Can casual sex make you unhappy?
According to recent research, women generally wish they'd had less casual sex, whilst men dream of having more. But what does this say about our attitudes towards sex? Could casual hookups be making you unhappy, or affecting your mental health?
In three recent studies (1), over 24,000 people were surveyed on their attitudes towards their sexual past. The results showed that more women than men regretted sexual encounters from the past (such as cheating on their partner), whilst men mostly regretted missed opportunities, such as not being more sexually adventurous. On the whole, despite the fact that both sexes engaged in relatively the same amount of casual sex, women reported more feeling of regret in relation to their sexual history. The study concluded that the male instinct to 'spread his seed' vs the female instinct to prevent pregnancy was the reason behind the results. It's worth noting however that the findings were limited mostly to straight people, and cultural stereotypes were not considered in the study.
A slut-shaming society
Could it be that the sexual double standards we hold for men and women could affect how we make decisions when it comes to casual hookups? for man, the way they are seen by their social circle could lead to pressure to sleep around - in fact, one in three teenage boys have felt under pressure from their peers to have sex (2). We may not want to admit that we think this way, but women who sleep around are often viewed as 'sluts', and it's considered less socially acceptable for women to engage in regular casual sex than men. These stereotpes could leave women feeling regretful and ashamed after casual sexual encounters.
We often view men as better able to 'handle' the no-strings implications of casual sex - but why is this? It could be linked to the female orgasm. Studies have been carried out which reveal women are more likely to achieve orgasm when in a committed relationship, rather than during casual hookups (3). It's thought that having sex repeatedly with the same person makes both partners better at it and that men in relationships are more attentive to their partner's sexual needs.
Natures vs nurture
So whilst evolutionary instincts to 'spread their seed' may be influencing men to engage more frequently in casual sex, cultural expectations and peer pressure, as well as the way both men and women are portrayed in the media, also have a part to play. It's hard to understand why women generally experience more feelings of regret after casual sex compared to men, but again society's expectations could be a factor.
Is casual sex healthy?
Today, it is easier than ever before to find a casual hookup - just look at apps and websites designed for no-strings fun, such as Tinder and Blendr, as well as the rise of social media.Technology has taken the effort, and much of the stigma, out of casual sex. But is casual sex healthy and what is it doing to our happiness? A quick Google search on the subject brings back a variety of differing opinions. There are those who believe that hookup apps are the best invention of the century, whilst others have never tried them and would never want to. Some of us view casual sex as a great way to learn more about our bodies and our sexuality; for others it's an opportunity to stay sexually active whilst remaining single. Then there are those who believe that sex with no emotional commitment only leads to depression and low self-esteem.
What's the deal?
Three recent studies focused on the impact of casual sex on university-age young adults, with differing conclusions. The first study revealed that men and women engaging in casual sex are not at any more risk of damaging psychological effects than those in committed relationships (4). In contrast, the second study's conclusion was altogether different. It concluded that casual sex could have a negative impact on wellbeing and could cause psychological distress (5). Another study revealed that for those who enjoyed casual sex, a higher sense of personal wellbeing was experienced after engaging in the act (6).
In short, there is a lack of conclusive scientific research to answer the question, 'Can casual sex make you unhappy?' At its worst, casual sex can change our views of the opposite sex, leave us struggling with commitment issues, spread disease (if precautions aren't taken) and damage our emotional wellbeing. For those who don't find casual hookups a violation of their moral code and integrity, it's unlikely that casual sex will cause any emotional distress or psychological problems. But that's not to say that it's for everyone. For those who become emotionally attached to intimate partners, casual hookups could bring up negative feelings, impact your self-esteem and affect mental health. There's no right or wrong, but people will always judge others for their choices and opinions when it comes to casual sexual relationships. The important thing to remember is that you should be comfortable with your sexual choices and honest about what you want from sex - provided you are not damaging your own (or anyone else's) physical or mental wellbeing, the choice is entirely yours.
READ THIS NEXT: Can porn change your view of sex?