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Casual sex is not so bad after all

Casual sex is not so bad after all February 4, 2011
Some women from Mars

A while ago I read a paper arguing that religion ‘protected’ teens against sex. It was your usual analysis – finding that religious teens are less likely to have sex outside of marriage – but the tacit presumption intrigued me. Is sex really that harmful?

Well, no one study is going to answer that, but here’s one from Jesse Owen and colleagues at the University of Louisville helps shed some light on it.

Their study has the advantage over most in this field in that it’s longitudinal. That means that means that they asked people a bunch of questions, and then a few months later they asked the same people the same questions, to see how their answers changed. College students are always a good testing ground for this sort of topic, and so they asked their questions at the start and end of semester. They only asked students who weren’t in any kind of long term relationship.

So, just which students engaged in short-term relationships (“hooking up”, in their jargon)?

Well, the ones who hooked up tended to be the ones who at the start of the semester drank more, were less thoughtful about relationships, and more likely to have had short-term flings in the past. But they were less likely to be lonely and yes, they were also less religious.

When they put all of these factors into their model the strange thing is that religion and thoughtfulness dropped out as factors. They only true ’causes’ were a past experience of flings, having friends and drinking alcohol. Quelle surprise.

But did all this casual sex make them depressed and lonely? Well actually no, it did not. It didn’t make them happier either, it has to be said.

In fact, there was an effect of sleeping around on happiness and loneliness, but it wasn’t at all straightforward.

Basically, among all those who were happy and not lonely at the start of the term, those who hooked up during the term became less happy and more lonely than those who did not. But among all those who were depressed and lonely at the start of the term, those who hooked up during the term become more happy and less lonely than those who did not.

Hooking up was good for sad people, but not good for happy people. Make of that what you will.

One last thing. Alcohol had a greater effect on women than on men. That fits with the idea that part of the reason that women are more likely to avoid ‘hooking up’ is that society disapproves.

In other words, all these evolutionary-psychology yarns about differences between differences in attitudes between men and women towards casual relationships are just that – yarns.

That fits with new opinion poll data showing that, among young people in America, attitudes to relationship commitment and children have flipped. The gender stereotypes have crumbled – pretty much all the attitudes that are supposed to be typical of men are now more likely to be held by women.

Bear that in mind the next time someone tries to tell you that men are form Mars and women are from Venus!


ResearchBlogging.orgOwen J, Fincham FD, & Moore J (2011). Short-Term Prospective Study of Hooking Up Among College Students. Archives of sexual behavior PMID: 21203816

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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