Casual sex already has a bad reputation. But could it be directly linked to depression and anxiety? It’s something a lot of young people worry about, and it’s a scary thought that something as good as sex might cause psychological problems.
Academics, health professionals, and the media alike have all expressed concerns that hooking up leads to depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. Many studies over the past decade have tried to answer this question, but the results have been very mixed. In 2014, a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggested that it’s not so much whether you have casual sex that impacts your mental health, it’s why you do it.
Having been in the adult industry for nearly 20 years now, I believe that highly sexually active people do indeed seem to over-index on mental health issues. The sex toy testing community, for example, appears to have a lot of crossover with the mental health and wellbeing community. But it’s not that simple.
The methodology used in the studies of casual sex is often dubious. It tends to go like this: take one group who regularly have casual sex and compare them to a second group who have never had casual sex. There are now about 20 of these studies and the results are just all over the place, and quite often directly contradict each other. Sometimes the casual sex group has higher depression or lower self-esteem than the no-casual sex group, other times the hookup group has lower depression and higher self-esteem, and very often there are no differences between the two groups. It’s all very confusing.
Such conflicting test results often mean that the relationship between the things you’re studying (in this case, casual sex and mental wellbeing) is more complicated than it seems. It’s very likely that the power of casual sex to cause psychological harm varies from person to person, and are dependant on individual and social factors.
Then of course, there’s the issue of motivation. What drives us to have casual sex? Research shows that when we do something for the “right” reasons our wellbeing benefits. If we do something for the “wrong” reason, our wellbeing suffers. In the context of casual sex, we can consider the “right” decisions to be “autonomous:” they positively reflect our core values, and “wrong” reasons are “non-autonomous” in that they’re more about reward and avoiding punishment.
Some autonomous reasons for casual sex include:
Pleasure and fun
Intimacy and friendship
Some nonautonomous motives for casual sex include:
Wanting to please someone
Wanting a favour
Extensive research shows that the motivation/wellbeing relationship is true for most human actions, including sex. The point is that casual sex will only lead to mental health issues if it’s done for harmful reasons – it’s not the sex act itself that causes the problem.
So next time you have a chance to have casual sex, think about why you’re doing it. If it feels like you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, if something feels uncomfortable about it, don’t do it. Your mental health may depend on it.