression, and even alcoholism? Well, those are just a given, discussed endlessly by pundits, and in books with titles like, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus, Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children, and even, Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both. Add to this the unrelentingly dire warnings about “premarital” sex given by abstinence programs and many religious groups, and it can be hard to make a case for any kind of non-monogamous-non-matrimonial-non-procreative intimacy. But what if the links between casual sex (an ill-defined term, which seems to refer to anything from a one-night stand to sex between committed domestic partners) and the troubles of the world aren't as straightforward as people would have you believe?

Some recent research makes this seem pretty likely. Last week, for example, researchers from the University of Minnesota announced the findings of a study looking at the effect of casual sex on young adults. After studying 1,311 sexually active 18- to 24-year-olds, researchers were somewhat surprised to discover that, "young adults engaging in casual sexual encounters do not appear to be at increased risk for harmful psychological outcomes as compared to sexually active young adults in more committed relationships." And back in 2007, another study at the same institution found that despite what many people believe, non-marital sex doesn't negatively affect a teen's mental health or make a young person more prone to depression.  

But what about research demonstrating that women, unlike men, can't handle casual sex due to their chemical makeup? One of the most frequently made claims is that during sex women release more of the "love" hormone, oxytocin, than men do. Since a primary role of oxytocin is to promote bonding, the logic goes that women are programmed to become emotionally distressed if sex doesn't lead to a relationship. But such thinking fails to take into account the existence of the sexual double standard, which punishes women for sex outside of a relationship far more than it does men. It stands to reason that this could account for a woman's post-casual sex unhappiness. Nor does this line of thinking address the fact that even if one of oxytocin's roles is to promote bonding, humans have shown time and time again that we are very capable of trumping our pure biological destiny. If we weren't, legions of infertility specialists would be out of work. 

Some people stretch the biological links even further. Dr. Eric Keroack, the former deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services claimed that sex with multiple partners affects a woman's brain chemistry by suppressing oxytocin and impairing her subsequent ability to maintain relationships. He made these claims based, in large part, on the work of Dr. Rebecca Turner, who called his conclusions "complete pseudoscience"and a misrepresentation of her work. Still, Keroack continued to promote these notions while overseeing federally funded teenage pregnancy, family planning, and abstinence programs.  

Misrepresentations are all too common when it comes to the mainstream portrayal of casual sex. For example, a study out of Durham University in the UK, prompted headlines like "Women Have Not Adapted To Casual Sex, Research Shows." However, this failure to adapt was not evolutionary, as the title implied. In fact, what women in this study couldn't adapt to was something very different: being treated poorly by their male sex partners! As the lead researcher explained, “What the women seemed to object to was not the briefness of the encounter but the fact that the man did not seem to appreciate her.”  

To complicate matters further, a whole lot of otherwise smart people seem to forget that casual sex did not first emerge after Y2K. Last year, for example, in a New York Times op-ed, Charles M. Blow lamented what he saw as the advent of a hook-up culture. His piece cited a study by the Washington research group, Child Trends, which claimed that contemporary high school seniors no longer date seriously and instead choose to “hook-up" without commitment. He also quoted Kathleen Bogle, the author of 2008's, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus. She explained that, "Under the old model, you dated a few times and, if you really liked the person, you might consider having sex. Under the new model, you hook up a few times and, if you really like the person, you might consider going on a date."

But even Blow's own newspaper contradicted this assumption the very next day, when the wedding section ran an interview with a newly married couple in their 50s. The pair explained that although they had actually been sexually involved over 30 years earlier, a committed relationship hadn't been on the table. Back in 1975,the woman explained, "People didn't date. You hung out and then you slept together." Sounds a lot like this dangerous new phenomenon of hooking-up that people find so shocking....

Seriously, we all know that hooking-up and casual sex are not new. In the United States, at least, sex outside of marriage has been around an awfully long time. A  2006 study found that 95 percent of Americans, including people born as far back as the 1940s, have had "premarital” sex. And how can we forget milestones like the sexual revolution, or the "Me" generation, when getting laid was just something to do? To be sure, not everyone in the '60s, '70s and '80s was having free love orgies, throwing key parties or embarking on cocaine-fueled office affairs, but these were important years for sexual freedom: syphilis had long since been cured, morals were relaxed, the birth control pill was an option and abortion became legal. Today those agonizing over what they see as an uptick in promiscuity, loose values and risk-taking, need to be reminded that while the cast may be different, much about the casual sex plot remains the same.

Despite the fact that sex without marriage is so common, we still cling to the notion that it must be damaging in some way. Solid research demonstrating that this isn't always the case simply cannot counter our existing social assumptions: if a person claims to be undamaged by sex without commitment, that person must be lying, ethically challenged, or at the very least, deluded. Sure, sex can be dangerous. One in four people will contract an STD by the time they are 25; American teen birth rates, while not what they were in the '50s, are still the highest in the Western world; and sex crimes continue to shock and unnerve us all. But we need to concentrate on reforming our sex education and health care systems to fight these issues, not waste time simply condemning forms of sex that make us uncomfortable. 

Ellen Friedrichs is a sex educator based in New York City, where she teaches high school and college classes.