Casual Sex Makes College Students Crazy, Fat and Stupid

July 30, 2012

Committed romantic relationships in college, while no longer the norm, provide significant health benefits analogous to those associated with marriage, a study has found.

In Romantic relationships and the physical and mental health of college studentsresearchers found that monogamous relationships between young people were predictive of fewer mental health problems and lower rates of obesity. (H/T: Steve) What was the single most important factor?

Being in a committed romantic relationship decreases problematic outcomes largely through a reduction in sexual partners, which in turn decreases both risky behaviors and problematic outcomes. 

…The individual and contextual changes that occur throughout college push to the forefront a number of behaviors that can increase risk for negative physical and mental health outcomes. For example, Desiderato and Crawford (1995) found that approximately one third of sexually active students reported having multiple sex partners in the past 11 weeks. Within this group of students with multiple sex partners, approximately 75% reported inconsistent or no condom use.

With regard to substance use, 90% of college students report having used alcohol in the past year and approximately two in five college students engage in some sort of substance abuse (Prendergrast, 1994). Furthermore, 44% of college students report binge drinking within the past 2 weeks (Wechsler, Lee, Kuo, & Lee, 2000). Substance abuse is associated with negative consequences including academic difficulties, health and psychosocial problems, high-risk sexual behavior, and other risky behaviors such as driving under influence and dating violence (Rabow, Neuman, Watts, & Hernandez, 1987; Wechsler et al., 2002).

In summary, risky behavior could act as a mechanism that explains a great deal of variance in the physical and mental health of college students.

The study was an anonymous survey conducted at a large Southeastern public university. 1,014 women and 570 men participated, comparing single students to those in a “committed dating relationship.” 

Mental Health

The researchers conservatively defined mental health problems as those serious enough to have a detrimental effect on academic performance. Students were asked to report serious problems resulting from the following:

  • alcohol use
  • depression/anxiety disorder
  • seasonal affective disorder
  • drug use
  • eating disorder/problem
  • relationship difficulties
  • stress

Physical Health

Students reported a decline in academic performance due to any of the following:

  • cold/flu/sore throat
  • injury
  • mononucleosis
  • sinus infection/ear infection/bronchitis/strep throat
  • sleep difficulties

BMIs were calculated based on height and weight.

Risky Behaviors

Sexual Partners: 

Because the number of sex partners a person has is linked to a number of negative health outcomes, such as contraction of cervicovaginal human papillomavirus (HPV; Burk et al., 1996) and hepatitis C (Alter, 1997), participants were asked to indicate the number of partners with whom they had engaged in any form of sexual intercourse (oral, vaginal, or anal) in the last school year.

Substance Use:

  • alcohol (beer, wine, and liquor) 
  • tobacco (cigarettes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco)
  • illicit drug (marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, etc.)

Students were queried regarding general frequency, binge drinking and drunk driving.

Research Findings

This model showed that being in a committed romantic relationship is associated with having fewer sexual partners and that having more sexual partners is directly associated with problematic outcomes, such that having more sexual partners predicts poorer physical and mental health. These results suggest that being in a committed romantic relationship decreases problematic outcomes largely through a reduction in sexual partners, which is associated with decreases in both risky behaviors and problematic outcomes.

1. Students in committed relationships drank less overall, engaged in binge drinking less frequently and drove drunk less.

2. There was no difference between the groups in the use of tobacco or illicit drugs.

3. Not surprisingly, students in LTRs had fewer sexual partners during the last year.

4. LTR partners had fewer mental health problems.

5. LTR partners were less likely to be overweight or obese.

6. There was no difference in physical health problems (excluding STIs) between the two groups.


Why do students in committed relationships indulge in fewer risky behaviors? 

  • They have less time to devote to risky behaviors since a portion of their time is now spent with the partner.
  • The types of risky behaviors assessed (multiple sex partners, substance use) are incompatible with the less impulsive lifestyle committed relationships seem to foster.

  • It is likely that the process of dating and partner selection, especially among single, sexually active college students, is intertwined with substance use and risky behavior (i.e., drinking and driving), which leads to poorer physical and mental health.
  • Heavier substance users are unable to keep romantic partners around and are thus more likely to be single. (Among married couples, alcohol use is associated with higher levels of marital dissatisfaction, negative marital interaction patterns, marital infidelity, and violence in the relationships; perhaps the same association holds for college students and contributes to relationship dissolution.)
  • Having more sexual partners was directly associated with more physical and mental health problems. Although the present data cannot offer evidence for mechanisms other than risky behaviors, it seems that the most likely explanation is that having more sexual partners places an individual at higher risk of experiencing a sexually transmitted infection and its sequelae.
  • Having multiple sex partners potentially creates more general stress, which leads to more problematic health outcomes. Conversely, it is equally plausible that individuals with more mental health problems or diatheses for such problems are more likely to have more sexual partners. Indeed, Hall and Fincham (2009) show that psychological distress predicts dating infidelity rather than vice versa.
  • We cannot rule out the possibility that individuals who have poor physical and mental health engage in more risky behavior and thus do not enter or stay in committed relationships.

Your number of sexual partners dramatically influences your well-being. Both men and women in LTRs are significantly happier and perform better in school than sexually active single students. 

Go for an LTR with someone who is not a poster child for risky behaviors. Failing that, sit it out. Students actively engaging in the hookup scene suffer more declines in health and academic performance as a direct result of multiple sexual partners.

Don’t let college be an experience that derails your future by shrinking your market value both professionally and personally.