Casual Sex Bums Out Both Genders, New Research Shows

November 25, 2013

We’ve known for some time that casual sex is correlated to an elevated risk for negative psychological outcomes in women. Buss and Schmitt have theorized that this is gender specific, with men more frequently pursuing short-term mating strategies than women:

“Evolutionary theory defines hookups, casual sex, and friends-with-benefits as short-term mating strategies, and suggests that attitudes and behaviors, particularly those that are sexual in nature, have an adaptive function. Because men and women encounter different reproductive constraints (e.g., paternity confidence, identifying men that will provide resources), one would expect gender differences in the psychological mechanisms and behaviors around short-term and long-term mating strategies (Buss & Schmidt, 1993; Trivers, 1972).”

This past July I wrote about a recent study at 30 colleges that shed new light on gender differences.  Specifically, the study defined casual sex as comprising intercourse with a relative stranger. Previous studies had focused more on general sexual behavior, including making out and touching.

“We examined whether the prevalence of casual sex behavior, having intercourse with someone known for less than a week, differs significantly by gender, and whether casual sex was associated with psychological distress and wellbeing.”

Once students were asked about intercourse, gender differences disappeared.

In the present study, we hypothesized and found that men were more likely than women to report a casual sexual encounter. As expected, latent variable modeling indicated a positive correlation between casual sex and psychological distress and diminished well-being—an association that, unexpectedly, appeared to be similar for men and for women.

The results of the present study, therefore, argue that involvement in casual sex among college students is similarly associated with mental health outcomes for men and women. 

However, the study could only address correlation, not causation:

“It is not yet understood whether casual sex leads to psychological distress, or whether negative psychological health precedes casual sex. “

Now a brand new study of 10,000 young people interviewed on two occasions several years apart firmly establishes causation:

“Dr Sara Sandberg-Thoma, of Ohio State University and lead author of the study, said: ‘Several studies have found a link between poor mental health and casual sex, but the nature of that association has been unclear.

‘There’s always been a question about which one is the cause and which is the effect. 

‘This study provides evidence that poor mental health can lead to casual sex, but also that casual sex leads to additional declines in mental health.'”

In the study, 33 percent of men and 24 percent of women said they’d had a relationship that was “only having sex” with someone. Higher male participation no doubt reflects the sexual double standard, but while more men have casual sex, they experience the same emotional distress afterwards. 

They found no difference between the responses of men and women.

Dr. Claire Kamp Dush, professor of human sciences at Ohio State University, said: ‘That was unexpected because there is still this sexual double standard in society that says it is OK for men to have casual sexual relationships, but it is not OK for women.

‘But these results suggest that poor mental health and casual sex are linked, whether you’re a man or a woman.

Researchers found that each additional casual sexual relationship increased the odds of suicidal thoughts by 18 percent.

At first blush, it seems surprising indeed, and perhaps unrealistic as well that casual sex could lead to the same negative psychological outcomes for both men and women. However, Harvard University’s 75-year longitudinal study on male health highlights why men prefer emotionally meaningful sex:

Begun in 1938, the Grant Study of Adult Development charted the physical and emotional health of over 200 men, starting with their undergraduate days.  The now-classic ‘Adaptation to Life’ reported on the men’s lives up to age 55 and helped us understand adult maturation. Now George Vaillant follows the men into their nineties, documenting for the first time what it is like to flourish far beyond conventional retirement.  

…In Triumphs of Experience, Vaillant raises a number of factors more often than others, but the one he refers to most often is the powerful correlation between the warmth of your relationships and your health and happiness in your later years.  

…Vallant notes that the 58 men who scored highest on the measurements of “warm relationships” (WR) earned an average of $141,000 a year more during their peak salaries (between ages 55-60) than the 31 men who scored the lowest in WR.  

The most crucial relationships are those with parents, confirming that one’s childhood predicts fulfillment throughout life. Both mothers and fathers are critically important, though in different ways:

“Men who had ‘warm’ childhood relationships with their mothers took home $87,000 more per year than men whose mothers were uncaring.  Men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old.  Late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers — but not their fathers — were associated with effectiveness at work.  

On the other hand, warm childhood relations with fathers correlated with lower rates of adult anxiety, greater enjoyment on vacations, and increased ‘life satisfaction’ at age 75 — whereas the warmth of childhood relationships with mothers had no significant bearing on life satisfaction at 75.”  

Perhaps the most important predictor of a man’s relationship potential is his childhood family experience. It determines his emotional intelligence and  capacity to a large degree. Here’s how Vaillant summed up the 75-year study:

“The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points to a straightforward five-word conclusion:

Happiness is love.  Full stop.”

When considered in this light, it’s not surprising that casual sex doesn’t fulfill men either. Promiscuous men have often made the claim that the only guys who are opposed to casual sex are the ones who can’t get it. Here we see that the negative outcomes occur with those who have experienced it. 

It’s been 20 years since Buss and Schmitt theorized about sexual strategies and gender differences. It will be very interesting to see how evolutionary theory is revised as researchers accumulate significant data on actual casual sexual experiences among young people.