The following is intended for readers 18+
Note: This piece has been updated since it was originally published.
There has been a strong response to this post, which was a wonderful reminder about the importance of being sensitive to our readers’ diverse experiences and beliefs.
The goal of this article is to help readers understand that the stigma and shame around sex and sexuality can be harmful to one’s mental health and that, though there are risks associated with sexual activity — and exploring one’s sexuality may not be for everyone — there may also be benefits. We always want to help you make informed, responsible, and safe decisions that are in the best interest of your physical and mental health.
In 2019, it’s probably easier than ever to have casual sex if you’re looking for it. With the option of meeting prospective partners both in person and on a plethora of dating sites and apps, there’s no shortage of people who are looking to get laid…no strings attached.
People complain about hookup culture — specifically, the lack of commitment and emotional intimacy — and the toll it takes on them mentally. There’s also the risk of STIs and pregnancy, which require awareness and attention. The key is to be smart and use protection — physically and emotionally. And at the end of the day, everyone brings their own unique experiences, values, and beliefs about intimacy to the table, which is what makes the world such an interesting place.
But there’s also a huge stigma against sexual agency and expression. What if consensual hookups don’t have to be a “bad” thing? What if casual sex doesn’t have to wreck your mental health? In fact, what if I told you it might actually be good for your mental health?
The Benefits of Hooking Up
In a recent study, 72% of respondents have had at least one casual hookup, with men averaging 10 hookups total and women averaging 7. Another study confirmed that people in this era are more likely to have casual sex with a random date or friend than they were in a previous 1988-1996 study. Despite the fact that tons of people are having casual sex — whether it’s one night stands, friends with benefits, or a platonic friend you have sex with once in a while — there’s still negative stigma surrounding casual sex, including strong beliefs that casual sex is bad for you.
I spoke with a few proponents of casual sex to hear their thoughts about how the act benefits them, and how they keep casual sex, well, casual.
Personal and Professional Takes on Casual Sex
“Exploring sexuality should be something that’s enjoyable. I love that it’s a stress reliever and puts me in a good mood. I love the idea of exploring my options and seeing what happens. It gives me an opportunity to see what I like and don’t like.” She adds, “If you have the right motive with someone you’re comfortable with, no strings attached, you can walk away feeling great and empowered — without having to put your heart on the line.”
Henry agrees with Desirea that sex is both a mood booster and a learning experience. He says, “I think that human beings are naturally very sexual and sex is a really good and healthy way to learn about yourself. Sex is good for you mentally. It reduces stress, and casual sex is fun!” He continues, “It’s kind of like having a rental car. It’s something new and fun — but there’s also responsibility involved.”
By the way, casual sex isn’t just for 20-somethings.
Rae has been having casual sex for “a long time” and considers it part of her self-care repertoire. She explains, “As someone who believes that both physical contact with others, and orgasms, are an essential component of good health, I think sex outside of relationships is simply a necessary part of self-care.”
She also has some great advice for keeping things uncomplicated. “For me, if you go into a sexual situation viewing it as a fun exchange between consenting adults, it really doesn’t get complicated. If the act becomes about physical desire, rather than emotional desire, it’s pretty straight forward. Sex doesn’t have to be laden with expectations and, actually, if you remove all of that ‘Where is this going?’ stuff, it actually makes the whole thing more fun.”
A Therapist’s Opinion
As for a professional’s opinion on the matter, Talkspace counselor Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. echoes the sentiment that casual sex can indeed be good for mental health.
“In general, healthy sexual activity can have a number of positive impacts within the individual’s life,” Dr. O’Neill says. “For example, sexual activity may help guard against mental health issues like anxiety and stress. Because it’s exciting and novel, casual sex can activate pleasure pathways in the brain. These pathways produce a sense of temporary euphoria.”
So yeah, that new and exciting rental car metaphor Henry was talking about? It makes sense.
The Science of Casual Sex
On top of the novelty factor that makes casual sex feel exciting, there are more scientific reasons why sex is good for you.
Sexual activity and orgasms are scientifically proven to release multiple hormones that provide mental health benefits. Oxytocin, famously nicknamed the “love hormone,” is released during physical touch and orgasm. It relieves stress and anxiety while also creating feelings of bonding and trust. Additionally, dopamine is released and triggers the “reward center” of the brain. Simply put, dopamine makes us feel good and keeps us wanting more.
Casual Sex Isn’t for Everyone
All of this said, casual sex isn’t necessarily for everybody.
“Everyone has their own individual beliefs and values around sex, which is completely okay,” Dr. Rachel O’Neill states. “If you’re the type of person who really values intimacy and views sex as something that happens after a relationship develops, then perhaps casual sex isn’t right for you. At the same time, it doesn’t mean that you can’t experiment with your sexuality to see if perhaps you can find some element of causal sexual intimacy that works for you.”
Your decision whether or not to have casual sex is personal, and you shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed of your decision either way. There are issues such as sexual addiction and compulsion, that can be serious, and should be addressed with a mental health profession.
Under the right circumstances, however, casual sex doesn’t make you a “slut” or a “man whore.” It makes you somebody who is owning their sexuality, taking their pleasure and desires into their own hands.
Be Safe and Have Fun
Always use condoms (you already knew that, right?) and protect yourself emotionally by keeping expectations at bay by communicating openly and honestly. Be upfront and learn to ask for what you want in bed and out of bed.
And hey, if it turns out casual sex isn’t for you, there’s always masturbation.