Minus the City: Casual Sex and Risks in Long Term Mental Health

Over the past couple of months, I have talked extensively about casual hook-ups in this column because it is such a relevant occurrence within the social scene here at Colgate. I’ve spoken to many fellow Colgate students, read up on articles and have even integrated personal experience in hopes to promote a healthier casual sex environment where all parties are comfortable, happy and ultimately leave feeling satisfied. I believe that some of us can agree that casual sex can be worthwhile at the right time, in the right circumstances and with the right people. Still, so many of us are left feeling the exact opposite, no matter what.

I can’t help but revert back to the very first article I wrote for this column titled “Why You Should Delete Tinder, But Won’t.” In it, I hint at the potential negative psychological effects of casual sex: “By participating in this ‘hook-up’ culture, you are unconsciously training your mind to ignore and throw away your emotions in an otherwise anxiety-provoking act. It seems obvious that this will affect the way college students are able to form relationships in the future.” Was I on to something here? 

Psychologist Melina M. Bersamin of Sacramento State University would be likely to agree with me. Bersamin was one of the first to conduct a study on hook-up culture that wasn’t based on a small sample size or singular college campus. With the help of several other university psychologists across the country, she was able to complete a study with a sample size of a little less than 4,000 students collected from 30 colleges around the United States. The study, titled “Risky Business: Is there an association between casual sex and mental health among emerging adults?” asked participants if they engaged in sexual intercourse in the past 30 days with a stranger (someone they’ve known for less than a week), and then they were asked to report on their mental health, or their psychological well-being and eudaimonic well-being. Finally, they were asked to report on their personal levels of depression and anxiety. Their findings show an overwhelming correlation between casual sex and bad mental health: college students who had been engaging in casual sex within the past month had reported higher levels of psychological distress than those who hadn’t. And the results they concluded were regardless of gender; both men and women who frequently seek casual sex reported similar levels of psychological distress, undermining theories that tend to label men as more likely to feel more fulfilled than women after sex for biological reasons. Still, this is merely a correlational study and does not necessarily explain the directionality between casual sex and mental health: does casual sex actually cause one’s mental health to deteriorate, or do young adults participate in casual sex because they are already in a bad mental state? 

Sarah E. Sandberg-Thoma and Claire M. Kamp Dush, both professors at Ohio State University, attempt to uncover this directionality, only to find more ambiguities. In their study titled “Casual Sexual Relationships in Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood,” they find that while depressive symptoms were present before and after casual relationships, test subjects were met with an increased likelihood of suicidal ideation following the casual relationship. Sandberg-Thoma and Dush emphasize that entrance into casual relationships has to do with failure or inability to “successfully enter romantic relationships” caused by an already poor mental health. This is a “key developmental task” that, when left unfulfilled or avoided, can push people to enter a cyclical pattern of casual sexual partners, which they found only serves as a greater detriment to mental health. 

The main takeaway from this is that it is imperative to evaluate how your psychological well-being might be affecting, or is affected by, your sexual tendencies. Your inclination to seek meaningless hook-ups rather than romantic connections might be a bigger issue than just trying to find a means of sexual gratification. You may be subconsciously trying to fulfill a deep-seated need for intimacy, only to be ended abruptly by the frivolity of the interaction. Of course, casual sex can be fun, but it’s important that you catch yourself before toxic cycles begin.