Will going out and having some casual sex make you feel better, scientifically speaking? Some researchers have suggested that engaging in casual sex can lead people to experience “less enjoyment and nurturance than romantic sex, frequent regret, unwanted emotional attachment, substance use, and social stigma,” and that women in particular are vulnerable to the fallout. But others have found that casual sex can breed “satisfaction, confidence, self-knowledge, or social and academic engagement” among its participants. A new study published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science suggests that the potential positive and negative outcomes of casual sex are not mutually exclusive: If you’re the type of person who enjoys engaging in casual sex, then hooking up can boost your self-esteem and life satisfaction. But if you’re not that kind of person, then it won’t.
The study, led by NYU psychology professor Zhana Vrangalova, recruited 371 undergraduates at a northeastern U.S. university, asked them to complete a survey to determine their “sociosexual orientation,” then surveyed them about their sexual behavior, feelings about the sex they’d had, and general well-being over a period of nine months. The “sociosexual orientation” survey was meant to determine each person’s baseline “tendency toward or away from casual sex” by quizzing them on past behavior (‘‘With how many different partners have you had sexual intercourse on one and only one occasion?’’), current levels of desire (‘‘In everyday life, how often do you have spontaneous fantasies about having sex with someone you have just met?’’), and cultural attitudes toward sex (‘‘Sex without love is OK”). Researchers found that those students who identified themselves as more sexually permissive were more likely to engage in casual sex over the next few months than people who rated lower on the sociosexual scale. And among those sexually permissive students, those who successfully engaged in casual sex reported higher rates of self-esteem and lower rates of depression and anxiety than those who failed to seal the deal.
The release of these findings has elicited some ‘‘Kumbaya” moments among commentators. ‘‘New research suggests that not all casual sex is bad,” Pacific Standard's Ryan Jacobs announced. Jesse Singal at New York magazine concluded the same, noting that research on the fallout of casual sex until this study has been draped “in a lot of puritanical pseudoscience, much of it with a decidedly sexist tinge.” (See: the work of Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, who have claimed that rates of depression among young women climb as their sexual partners accumulate.) So even if this new study’s findings appear obvious—people who like having casual sex will derive benefits from having casual sex—they at least move the needle past the assumption that casual sex has any “one-size-fits-all positive or negative impact” on every person. As Jezebel concluded: “Whatever floats your boat.”
But whose boats are being floated here, exactly? Vrangalova told Pacific Standard that people who rate high on the sociosexual scale are generally “extroverted” and “impulsive” men who are more likely to be attractive, “physically strong,” and “more sexist, manipulative, coercive and narcissistic” than their peers. The people on college campuses who are the most likely to engage in casual sex—and to reap its benefits—are also dudes who are high in social status and low in character. For college students like them, ‘‘not all casual sex is bad.’’ But is that actually good news for anyone else?
It may be that attractive, manipulative, narcissistic, and sexist men are simply naturally inclined to enjoy no-strings-attached sex. Or it might be that only these men have acquired the status necessary to not suffer any social consequences for doing so. Pacific Standard’s takeaway from the study is “Casual Sex Is Actually Excellent for You, If You Love Casual Sex,” and all the other coverage I’ve read this week takes a similarly celebratory tone. But before we all cheer for these results, maybe we should look at who on campus really gets to love casual sex, and who’s still left out of the party.