Casual sex happens among teens, young adults, and adults with varying levels of frequency. But what defines casual sex, and is it really as bad or dangerous as society would have you believe?
In this guide, we’ll introduce casual sex. We’ll look at the potential benefits and risks of casual hookups, as well as common misconceptions surrounding the phenomenon.
What is Casual Sex?
If you ask ten people what the definition of casual sex is, you’ll likely get ten different answers. This is because most definitions will include some sort of religious or otherwise biased undertone that tries to paint casual sex in a shameful or bad light.
The true definition of casual sex is much less divisive.
According to Oxford Languages, casual sex is “sexual activity between people who are not established sexual partners or do not know each other well.”
So there you have it!
Casual sex is sexual activity that is not otherwise defined by a relationship.
Is Casual Sex “Good” for You?
The truth is that scientific studies on casual sex are a mixed bag.
Let’s take these two studies on the topic of casual sex and psychological well-being, for example.
A 2009 study published in Perspective on Sexual and Reproductive Health concluded that sexually active young adults (with a mean age of 20.5) saw no significant differences in psychological well-being between those who engaged in casual sex and those who had sex in the context of a committed relationship.
On the other hand, a 2013 study published in The Journal of Sex Research studied a similar population but did find that casual sex was negatively associated with psychological well-being in both male and female populations.
Let’s add a bit of nuance to the conversation, though.
Casual sex, when done with sobriety and full awareness of the potential implications, tends to have no meaningful impact on psychological well-being. This is according to a 2014 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
That is, people who engage in casual sex for autonomous reasons (e.g. sexual attraction, a desire to experiment), as opposed to non-autonomous reasons (e.g. lack of intentionality due to drugs or alcohol, a desire for the hook-up to become more), are generally unaffected by the encounters.
And if we look at the research as a whole, there does appear to be a net-positive outcome for more people.
So, is casual sex “good” for you?
While the research is mixed, what is clear is that those who intentionally seek out casual sex while in total control of themselves and the situations are bound to have a good time.
The Potential Benefits of Casual Sex
When you’re in a good place mentally (i.e. sober, not seeking love or worth through external sources), casual sex can have many benefits. Here are just a few.
What’s wrong with doing something just for the fun of it? According to us, nothing at all!
Casual sex can be a fun experience for individuals who engage in it sober and with a willful understanding of what it means. It’s fun to explore yourself, your sexual desires, and your sexual abilities with a casual partner.
In addition to casual hookups being fun, they can also be pleasurable. After all, most people looking to have casual sex are wanting their sexual itch to be scratched.
Sure, you can always release your pent-up sexual frustration with masturbation. But as anyone who has ever gone through a “dry spell” can tell you, masturbation often becomes less satisfying over time. Sometimes, the real thing is the only thing to quench that thirst.
It Can Boost Self-Esteem
Whether at a bar, on campus, or on an app designed for meeting casual hookups, hooking that fresh catch can be a boost to both your self-confidence and self-esteem.
After all, attracting a partner requires some level of physical attractiveness and/or charisma. So while we should absolutely look within ourselves for validation, a bit of external validation can go a long way in solidifying how we see ourselves.
It Avoids Serious Relationships
For those who argue against casual sex, the main argument is that safe sex can only happen in the context of a committed relationship. Consider that sexual abuse and domestic violence can happen within a relationship, though, and that argument goes out the window.
Casual sexual hookups allow men and women alike to meet their sexual needs without committing to a relationship. This may be of benefit to those who aren’t in an emotional place to maintain a healthy relationship or those who simply don’t have the time.
The Potential Risks of Casual Sex
If we cover the benefits, we have to do due diligence and cover the potential risks as well.
According to a 2016 study published in Evolutionary Psychology, regret is a common cause of negative casual sex encounters. That is, the person feels regret for hooking up after the fact.
This is always a risk of course, but one which other studies were able to shed a bit more light on. One study, in particular, outlined the key factors that are more likely to lead to those feelings of regret. They include:
- Self-imposed or peer pressure to have sex
- Low sexual gratification
- Worry about negative outcomes
- Feelings of control (or lack thereof) in sexual initiation
Is regret possible, even if the above factors are mitigated? Of course. However, all activities have a benefit-and-risk balance that we must analyze on our own.
With any sexual encounter, Sexually Transmitted Infections or STIs, are always a risk. It does make sense that the risk is higher the more sexual partners you have.
This higher risk of infection is linked to two main behaviors, though: sexual impulsivity and inconsistent condom use.
As a willing sexual participant in a casual hookup, you do have ways of minimizing the risk of STIs:
- Get tested regularly (every three to six months)
- Never have sex without a barrier in place (male condom or female condom)
- Store your condoms in a cool, dry place
- Only use unexpired condoms
- Use lubricant to reduce the risk of breakage
If you are particularly worried about STIs, you can also request that all casual hookups get tested prior to sex. There may be some who scoff at the request, but good riddance if that’s the case!
In talks about sexual risks, what usually goes hand-in-hand with STIs? That’s right, pregnancy.
Pregnancy is always a possibility where penis-in-vagina sex is concerned. The good news is that, just like with STIs, there are steps you can take to minimize the risk:
- Always use condoms in addition to another form of birth control like the pill, the IUD, or spermicide
- Take Plan B within 72 hours (the sooner, the better!) after unprotected sex
- Test for pregnancy regularly so you have more options available to you should pregnancy occur
Never assume your partner, whether male or female, is taking full responsibility. Each partner should play their part in the prevention of pregnancy.
Common Misconceptions About Casual Sex
There are plenty of misconceptions about casual sex, mostly stemming from religious ideas of purity. We’re here to address these misconceptions once and for all.
Casual Sex is Meaningless
There is a common misconception that casual sex is purely physical. It’s a primal act with little room for meaning.
Casual sex is more than the physical mechanics of sex, though. Intimacy can and does exist within casual sexual relationships. Of course, the level of intimacy should be agreed upon by both partners before the encounter.
So don’t think you have to forgo a cuddle or pillow talk just because the hookup is casual? Find a partner who is looking for those same things as you outside of a relationship.
Only Men Want Casual Sex
It’s not uncommon in the media to see men characterized as one-dimensional figures with one thing on their minds: sex. This belief extends into broader society and there is even the misconception that only men want casual sex.
The assumption here is that only men want casual sex, so women who engage in it are somehow being coerced or pressured.
While it’s true there are marked gender differences in casual sex encounters, that doesn’t negate the fact that the majority of women who engage in casual sex are doing it willingly.
Coercion or pressure, whether internal or external, can happen to men and women. In healthy casual hookups, though, both partners will participate willingly and for autonomous reasons.
Anyone Who Has Casual Sex is Promiscuous
There is a common societal belief that anyone, man or woman, who engages in casual sexual relationships is promiscuous. This suggests they will have sex with anyone that breathes.
First, it’s possible to engage in casual hookups while also having standards for your partners. Engaging in casual sex doesn’t mean you are open to having sex with anyone.
Second, the argument that promiscuity is inherently bad is one based on religious and societal shame. If you’re a consenting adult who is practicing safe sex with another consenting adult, then you should feel no guilt or shame.
Casual sex has plenty of benefits and risks. However, if you practice safe sex and you’re in a good head space, casual hookups can be a fun and pleasurable way to let off some steam.
And while many people may want you to feel bad or ashamed for your casual hookups, you should know that casual sex is normal, healthy, and not inherently shameful. As long as everyone participating in the hookup is legal and consenting, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.