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Casual Sex Not Psychologically Damaging to Young Adults


Young adults who engage in casual sex do not appear to be at increased risk for damaging psychological outcomes when compared with their sexually active peers who are in more committed relationships. This finding is counter to speculation that casual sex outside a committed relationship may be emotionally harmful for young people.

Casual sex, which is also referred to by a variety of terms such as chance encounters, anonymous sex, and friends with benefits, can refer to sexual experiences with strangers or an agreement with an individual that stretches over a longer time period. Casual sex is basically an encounter in which sex satisfies a sexual desire or physical attraction and lacks the emotional ties that are associated with committed relationships.

The new University of Minnesota study involved a survey of 1,311 sexually active young adults encompassing 574 males and 737 females with a mean age of 20.5. All the participants, who were from Project EAT (Eating Among Teens), were questioned about their sexual behaviors and emotional well-being.

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Among the participants who were sexually active, 55 percent said their last sexual partner was an exclusive dating partner, and 25 percent reported that their most recent partner was a spouse, fiancé or fiancée, or life partner. Only 12 percent said their last sexual encounter involved a close but not exclusive partner, and 8 percent reported that their last partner was a casual acquaintance or a “close but not exclusive partner.” The researchers did not find that casual sexual encounters caused any emotional damage for the young adults surveyed.

A previous study conducted by researchers at Durham University involved 1,743 men and women who were asked about their feelings following a one-night stand. Overall women’s feelings were more negative than men’s. Eighty percent of men reported positive feelings about the experience compared to 54 percent of women. Men reported have greater sexual satisfaction and contentment following the sexual encounter, while the predominant negative feeling reported by women was that they had been “used.” They also found the experience less sexually satisfying and did not seem to view casual sex as a prelude to a long-term relationship.

Concerning the University of Minnesota study, Marla E. Eisenberg, ScD, MPH, of the Medical School, emphasized that their findings did not show an increased risk for harmful psychological outcomes among casual sex participants compared with their peers who were in committed relationships. However, she noted that their survey results “should not minimize the legitimate threats to physical well-being associated with casual sexual relationships and the need for such messages in sexuality education programs and other interventions with young adults.”

Campbell A. Human Nature 2008 June; 19(2): 157-73 online
Eisenberg ME et al. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 2009 Dec 3 online; 41(4): 231-37