A new reason to worry about hooking up

Casual sex linked to higher anxiety, lower self-esteem

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Photo by dustinj on Flickr

A summer fling? (dustinj/Flickr)

A new study shows a positive correlation between casual sex on campus (defined as sex with someone the student didn’t know 30 days prior) and general anxiety, social anxiety, self-esteem, depression and life satisfaction. In other words, those who report hooking up recently also report more mental illness or mental distress.

Researchers surveyed 3,900 heterosexual college students aged 18 to 25 at 30 schools in the U.S. and asked about sexual behaviour and mental health. They were surprised that the correlation between casual sex and mental distress was strong for both men and women. They had predicted it would hold true only for women.

The psychologists who undertook the survey suggest that casual sex could cause mental illness, because of guilt or sexual regret. It could also be the other way around. Mentally distressed people are known to feel invulnerable to danger and are more prone to sensation seeking, which could make them more likely to engage in risky hook-ups, the researchers write. (Since correlation tells us nothing about cause and effect, there could also be some other explanation.)

The good news from the survey is that only 11 per cent reported casual sex in the 30 days prior. Hooking up isn’t as common as one might assume on Canadian campuses either. Among a large sample of Canadian university students who filled out the National College Health Assessment, about one-third reported no sexual partners (vaginal, oral or anal) in the previous 12 months, nearly half reported only one partner and just eight per cent had four or more partners.