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Given ongoing debates about the connection between casual sex and psychological adjustment, in the current study we assessed the cross-sectional association of participation in casual sex with psychological well-being and distress.
A greater proportion of men Gender did not moderate these associations. For emerging-adult college students, engaging in casual sex may elevate risk for negative psychological outcomes. For example, among a random sample of undergraduate students from a Northeastern U. The current study investigated the association between casual sex and socioemotional outcomes in a diverse, multicampus sample of undergraduates.
Terminology for these relationships, in addition to the umbrella term casual sexinclude phrases such as friends with benefits, hookupsand the more traditional one-night stand. Researchers, and emerging-adult college students themselves, often define casual sex differently depending on the behaviors that occur within a sexual encounter e. Thus, a clear understanding of the precise operational definition of casual sex is necessary to interpret the of a given study.
In the current study, we defined casual sex as having intercourse with a partner one has known for less than a week. That is, the emphasis was on a sexual encounter between two relative strangers. This distinction is important as there may be unique psychological ramifications for different kinds of casual sexual relationships and correspondingly varied implications for how researchers examine them Cooper, In reviewing current research, we use and define terminology consistent with that of each empirical study that we cite.
Studies examining the association between mental health and casual sex among young adults and college students have produced mixed findings.
Risky business: is there an association between casual sex and mental health among emerging adults?
For example, Paul and colleagues found that levels of self-esteem were ificantly lower among college students who reported engaging in a sexual experience either coital or noncoital with a stranger or brief acquaintance compared to college students who had not done so.
By contrast, a recent study among a diverse sample of sexually active young adults Eisenberg et al. The study held after controlling for demographic characteristics e. However, psychological well-being did not predict hooking up in that study when controlling for other predictors including demographic characteristics, alcohol use, and attitudes toward hooking up. Thus, the physical intimacy outcomes examined may or may not have included sexual intercourse, so the emotional sequelae may be less definitive. Further, Fielder and Carey b found that sex hookups increased psychological distress for females but not for males.
Note that this study included a small sample size from one institution and may not be generalizable to a larger population. Research suggests that gender is a ificant consideration when understanding the associations between casual sex and psychological outcomes. In general, women have more negative attitudes toward casual sex than men do.
Although a majority of studies have found that men are ificantly more likely than women to report having had casual sex Eisenberg et al. Several investigators have also reported gender differences in the association between depressive symptoms and involvement with casual sex. For example, Grello and colleagues found that men with the lowest of depressive symptoms, and women with the highest of depressive symptoms, were most likely to report having engaged in casual sex Grello et al.
Another study similarly found that women evaluated one-night stands more negatively compared with men Campbell, Apparently, sexual standards on college campuses are changing—there are now even smartphone apps to help people find casual sexual partners. However, whether and how these changes differentially impact college women and men is not altogether clear, despite considerable interest in the topic.
Biological, sociological, and psychological theories exist to explain gender differences in casual sex behaviors and attitudes. For example, evolutionary theory, which defines hookups, casual sex, and friends with benefits as short-term mating strategies, would suggest that attitudes and behaviors, particularly those that are sexual in nature, have an adaptive function. Because men and women encounter different reproductive constraints e.
From an evolutionary perspective, short-term mating strategies would theoretically benefit men as it allows them to minimize commitment and resource costs while maximizing the potential of partners and offspring. Conversely, there are fewer benefits for women who are less able to obtain immediate resources and face the additional cost of raising an offspring without resources.
Hence, it stands to reason that sexual selection favors positive attitudes and affect toward short-term mating among men and not women. Social cognitive theory, alternatively, suggests that behavior is learned through exposure to or observation of behaviors Bandura, For example, positive attitudes and affect toward casual sex may be due to positive images and attitudes depicted in the media, which rarely depict emotional or physical consequences Fisher et al.
Gender differences seen in casual sex prevalence rates and attitudes may be a function of sexual socialization depicted in the media, in which men are shown needing to sow their wild oats while the ideal woman is portrayed as attractive but not sexually promiscuous.
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It may be that women who behave against type experience guilt, hence the association between casual sex and mental health. Empirical research suggests that gender moderates the relationship between exposure and beliefs, as one study found an association between traditional gender roles and amount of prime-time viewing among women but not men Ward, Briefly, taking survival of the fittest as a reference to the influence of natural selection and other forces that allow organisms to meet the challenges of the physical and social ecologies they inhabit, the advent of complex culture—as learning capacity or behavioral plasticity—is perhaps the greatest adaptation for humans.
This means that behaviors predicated on biophysiological imperatives will tend to be highly similar across cultural groupings, such as gender, whereas behaviors that are not strongly tied to biophysiological needs will show considerable variation across cultural groups and contexts reflective of individual and shared learning, experience, and socialization of ways of being see Agocha et al. While procreating through sexual intercourse has remained essentially unchanged over many millennia, the specific consequences and circumstances within which individuals have sex have varied widely.
So, given colleges as environments that promote socialization to similar values, the media influences ly noted may increase acceptance of hookups by men and women on college campuses, and still only a minority of this population may engage in the behavior. Existing literature has not yet produced a consistent answer as to whether involvement in casual sex is associated with positive or negative psychological outcomes for emerging-adult college men and women.
However, because psychological distress among college students can impact academic performance, college retention, and alcohol and drug use Kitzrow,continued research is very much needed to better understand casual sex and its link to psychological well-being and distress.
The current study was unique in that it examined the associations of casual sex with psychological well-being and distress in a large sample of college students from 30 colleges and universities around the United States. The study also specified casual sex to include sexual intercourse. Past studies have included an extensive subset of sexual activity when operationalizing casual sex. This category of behavior is too broad to be useful, as, from both a psychological and public health perspective, kissing someone is not likely to have the same correlates as intercourse with a stranger.
The current study allowed for a more precise understanding of the hypothesized association. Specifically, we examined whether the prevalence of casual sex behavior, having intercourse with someone known for less than a week, differs ificantly by gender, and whether casual sex was associated with psychological distress and well-being. In addition, we controlled for socioeconomic status because, in research, parental income was positively associated with hooking up Owen et al.
Based on extant research, we hypothesized that a men would report higher rates of casual sex than women; b casual sex would be positively associated with psychological distress and negatively associated with psychological well-being; and c the relationship between psychological distress, well-being, and casual sex would be stronger for women than for men.
The majority 15 of the colleges were major public universities. Eight colleges were located in the West, six in the Midwest, three in the Southwest, seven in the Southeast, and six in the Northeast.
The study was approved by the institutional review board at each respective institution. Students were recruited primarily from psychology, human development, and family and consumer science courses. Participants were provided with a link to a secure Web site, read an informed consent form, and checked a box indicating that they were willing to take part in the study. Participants then completed the study measures via the Internet. Participants received partial course credit or credit toward a research requirement, depending on their institution.
Participants reported their age, gender, ethnicity, and family income level. This variable was used for subsequent analyses. We assessed four aspects of well-being: self-esteem, life satisfaction, psychological well-being, and eudaimonic well-being. Psychological well-being refers to a general sense of positive functioning e.
There is evidence that these aspects of well-being are strongly interrelated and therefore reflect a general index of well-being Waterman, ; Waterman et al. We assessed self-esteem using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, which is the most commonly used measure of self-esteem for adolescents and adults. Participants answered five positively worded items e. Reverse-scored items were recoded before summing so that higher scale scores reflected higher levels of self-esteem. A 5-point response scale, ranging from 1 Strongly disagree to 5 Strongly agreewas used for each item e.
This instrument assesses the dimensions of psychological well-being identified as autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance Ryff, Ten items are worded in a positive direction, and eight are worded in a negative direction. A composite score for psychological well-being is created by recoding the negatively worded items and summing across the 18 items.
This item measure taps into the extent to which respondents enjoy challenging activities, expend a great deal of effort in activities that they enjoy, and spend time pursuing and actualizing their personal potentials. Each item is responded to using a 5-point Likert-type scale, with possible choices ranging from 1 Strongly disagree to 5 Strongly agree.
For this scale, 14 of the items are written in an affirmative direction, and 7 items are written in a negative direction and are reverse-scored. We assessed three forms of psychological distress symptoms: general anxiety, social anxiety, and depression.
The items address feelings of tension, hypervigilance, and difficulty relaxing or calming down during the week prior to assessment e. Participants rated these items using a scale which ranges from 1 Strongly disagree to 5 Strongly agree. Last, participants completed the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale CES-Dwhich measures feelings of dysthymia, listlessness, and difficulty eating and sleeping during the week prior to assessment e.
Analyses for the present study proceeded in three primary steps. First, we evaluated descriptive information including correlations between manifest variables see Table 1.
Growing up, hooking up, and drinking: a review of uncommitted sexual behavior and its association with alcohol use and related consequences among adolescents and young adults in the united states
Second, we estimated a structural equation model SEM in which engagement in casual sex as a dichotomous variable was allowed to predict well-being and psychological distress. SEM was used to control for attenuation of due to measurement error and to allow us to include multiple dependent variables in analysis rather than conducting separate regression analyses for well-being and for distress. We also ed for multilevel nesting and for nonnormality using appropriate estimation procedures described in the following sections.
In our SEM model, casual sexual experiences, as a dichotomous predictor variable, was allowed to predict latent variables for well-being and for psychological distress. The well-being latent variable was defined using self-esteem, life satisfaction, psychological well-being, and eudaimonic well-being.