Is ‘No Strings Attached’ Sex an Oxymoron?

March 7, 2013

Guilty WomanA new paper by Justin Garcia, a Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute (and a protege of Helen Fisher) takes stock of the latest research on the psychological consequences of casual sex. Buckle up, there’s lots of bad news for both sexes, and 20 excellent reasons not to engage in casual sex. There is still no such thing as a free lunch.

Garcia’s intro:

It is an unprecedented time in the history of human sexuality. In the United States, the age when people first marry and reproduce has been pushed back dramatically, while at the same time the age of puberty has dropped, resulting in an era in which young adults are physiologically able to reproduce but not psychologically or socially ready to “settle down” and begin a family (Bogle, 2007; Garcia & Reiber, 2008).

These developmental shifts, research suggests, are some of the factors driving the increase in sexual “hookups,” or uncommitted sexual encounters, part of a popular cultural change that has infiltrated the lives of emerging adults throughout the Western world.

Hookups are becoming more engrained in popular culture, reflecting both evolved sexual predilections and changing social and sexual scripts. 

Some Interesting Background on How We Got Here

  • “Hookups began to become more frequent in the 1920s, with the upsurge of automobiles and novel entertainment, such as movie theaters. Instead of courting at home under a parent’s watchful eye, young adults left the home and were able to explore their sexuality more freely.”
  • “By the 1960s, young adults became even more sexually liberated, with the rise of feminism, widespread availability of birth control and growth of sex-integrated college party events.”
  • “The media have become a source of sex education, filled with often inaccurate portrayals of sexuality (Kunkel et al., 2005). The themes of books, plots of movies and television shows, and lyrics of numerous songs all demonstrate a permissive sexuality among consumers. The media suggest that uncommitted sex, or hookups, can be both physically and emotionally enjoyable and occur without “strings.” “

The Culture Today

  • The most recent data suggest that between 60 percent and 80 percent of North American college students have had some sort of hook-up experience. This is consistent with the view of emerging adulthood (typical college age) as a period of developmental transition (Arnett, 2000), exploring and internalizing sexuality and romantic intimacy, now including hookups (Stinson, 2010).
  • Although much of the current research has been done on college campuses, among younger adolescents, 70 percent of sexually active 12- to 21-year-olds reported having had uncommitted sex within the last year (Grello et al., 2003).

Garcia goes on to thoroughly survey the notable research to date. Here are the most interesting excerpts:

Regret Later?

It’s clear that positive feelings from a hookup diminish over time. Also, unsurprisingly, women express far more regret and other emotional consequences than men. Still, it’s clear that about a quarter of women enjoy hooking up and cite no ill effects. (It’s amazing how that 20-25% number comes up again and again!)

1. In one study, among participants who were asked to characterize the morning after a hookup, 82 percent of men and 57 percent of women were generally glad they had done it (Garcia & Reiber, 2008).

 2. In a study of 832 college students, 26 percent of women and 50 percent of men reported feeling positive after a hookup, and 49 percent of women and 26 percent of men reported a negative reaction (the remainders for each sex had a mix of both positive and negative reactions; Owen et al., 2010).

3. In a qualitative study that asked 187 participants to report their feelings after a typical hookup, 35 percent reported feeling regretful or disappointed, 27 percent good or happy, 20 percent satisfied, 11 percent confused, 9 percent proud, 7 percent excited or nervous, 5 percent uncomfortable, and 2 percent desirable or wanted (Paul & Hayes, 2002).

4. In a large Web-based study of 1,468 undergraduate students, participants reported a variety of consequences: 27.1 percent felt embarrassed, 24.7 percent reported emotional difficulties, 20.8 percent experienced loss of respect, and 10 percent reported difficulties with a steady partner (Lewis et al., 2011).

5. In another recent study conducted on a sample of 200 undergraduate students in Canada, 78 percent of women and 72 percent of men who had uncommitted sex (including vaginal, anal, and/or oral sex) reported a history of experiencing regret following such an encounter (Fisher et al., 2012).

6. In a study of 270 sexually active college-age students, 72 percent regretted at least one instance of previous sexual activity (Oswalt, Cameron, & Koob, 2005).

7. In a report of 152 female undergraduate students, 74 percent had either a few or some regrets from uncommitted sex: 61 percent had a few regrets, 23 percent had no regrets, 13 percent had some regrets and 3 percent had many regrets (Eshbaugh & Gute, 2008).

8. Another study identified two types of sexual encounters that were particularly predictive of regret: engaging in penetrative intercourse with someone known less than 24 hours and engaging in penetrative intercourse with someone only once…Campbell (2008) found that men had stronger feelings of being “sorry because they felt they used another person,” whereas women had stronger feelings of “regret because they felt used.”

The Toll on Mental Health:

If you’re not cut out for it, it can really bum you out.

1. In a study of 394 young adults followed across a university semester, those with more depressive symptoms and greater feelings of loneliness who engaged in penetrative sex hookups subsequently reported a reduction in both depressive symptoms and feelings of loneliness (Owen et al., 2011).

At the same time, participants who reported fewer depressive symptoms and fewer feelings of loneliness who engaged in penetrative sex hookups subsequently reported an increase in both depressive symptoms and feelings of loneliness (Owen et al., 2011).

2. In another study, among 291 sexually experienced individuals, people who had the most regret after uncommitted sex also had more symptoms of depression than those who had no regret (Welsh et al., 2006). However, in the same sample, women’s but not men’s degree of depressive symptoms increased with number of previous sex partners within the last year (Welsh et al., 2006).

“Discrepancies between behaviors and desires, particularly with respect to social-sexual relationships, have dramatic implications for physical and mental health.”

3. In the first study to investigate the issue of self-esteem and hookups, both men and women who had ever engaged in an uncommitted sexual encounter had lower overall self-esteem scores compared with those without uncommitted sexual experiences (Paul et al., 2000).

“Despite the allure of engaging in uncommitted sex, research shows that people engage in these behaviors even when they feel uncomfortable doing so.”

4. Misperception of sexual norms is one potential driver for people to behave in ways they do not personally endorse. In a replication and extension of Lambert et al.’s (2003) study, Reiber and Garcia (2010) found that 78 percent of people overestimated others’ comfort with many different sexual hook-up behaviors, with men particularly overestimating women’s actual comfort with a variety of sexual behaviors in hookups.

“Hook-up scenarios may include feelings of pressure and performance anxiety, contributing to feelings of discomfort.”

5. In Paul et al.’s (2000) study on hookups, 16 percent of participants felt pressured during their typical hookup. In this sample, 12 percent of participants felt out of control when intercourse was not involved, while 22 percent felt out of control when sexual intercourse took place.

6. In a study of 169 sexually experienced men and women surveyed in singles bars, when presented with the statement, “I feel guilty or would feel guilty about having sexual intercourse with someone I had just met,” 32 percent of men and 72 percent of women agreed (Herold & Mewhinney, 1993)

“Qualitative descriptions of hookups reveal relative gender differences in terms of feelings afterward, with women displaying more negative reactions than men.”

7. Women generally identify more emotional involvement in seemingly “low investment” (i.e., uncommitted) sexual encounters than men (Townsend, 1995).

8. In a study of 140 (109 female, 31 male) first-semester undergraduates, women, but not men, who had engaged in intercourse during a hookup showed higher rates of mental distress (Fielder & Carey, 2010).

9. In a sample of 507 undergraduate students, more women than men hoped that a relationship would develop following a hookup. Only 4.4 percent of men and 8.2 percent of women (6.45 percent of participants) expected a traditional romantic relationship as an outcome, while 29 percent of men and 42.9 percent of women (36.57 percent of participants) ideally wanted such an outcome (Garcia & Reiber, 2008).

“It is likely that a substantial portion of emerging adults today are compelled to publicly engage in hookups while desiring both immediate sexual gratification and more stable romantic attachments.”

Sexual Risk

10. People who hook up are more likely to have concurrent sexual partners (Paik, 2010b). Moreover, in a sample of 1,468 college students, among the 429 students who had engaged in oral sex, anal sex or vaginal intercourse in their most recent hookup, only 46.6 percent reported using a condom (Lewis et al., 2011).

11. In a sample of several thousand people ages 15 to 25, men and women who had used marijuana or cocaine in the previous 12 months were also more likely than nonusers to have had nonmonogamous sex in the past 12 months (van Gelder et al., 2011).

12. In one study of undergraduate students, 33 percent of those who reported they had uncommitted sex indicated their motivation was “unintentional,” likely due to alcohol and other drugs (Garcia & Reiber, 2008).

13. In Fielder and Carey’s (2010) study among 118 first-semester female college students, participants reported that 64 percent of uncommitted sexual encounters followed alcohol use, with the average occuring after consuming three alcoholic drinks. 

14. In a sample of 178 college students, participants noted that most of their unwanted sex occurred in the context of hookups: 77.8 percent during a hookup, 13.9 percent in an ongoing relationship and 8.3 percent on a date (Flack et al., 2007).

15. In a study by Lewis et al. (2011), 86.3 percent of participants portrayed their most recent hook-up experience as one they wanted to have, while 7.6 percent indicated that their most recent hookup was an experience they did not want to have or to which they were unable to give consent. Unwanted and nonconsensual sexual encounters are more likely occurring alongside alcohol and substance use.

16. Alcohol use has also been associated with a type of hookup: The greatest alcohol use was associated with penetrative sexual hookups, less alcohol use with nonpenetrative hookups, and the least amount of alcohol use occurred among those who did not hook-up (Owen, Fincham, & Moore, 2011).

17. In one study of men and women who had engaged in an uncommitted sexual encounter that included vaginal, anal or oral sex, participants reported their intoxication levels: 35 percent were very intoxicated, 27 percent were mildly intoxicated, 27 percent were sober and 9 percent were extremely intoxicated (Fisher, Worth, Garcia, & Meredith, 2012).

“Alcohol may also serve as an excuse, purposely consumed as a strategy to protect the self from having to justify hook-up behavior later (Paul, 2006).”

Other factors may include media consumption, personality and biological predispositions:

18. Garcia, MacKillop, et al. (2010) demonstrated an association between dopamine D4 receptor gene polymorphism (DRD4 VNTR) and uncommitted sexual activity among 181 young men and young women…Individuals with a particular “risk-taking” variant of the dopamine D4 receptor gene were shown to have a higher likelihood of having uncommitted sexual encounters (including infidelity and one-night stands); however, no sex differences were observed.

This suggests that biological factors that contribute to motivating the different contexts of sexual behavior for both men and women may be fairly sexually monomorphic (Garcia & Reiber, 2008; Garcia, Reiber, et al., 2010). 

Casual Sex is Meh

19. Men reached orgasm more often than women. In first-time hookups, 31 percent of men and 10 percent of women reached orgasm; in last relationship sexual activity, 85 percent of men and 68 percent of women reached orgasm.

20. Armstrong, England and Fogarty (2009) addressed sexual satisfaction in a large study of online survey responses from 12,295 undergraduates from 17 different colleges. Participants were asked about oral sex rates and orgasm in their most recent hookup and most recent relationship sexual event. In this study, men reported receiving oral sex both in hookups and in relationships much more than women.

In first-time hookups that involved oral sex, 55 percent included only men receiving oral sex, 19 percent only women receiving oral sex, and 27 percent both mutually receiving; in last relationship sexual activity, 32 percent included only men receiving oral sex, 16 percent included only women receiving oral sex, and 52 percent included both mutually receiving.

Garcia’s Conclusion

By definition, sexual hookups provide the allure of sex without strings attached. Despite their increasing social acceptability, however, developing research suggests that sexual hookups may leave more strings attached than many participants might first assume.