Casual sex can allow people to experience intimacy outside a long-term commitment. Depending on the context, casual sex can provide certain benefits, although it can also carry risks.

Sex outside a committed relationship can offer a low-pressure space to explore sexuality. Studies suggest that sexual exploration can support a healthy transition to adulthood. Additionally, casual sex can also be fun and help boost self-confidence.

There are also certain risks with casual sex. For example, a person may acquire a sexually transmitted infection (STI) from unprotected sexual acts. However, people can implement strategies to reduce these risks, such as using protection with a consenting partner.

In this article, we will discuss casual sex, how it may boost health, and what risks it may carry.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms, “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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People may define casual sex as sexual interactions that take place outside a committed relationship. Often, these encounters occur between individuals without any expectation of a future romantic relationship. Casual sex may cover a variety of sexual and intimate behaviors, up to and including sexual intercourse.

Widespread terminology also refers to casual sexual encounters as hookups, booty calls, or one-night stands. In many cases, casual sex only occurs once between partners. However, other casual sexual encounters may be ongoing. In popular culture, many people refer to a long-term casual sex partner as a “friend with benefits.”

There are many reasons why people choose to engage in casual sex. These could range from pressing physical desire to deep-seated insecurity. Evidence indicates that some of the most common reasons for engaging in casual sex include:

  • honing sexual skills
  • reducing stress
  • increasing self-confidence
  • improving social status
  • trying to get over an ex

Casual sex is not good or bad in and of itself, and research shows it can carry benefits and risks to health. However, whether the benefits outweigh the risks depends on the context of a sexual encounter.

Whether casual sex is emotionally and physically healthy depends entirely on the sexual partners and each situation. Some casual sex encounters may be positive, while others may lead to regret.

Potential benefits

A 2020 systematic review examined individuals’ emotional responses to casual sex. Most participants concluded that their casual sex experience was more positive than negative.

Individuals were more likely to have a positive experience with casual sex if they avoided excessive alcohol intake. Sexual satisfaction also helped improve the emotional response to a casual sex encounter. Finally, participants had a better experience with casual sex partners if they already knew them.

Some of the most noted benefits of casual sex may include:

  • sexual pleasure
  • having fun
  • boosting self-esteem
  • avoiding a relationship

In certain cases, casual sex can even lead to a future relationship. From enjoying a casual escapade to feeling sexually attractive, casual sex can lead to many positive outcomes.

Risks

People who have a negative experience with casual sex may find themselves feeling regret, which was the focus of a 2016 study. The research suggests that males were more likely than females to regret missing out on an opportunity to have casual sex. In contrast, females were more likely to regret casual sex encounters.

Other research also indicates that females tend to regret casual sex more than males. A few of the key factors that cause regret after casual sex may include:

  • feeling pressure to participate in sexual activities
  • not enjoying the sexual encounter
  • worrying about negative outcomes

The risk of STIs can also lead to negative emotional and physical health outcomes. Evidence suggests that more frequent casual sex may correlate with higher risks of STIs due to sexual impulsivity and inconsistent condom use. Individuals looking to engage in casual sex should speak with a doctor about STI prevention strategies. Those who are aware of the risks and precautions can maximize the chance of a positive experience with casual sex.

What to consider

In general, the health effects of casual sex depend on the context of each encounter. Engaging in satisfying sex may lead to a positive emotional outcome, and the release of tension could likewise lead to positive physical outcomes. However, negative experiences with casual sex can also occur with impulsive acts and sexually incompatible partners.

Sexuality can be a fun and fulfilling aspect of life. It is an individual’s own choice whether they are sexually active, what kind of activities they partake in, when, and with whom. As such, it is important to practice sexual communication to enable pleasurable, safe, and fulfilling casual sex. People should express enthusiastic consent, free from pressure or coercion, for any sexual activity. They can also withdraw their consent at any time.

Additionally, for individuals who practice monogamy, casual sex with others can be disruptive to the relationship. Infidelity and behaviors outside of a committed relationship can pose a threat to emotional and mental health. However, other relationship structures may embrace casual encounters, and people can discuss and set these boundaries with the other parties in the relationship.

Many individuals may hold beliefs or stereotypes around casual sex. These beliefs vary according to culture and ideological background.

People who have casual sex are promiscuous

Many people engage in casual sex at some point in their lives. They may be recovering from a difficult relationship or feel too focused on personal growth to commit to a long-term partnership. They may simply enjoy having sex.

The availability and various options of birth control and STI protection has made casual sex much safer than it was in the past. Engaging in casual sex is a perfectly reasonable and personal choice. However, it is still important for people to practice safe and consensual sex.

Casual sex is meaningless

Casual sex may be temporary, but many people do find it meaningful. A 2018 study analyzed intimate behaviors around sex, such as cuddling or sleeping over. The research suggests that people who engage in casual sex exhibit the same affectionate behaviors as people in committed relationships.

Additionally, sexuality is diverse and constantly evolving. People may have different requirements and desires from intimacy, and some may find that casual sex can provide these meaningful connections.

Females hold out for a male who will commit

This stereotype has roots in conventional depictions of heterosexual relationships. In fact, many females are not holding out for a male partner at all.

Research notes that lesbian females are also less likely to have casual sex than gay males. Another study suggests that this may be related to the fact that individuals often sexualize females throughout their lives.

This overwhelming sexualization may contribute to the pattern of females of any sexual orientation passing on casual sex. Facing daily objectification may dim the appeal of a sexually charged, temporary affair.

People might associate “hookup culture” with teenagers and younger adults. In reality, people can enjoy casual sex at any point throughout their adult life.

A 2020 analysis suggests that adults over the age of 60 years frequently engage in sexual activity. This is the case for both single and partnered older adults.

Research also indicates that the number of single young adults having casual sex is declining. For younger females, this decline correlates with a decrease in alcohol consumption. For younger males, decreases in alcohol consumption, more computer gaming, and cohabitation with parents may contribute to this decline. Additionally, social distancing measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic are likely factors in the decreasing rates of casual sex.

Casual sex refers to sexual intercourse that takes place outside a committed relationship. Depending on the situation, casual sex can be emotionally and physically beneficial. However, any sexual encounter can also come with certain risks.

Individuals interested in pursuing casual sex should consider their intimate desires and consult a medical professional regarding safe sex practices. With the right preparation and a respectful and compatible partner, casual sex can be an enjoyable addition to a full and healthy life.