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Are Hookups Healthy?

by Anna Thomas, PhD

Casual sex seems ubiquitous these days. Casual hookups, one-night stands, booty calls, friends with benefits. When to have sex, when not to have sex- the implications of who you have sex with and when. And no two encounters are alike.The (western) cultural assumption is that adults are having sex; regardless of whether you’re in a committed relationship with someone or someones.

What is a casual hookup?

If you are considering casual sex, you first have to define for yourself what that entails. Is casual sex meeting up with strangers for a one-night stand; or is it finally asking out that hottie at the coffee shop and making out in the car on a whim? Is it sex with someone you’ve established an emotional relationship with and you just happen to share sexual encounters every once in a while? Feelings about casual hookups depend largely on context- what might feel fulfilling and empowering one day may cause anxiety and frustration the next. Knowing the motivation behind your “why” before defining the “what” is worth some proactive conscious thought. Once you’ve decided what the parameters for yourself are, sharing this with your potential partner(s) is crucial. Not only can setting and maintaining those boundaries keep you safe, but it helps your partner(s) understand what they’re signing up for, so that they can give you their enthusiastic consent!

Hookups: sexy or stigmatized?

It’s easy to get swept up with the idea of a booty call when it’s romanticized everywhere you look! Popular media portrays casual sex as something that is fun & carefree. (Case in point: how many rom-coms can you think of where the main characters ended up with each other after a steamy encounter?) The fact is: it’s not as simple or widespread as the media would lead you to believe. Past studies have shown a range of between 53% and 76% of college students reporting they have “hooked up” at least once in the US. Additionally, what is going on at college campuses may not always be representative of a more widespread trend. The impact of COVID on dating and spontaneous encounters is also still yet to be understood.

There is also still stigma around casual sex- particularly among women- who have been socialized under the concept of “purity culture”. Until the 1960’s when modern birth control was introduced, sex [for women] was largely deemed as a functional duty to ones’ family; not something that was meant to be enjoyed, and certainly not outside of the confines of a heterosexual marriage. In other words: sex inside of marriage was an expectation; anything else was regarded as shameful.

Some of those conservative-leaning values about sex and limits around it are still held by folks to this day. TThese beliefs have led to here are lots of stereotypes when it comes to people who engage in casual sex. People can be labeled as: tramps, whores, sluts, easy, loose and a whole other plethora of names for even being rumored to be sexually active outside of a committed relationship. The movie “Easy A” with Emma Stone is a perfect example of the misconceptions around people who are believed to be engaging in casual sexual activity and their respectability. It’s easy to get swept up in other people’s opinions about what sex is, which can be a huge reason why people don’t engage in casual sex in the first place. The most important part of this decision is: what does sex mean to you, and is there a way you can shape it to feel good to you?

Benefits of Casual Sex

In the right circumstances, sex can and should be a pleasurable experience- even if it’s a one night stand. After all, the act of sex itself releases a bunch of “feel good” chemicals (hello, endorphins and oxytocin!) that create feelings of connection and relaxation. But even more than that- there can be a sense of empowerment in being able to choose who you have sex with and when. Companionship, novelty, and self-confidence are examples of why people might seek out these types of encounters.

Pursuing this type of relationship can be an opportunity to find your sexual “voice”; your likes and dislikes with someone you feel emotionally and physically connected to, even if it is temporary. In fact, the very transient nature of hookups might even be seen as a perk: the stakes don’t have to be as high, and some of the pressure might be taken away. While it’s always best practice to treat people with respect, knowing that the encounter will eventually come to an end might even add to the thrill of the whole situation!

Drawbacks of Casual Sex

There are also inherent risks to casual sex: unintended pregnancy, STI exposure and emotional conflicts, among others, can arise if precautions aren’t taken. Thankfully, many of these risks can be mitigated by passing some checkpoints with any potential partner(s). Abstaining from alcohol or drug use to avoid impairing your baseline judgment, being honest about your sexual health and history, and sharing your location with another trusted person in your life are all actions you can take to reduce the potential negative consequences of a saucy rendezvous.

Reflecting on the risks as well as the rewards can be a helpful exercise before deciding if casual sex is the right decision for you.

In the moment: a mixed bag

While there are many factors to consider, research does not show definitively whether casual hookups have more negative than positive outcomes.. There are studies that suggest that the implications are different for males than females, for example. Empirical measurements of self-confidence vs. depressed feelings are only helpful to an extent because of factors like age, gender, upbringings, etc: it’s just too nuanced to nail down. Blanket statements like “casual sex is bad” are unhelpful, because they do not account for the variations a person can experience when participating in a casual hookup. In fact, according to sex researcher Dr. Justin Lehmiller, “‘Casual sex’ isn’t all that casual. While the name implies a purely physical, completely emotionless encounter, research finds that most people desire a degree of intimacy and connection during sex.” If this is the case, are you self-aware enough to know what you need and want and how to get it? Taking this question into consideration is a great first step to take if you want to build casual sex into your repertoire.

Is casual sex right for you?

More than anything, the best thing you can do is to think about why you want to engage in casual sex in the first place. What’s your goal or motivation? Do you want to try something new in bed? Get better at negotiating boundaries? Go on a nice date and not engage in sex at all? This is an important step and not one that you should skip because ultimately you should be able to communicate these wants and needs with any potential partner(s). Being able to have clear, straight-forward communication about what type of sex you’re looking for is a huge green flag for anyone you might consider hooking up with (*think: enthusiastic consent)! With motivation in mind, think about the things you can do to set yourself up for success: will it take a certain amount of time to get to know this person? Perhaps you only meet in a place that’s somewhere neutral but familiar so that you have a sense of physical safety. There are many things you can do to prepare for a successful experience.

But even the best laid plans occasionally go awry, so it’s worth mentioning that you can pause or stop at any time. Consent for any situation should be freely given and it can be taken away for any reason. Just another reason why thinking through your ideal scenario ahead of time can be helpful- you can point to a moment or feeling when maybe you want to change your mind- and changing your mind is okay! You might find the ratio of risk to reward was not what you thought it would be: maybe it’s something that felt good in the short-term, but long-term it’s not fulfilling you in a way that entices you to continue. Giving yourself time and space to reflect on your experience(s), whether positive or negative, is a great skill to hone so that you can show up as your most actualized sexual self!

To be(d) or not to be(d), that is the question!

To be a sexually active adult, it is important to have some basic tools in your toolbox: factual sex-safety information, strong communication skills and a healthy dose of common sense can take you far. That said- casual sex can also be an opportunity to figure things out- you don’t have to know it all- sometimes, that’s half the fun! By taking some basic precautions and having a positive outlook, you can create the casual sex landscape that best fits you.

Dr. Anna Thomas is the Licensed Psychologist behind Rosy Wellness Plans. She provides individual and couples’ therapy to older adolescents and adults.