What Is the Impact of Casual Sex on Mental Health?

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Attitudes toward casual sex tend to shift as life circumstances—and relationship statuses—change. Depending on the context, it's celebrated, relished, derided, envied, and stigmatized. Some people consider it seriously, evaluating all the possible emotional and physical ramifications, potential benefits, and drawbacks before having casual sex. Others take the idea a bit more ... casually.

Whether you're inclined to go with the flow or debate the nitty-gritty, take a look at the cultural context and potential mental health effects of casual sex when deciding if it's right for you.

What Is Casual Sex?

Casual sex means different things to different people. Generally, though, the term refers to consensual sex outside of a romantic relationship or marriage, usually without any strings of attachment or expectation of commitment or exclusivity.

It might happen between partners just once or regularly, planned or spontaneous, It might involve a close friend, ex, casual acquaintance, uncommitted dating partner, colleague, or complete stranger.

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Depending on the situation, a casual sex encounter or arrangement is also known as a hookup, one-night-stand, tryst, booty call, friends-with-benefits relationship, or any number of other euphemisms.

Casual Sex, Defined

In essence, casual sex is a way of enjoying the physical intimacy of sex without the emotional, practical, or romantic components of love or a committed relationship.

Some people form casual sex relationships periodically. Others do so more frequently and may have one or many partners that they hook up with over time as a normal part of their lives.

What Constitutes Casual Sex?

Casual sex doesn't necessarily always include intercourse. It might comprise any range of physically intimate activities, such as kissing, oral sex, mutual masturbation, and penetration.

Casual Sex in Context

Some people consider casual sex a healthy sexual outlet akin to regular exercise, or an enjoyable physical experience. Some enjoy casual sex because it lacks the expectations, accountability, and pressures of a traditional romantic relationship.

For others, casual sex has appeal, but managing the emotions gets complicated—and can result in hurt feelings or unrequited longing. Still others find the risks (such as sexually transmitted infections, sexual assault, and disappointment) are too great and/or feel sex should occur only in a committed or married relationship.

In movies, casual sex is often portrayed as fun, no-strings-attached romps resulting in a cheerful, exuberant glow—and sometimes, romance. Other portrayals end in disappointment, regret, and heartbreak.

For some, sex outside of commitment is considered immoral—or only appropriate for men or "loose" women. Sometimes, these encounters may constitute cheating, as in one or both of the participants is in another relationship. Clearly, stereotypes, assumptions, ethics, experience, and personal beliefs are all at play. Additionally, a few bad (or good) casual sex encounters may drastically skew a person's perspective on the activity.

Wary man being kissed
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What we can all agree on is that casual (or any) sex carries the risks of unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and physical/emotional harm from your partner, particularly one that is not well-known to you. But, in addition to taking stock of moral issues and risk factors, there are mental health ramifications to consider when deciding if casual sex is emotionally healthy for you.

Beliefs and Stereotypes

There are historical, religious, and cultural prejudices against casual sex, especially for women, that promote marriage or committed relationships as the most (or only) acceptable venues for sex. In some traditions, sex is considered only appropriate for reproductive purposes, and/or sex for pleasure is taboo. Often, these "rules" have been flouted, with casual sex kept secret, particularly for men, with a variety of repercussions possible (like ruined reputations or ostracization) for those that get caught.

Cautionary, often sexist, tales have traditionally been aimed at girls and women. Not long ago, girls were warned with age-old adages such as, "they won't buy the cow if you give away the milk for free." These were meant to deter girls from "compromising their virtue."

Women who engage in casual sex have historically (and in some communities, continue to be) demonized for the behavior, labeled as sluts, whores, trash, easy, or worse. Clearly, buying into these harmful, oppressive stereotypes is damaging whether or not you engage in casual sex—and serves to reinforce the sexist idea that it's wrong for women to enjoy sexual pleasure and experiment sexually outside of romantic love or the bonds of marriage.

However, with the introduction of safe and effective birth control in the 1960s and the "free love" sexual revolution that followed, the power of these archetypes began to fall away. Still, more conservative notions about sexual freedom and experimentation—as well as traditional views on gender identity and sexual preference—still hold powerful sway among the hearts and minds of some.

The Scarlet Letter
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Today, though, many have shaken off, rejected, or modified those traditional ideals to embrace a more expansive range of possible sexual or romantic relationships, including the LGBTQ+ community. Increasingly, noncommitted rendezvouses are viewed as a rite of passage or simply as an enticing sexual outlet. It's more common, too, to believe that everyone should get to define for themselves the types of sexual relationships they want to engage in.

Potential Drawbacks and Benefits

The pluses and minuses of casual sex are relative to the situation and people in question. Each person should consider any underlying shame or other negative emotions they might feel or be exposed to. How likely you are to feel good about the experience before, during, and after is important to think about, too.

Potential Drawbacks

Possible drawbacks, such as emotional distress and sexual regret, vary dramatically from person to person, essentially based on mindset, history, and expectations.

As noted above, there are notable physical risks of engaging in casual sex, such as STIs, unplanned pregnancy, and sexual assault. This is particularly true if safe sex practices are not followed. But the emotional fallout can be just as enormous, particularly if casual sex as a way to avoid or bury your feelings.

Anecdotally, many people enter into these encounters expecting it will all be in good fun, only to end up attached, deflated, upset, or feeling misguided.

Possible Benefits

On the flip side, many others end up pleasantly surprised by their experiences and their ability to enjoy a simply physical liaison.

Other frequently reported benefits include sexual satisfaction, feeling attractive, meeting a future long-term partner, and physical intimacy.

Mental Health Effects

Some people are better than others at compartmentalizing romantic longings from sexual desires. For others, emotions and touch naturally entwine, making casual sex harder to keep casual, despite the intentions. Research shows that women tend to have a harder time than men with preventing emotional attachment, and when this happens they are more prone to feeling used, depressed, regretful, or embarrassed after the fact.

Some people jump in without really thinking about how they'll feel afterward, only to be left with hurt, remorse, or emptiness. Despite telling yourself that it's just sex, just for fun, you might eventually feel more. So, it's vital to assess expectations honestly.

Other people have the opposite issue: They focus so intently on keeping the relationship strictly physical that they miss the potential for a lasting, deep relationship—and end up disappointed that they didn't pursue one when they had the chance. Still others relish the solely physical thrills of a booty call.


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Sometimes, casual sex relationships have a lopsided power dynamic, with one partner longing for more (e.g., frequency, type of commitment) and the other keeping it casual. This is likely to take a toll on the former's self-esteem, resulting in stress, anxiety, self-doubt, or even depression.

Additionally, studies show that post-hookup distress and misgivings are more likely with unprotected sex as well as if an encounter goes further than intended or if either person felt pressured to perform sexual acts that they didn't want to do.

Acting outside conservative beliefs on casual sex is liberating for some but disappointing or even traumatic for others.

What the Research Says

Research on the mental health effects of casual sex is mixed. Some studies have found a correlation between casual sex and a variety of negative mental health consequences such as anxiety, sadness, feeling bad about oneself, regret, depression, and poor self-esteem. However, many others have found positive impacts, such as a boost in self-esteem, relaxation, sexual pleasure, and self-awareness.

In fact, a comprehensive 2020 review of 71 studies generally found a positive emotional outcome from casual sex experiences for most people. However, the researchers note that beneficial mental health impacts are not universal and that factors such as using alcohol, not knowing one's partner, and not being sexually satisfied from the encounter can make a negative emotional response more likely.

Tellingly, many studies have found a stronger positive correlation of negative emotional outcomes for women who engage in more frequent hookups, whereas men tend to experience the opposite: More casual sex created more positive feelings.

Ultimately, your personal experiences and beliefs on sexuality, gender roles, identity, romance, religion, morality, life purpose, and happiness will inform how you experience and think about casual sex. Essentially, it's different for everyone, and only you can decide what's right for you.

Who Is Having Casual Sex?

Studies show that the behavior is very common and increasingly socially accepted. Many teens and young adults favor casual hookups as precursors to romantic relationships over traditional dating practices--essentially, experiencing sex as a physical need and a way to vet potential romantic partners.

Casual sex is particularly common in adolescents/young adults and in adults outside of committed relationships. In one study, 40% of respondents in their early 20s reported a recent casual sex encounter. Other research found that more than 50% of 18-to-24-year-olds had indulged in the activity. Among sexually active teens, almost 40% reported hookups rather than exclusive relationships.

Young couple kissing at Pont des Art at the love padlocks on the bridge.

Carlo A/Getty Images

Other studies put the rates of young adults having casual sex at greater than 70%. The number of prior sexual partners, level of completed education, alcohol and drug use, and attitude affected the number of casual sex experiences. For example, those pursuing college degrees engaged in casual sex less often than those who didn't finish high school.

In addition to reducing stigma about non-committed sex, dating apps such as Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, OkCupid, and Coffee Meets Bagel have given people many options for dating and casual sex.

Another review found that religious belief, high self-esteem, and having married parents decreased the likelihood of the behavior, but that factors such as race, socioeconomic status, depression, and being in a romantic relationship did not affect rates of casual sex.

Is It Right for You?

Depending on the person, casual sex may feel like a gift, necessary pleasure, happy indulgence, minor regret, or a deep shame. Whether you pursue casual sex is a personal choice that is heavily dependent on your life experiences, beliefs, and relationship status as well as how you feel about casual sex itself—and your prospective partner.

Ultimately, the important thing to know is that there is no right or wrong answer, just what feels best for you. It can help to have an understanding of what the difference or overlap between sex and love is for you—and whether or not you want (or can) keep them separate.

You might discover how you feel about hookups through trial and error, but even better: Think about what you want and believe regarding your sexuality and sexual activities to really know on a deep level what is best for you.

A good indication that casual sex might be something you'd like is if you feel more excitement and empowerment rather than shame or guilt when thinking of it. Taking proper consent and safe sex precautions is also imperative.

The type of casual sex you are considering also may impact your enjoyment and comfort level with it as well. For example, anonymous sex might feel hot or lonely—or dirty, in a bad way. Hooking up with an ex or close friend might feel comfortable and safe or boring—or naughty, in a good way. It's vital to think about consent, too. For casual sex to be a positive experience, you want to be sure that you are doing what you want to do and aren't feeling pressured (or forced) to engage in anything you don't.

Alternatively, sleeping with a platonic friend might get awkward, especially if one of you ends up with romantic feelings that the other doesn't reciprocate, and sex with a former flame may open a can of worms you'd rather keep shut. Also, if casual sex feels in opposition to your moral beliefs then you may have trouble enjoying it, although you might also discover that your beliefs on uncommitted sex bend as you evolve as a person and as a sexual being.

The key is honestly assessing how you really feel about the idea of casual sex and what are you truly hoping to get out of the experience. Casual sex might be right for those that want to experience an array of sexual behaviors and relationships before deciding to commit to a monogamous relationship. You may want to explore your own sexuality and desires and might feel more comfortable doing so in a casual setting. If you just simply enjoy hookups (or want to), then go ahead and enjoy.

Some people's sexuality is tied tighter to intimate relationships than others who are more comfortable separating their sexual needs and desires from being in love and/or a relationship—and either way of being can be healthy and something to celebrate.

A Word From Verywell

Casual sex can be a wonderful thing or it can make you feel guilty, empty, or unsatisfied. You'll know if it's emotionally healthy for you if it makes you feel good and good about yourself. If not, you might not be in the right frame of mind to enjoy the experience. Know that everyone is at a different place, which will likely change over time, and that's OK. There's no right or wrong here, just what kind of sexual life you want to live.

While some might leave a carnal encounter feeling depressed, embarrassed, or sad, another may emerge more confident, at peace, fulfilled, or elated. If you're in the latter camp, you may want to work through feelings of shame or longing—or you might want to stick to sex inside romantic relationships.

Ultimately, define for yourself how causal sex (and what kind) fits or doesn't fit in with your life, values, goals, and sexual journey.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sarah Vanbuskirk
Sarah Vanbuskirk is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has been published in numerous magazines, newspapers, and websites.