So which one is it?
As most things in psychology, it’s just not that simple. I'm a sex researcher, and much of my research has centered on casual sex. What the research shows is that casual sex isn't harmful or beneficial: it's both. And it all depends on what kind of a person you are (and also on how you do it, but more on that next time). Due to both nature and nurture, people vary in several personal characteristics that research suggests could determine whether they get harmed by or benefit from frequent hook ups.
So, are you the kind of person who could be having casual sex with different partners without negative consequences? Here are nine questions to help you figure it out.
- How much do you want it?
People vary in how much they desire sex with someone they are not in a relationship with. Some dream of it daily, others - never. Doing something you don’t really want to do can have a negative impact on mental and physical health; on the flip side, doing things you love leads to greater well-being.
If your mind rarely wanders off into hookup-land, casual sex probably isn't for you.
- How much do you approve of it?
People also vary on their attitudes toward casual sex. Some strongly disagree with it, while others fully approve. Doing something that goes against your values is also detrimental to your health.
If you disapprove of or disagree with casual sex, you should probably stay away from hookups. (Read more about the debate around casual sex in Casual Sex Rules.)
- How easily do you get - and stay - sexually excited?
One of the greatest benefits of casual sex is the physical pleasure it can provide, which, in turn, leads to general happiness. But that physical pleasure is easier for some people to come by than for others. Some brains and bodies get excited quickly and nothing fazes them; others take time and perfect circumstances to get in the mood, and the slightest distraction can ruin it.
Casual encounters are often brief, happen in less-than-perfect environments (and with partners who don’t know your body well). The easier it is for you to get and stay aroused, the more you’ll enjoy them. (Learn more about arousal in How to Know Your Body Is Aroused.)
- How easily do you orgasm?
While you can certainly enjoy a sexual experience without climaxing, having an orgasm is typically a source of additional and often quite intense pleasure that has its own host of physical and mental health benefits. People vary greatly in their ability to orgasm - some never do, while a few lucky ones climax more than 100 times per session (!).
When you're with a partner who doesn’t know you well or doesn’t care much about your pleasure, having a body that gets to an orgasm swiftly and effortlessly is definitely a plus. So is knowing how to help your own body get there.
- How well can you communicate your likes, dislikes and limitations?
Not doing things you wanted to do and doing things you did not want to do are two major reasons why hookups end badly. Some people are better at clearly expressing their sexual preferences and boundaries than others. This trait, called sexual assertiveness, is desirable no matter what type of partner you're hooking up with, but with casual partners - who are definitely not psychic, probably don’t know you well (or at all), and sometimes don’t care much about your pleasure or well-being - assertiveness becomes essential.
If you’re the kind of person who has a hard time saying an enthusiastic "yes" to the things you want and a firm "no" to the things you don’t, casual sex with random strangers probably isn’t for you. (Communication is important for many reasons. Learn more in Yes! Why Consent Is Totally Sexy.)
- Can you use condoms consistently?
Some people don’t like condoms. Others are not confident enough to insist on them when a partner doesn’t like them. Getting or fearing you may have put yourself at risk of becoming pregnant or contracting an STI is a major source of stress after a casual hookup.
If you can’t use condoms consistently, you should probably stick to long-term monogamous relationships. (Get some tips in Steamy, Sizzling ... Safe? 6 Ways to Make Condoms Sexy.)
- How easily do you get attached to sexual partners?
Sex sets in motion a cascade of neurochemical processes in the brain that can result in bonding to your partner - even if you just met the person a few hours ago. But some people get attached much more easily than others. And when those bonds get broken, as they do most of the time in casual relationships, it hurts.
If you’re the type who starts naming your kids after the first time you have sex, you should probably stay away from casual sex.
- How much do you care what others think?Casual sex is stigmatized, and if you engage in it (a lot), you will get a reputation. And with that can come rejection, ostracism and bullying, all of which are physically and emotionally damaging. Some people can easily brush all of this off; others’ cannot - their sense of self-worth is intimately tied to what people think of them.
The more you care about others’ opinions of you, the worse off you will be if you hook up a lot.
- How prone are you to shame, guilt, and regret?
Whether due to social stigma, bad choice of partners, or our own stupidity (like getting wasted, going too far, or not using protection), casual sex often provokes feelings of guilt, shame, and regret, which can in turn negatively affect our physical and psychological well-being. That said, some people are more prone to experiencing these negative emotions than others.
The less you’re burdened by shame, guilt and regret, the easier it will be to deal with casual sex and its often messy aftermath.
So, Is Casual Sex Right for You?Depending on where you stand on these nine personal characteristics, you may or may not be well positioned to get all the benefits of casual sex with none of the bad consequences. That doesn’t mean you should never hook up if you happen to be on the "wrong" end of the spectrum on some (or even most) of these; it just means it will be harder for you to stay healthy and happy when hooking up, especially if you do it a lot.
Fortunately, you’re not necessarily stuck at that spot for life. Many of these traits can be worked on, at least to some degree. And one way to do that is to have more sex in general, and more casual sex in particular. Research shows that the more (casual) sex you have, the more able you become at handling many of the above issues: stigma, attachment, guilt, assertiveness, orgasmic ability. You know what they say, practice makes perfect.
The bottom line: Know thyself. And then, honor thyself.