Let’s Talk About Casual Sex, Psychological Well-Being and Marital Quality
Having casual sex/ multiple pre-marital sex partners will not lead to lower mental health, or bad relationships. It's due other things, not casual sex.
Sex! Casual sex! Having lots of casual sex! Some people like the idea, others don’t. If you’re reading this you’re probably not having any, to begin with. However, whether you’re having any or not doesn’t matter, but what does matter is if it has negative effects on one’s psychological well-being and their marriage. In this article, I argue that casual sex or the number of sexual partners one has is not causally associated with lower mental health. Finally, casual sex and the number of sex partners one has is not related to their happiness in a relationship or if they’ll get married or not. However, the relationship ship between the number of sexual partners and divorce remains unclear. There is no evidence to suggest casual sex causally harms one’s ability to pair-bond in any way.
In one of the most popular studies on the issue that comes from The Heritage Foundation, Rector et al. (2003) analyzed data from the National Survey of Family Youth, a nationally representative survey of women. It was found that women who had more sexual partners were less likely to be happy and more likely to be depressed.
Bersamin et al. (2014) gathered data from 3,907 college students and measured casual sex and other psychological variables. It was found that students who reported more casual sex reported lower mental health.
In their structural equation model, casual sex was negatively correlated with psychological well-being and positively associated with psychological distress, a small but statistically significant effect. Even in their correlation matrix, their effect sizes were weak-small but negatively correlated when looking at casual sex and self-esteem, life satisfaction, psychological well-being, eudaimonic well-being (“refers to having “found oneself” and having begun to actualize one’s potentials”), and positively correlated with depression, general anxiety, and social anxiety. However, the relationship between casual sex and social anxiety was weak (0.06, p<0.001).
Focusing on depression and suicidal variables, Oredein and Delnevo (2013) found that among their nationally representative female sample from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (n=7,361), more sexual partners were associated with an increase in the probability of sadness, suicide ideation, suicide planning, and suicide attempt. These results were held after adjusting for grade and age.
However, the YRBS method of measuring things related to mental health may not be very rigorous. As the authors explain,
The YRBS was not designed to diagnose depression and has only five measures that refer to mental health, again, only four of which were used in this study. One question refers to feelings of sadness, and four refer to suicide.
The authors do not provide a regression to see how large the measurement error is to see the residuals in the data, but based on the quote above, it seems like the YRBS measurement of depression may not be the best, but we’ll ignore that for the time being.
Similar to Bersamin et al., Napper et al. (2014) examined data from 3 U.S. universities and measured their mental health and number of partners sample from data of 607 participants. A number of partners were positively correlated with depression, anxiety, and stress.
The effect sizes in this study, though, were very weak and not statistically significant. The number of partners weakly correlated with depression (0.03), anxiety (0.03), and stress (0.03).
As can be seen from the top studies, it sure does seem like there might be a relationship between having more sexual partners and lower mental health. However, it’s unknown where causation runs. Does having more sexual partners lead to lower mental health? Does having lower mental health lead to higher sexual partners? Or is there a confounding variable in all of this?
First off, looking at a New Zealand cohort, Ramrakha et al. (2013) found that the majority of people in the study did not report anxiety, depression, and substance abuse—the same was found for both men and women.
This is important to keep in mind, but let’s put this aside for now. Because of this, the analysis was restricted to people who did initially report lower mental health and higher substance abuse and those who reported these items in a later assessment.
After adjusting for sex and prior mental health disorders, there was no significant relationship between the number of sex partners and later anxiety or depression for people with 1.1-2.5 sex partners and with those who had more than 2.5 sex partners.
Thus, this suggests that anxiety and depression do not increase after casual sex and so there seems to be no causal correlation. Readers are cautioned to make the argument that “lower mental health leads to casual sex” since, as was said above, most people do not report low mental health, so for the majority of people, there is no relationship and thus making such a broad argument doesn't work.
Focusing on people who reported depression and anxiety in a later assessment, null results were found, too.
The number of sex partners was not significantly related to later anxiety and depression, except for people ages 21-24 who had 1.1-2.5 partners.
When taken together, this suggests that premarital sex does not lead to an increase in anxiety and depression and has no long-term effects seen later, according to people who reported depression and anxiety in a later assessment. Furthermore, as will be reiterated again, most people do not report anxiety and depression issues.
Focusing on suicide and depression, like in Oredein and Delnevo, Deutsch and Slutske (2015) are probably one of the best studies on the issue because they used a sub-sample to control for genetic confounding. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and a sub-sample to control for genetic and shared environmental effects, the researchers measured depressive symptoms, suicide ideation, and casual sex at waves 1 and 3.
The number of casual sexual partners in wave 1 was positive with suicidal thoughts in wave 1 and depressive symptoms, but the former has a weak effect size and was not statistically significant (0.03), and the latter had a weak effect size but it was significant (0.14, p<.01). The number of casual sexual partners in wave 3 was weakly associated with depressive symptoms in wave 3 and was negative and not significant, and was also weakly correlated with suicidal thoughts and not significant (0.05). So, at time 1, suicidal thoughts were unrelated to the number of casual sex partners but related to depressive symptoms, but as time went on to time 3, this relationship did not hold.
Their twin data suggested that casual sex nor a number of casual partners predicted depressive symptoms in early adulthood or suicide ideation at wave 3. Focusing on data between times 1 and 2, the twin data again suggested that neither casual sex nor the number of sexual partners predicted depressive symptoms or suicide ideation.
A meta-analysis of 34 studies also found risky sexual risk-taking was unrelated to depression and anxiety (Crepaz and Marks 2001). Multiple sexual partners were unrelated to depression and anxiety (.01m n.s.).
One important variable that goes uncontrolled in these types of studies is moral incongruence, which is a fancy way of saying there is moral disapproval of something that people continue to engage in despite it being morally bad to them.
Let’s take happiness as an example since Rector et al. argued that women who had more sex partners had lower happiness. Perry, Grubbs, and McElory (2021) found that women who had more pre-marital sexual partners were more likely to be unhappy than those who had no or a few premarital sex partners, but this was only true for those who thought it was immoral. Thinking pre-marital sex is immoral but continuing to engage in it can lead to lower happiness rather than pre-marital sex itself.
Moral incongruence should be adjusted in these studies since it’s possible that being against having pre-marital sex but continuing to engage in it can lead to lower mental health and other psychological distress—showing how moral incongruence, not pre-marital sex, leads to distress among individuals, further suggesting no causal relationship.
Some studies kinda in this area focus on sociosexuality. Vrangalova and Ong (2014) had 371 students and measured their sociosexuality (attitudes towards sex, like “sex without love is OK"; desire, like having thoughts about having sex with someone you just met; and behavior, like “With how many different partners have you had sexual intercourse on one and only one occasion?”), causal sex, authenticity during casual sex (e.g. being true to oneself and bodily autonomy during sex; non-autonomy: the subject was drunk; the subject was hoping it would be more than just a casual encounter; the subject was seeking revenge on an ex, etc.), and psychological well-being. Sociosexuality can be seen as restrictive views about sex, so those high in sociosexuality have less restrictive views while those lower in it have more restrictive views.
It was found that for weekly well-being, self-esteem, depression, and anxiety, individuals high in sociosexuality had higher self-esteem and life satisfaction than people low on sociosexuality, and scored higher on these items than people high in sociosexuality but who did not have casual sex. This was not true when it came to anxiety, though, where both high sociosexuality groups did not have a significant difference, and those low in sociosexuality but who had casual sex scored higher on anxiety than those high in sociosexuality.
Focusing over a 3-month period, similar results were found, again. Those high on sociosexuality and who had casual sex scored higher on self-esteem and life satisfaction than those who scored lower on sociosexuality but who had casual sex.
Individuals low on sociosexuality but who had casual sex reported higher anxiety than people high in sociosexuality and who also had sex. These differences held after a week, 3-months, and even in their final analysis that took place at the end of the year.
At the end of the year, those higher on sociosexuality and who had sex scored higher on self-esteem, and lower on anxiety and depression than people lower on sociosexuality and who had sex.
Bodily autonomy, or lack thereof, can also help explain the negative relationship found in past studies cited in the beginning.
Vrangalova (2015) examined data from 528 Cornell students who had their sex partners, hook-up motivation (autonomy related to wanting to have sex to experiment, wanting fun and enjoyment, etc.), depression, anxiety, self-esteem, extraversion, and neuroticism measured.
Both men and women who scored high on non-autonomy reported higher depression and lower self-esteem than people with no high non-autonomy. Those with no non-autonomy scored higher on self-esteem than did those high on non-autonomy (d=0.34). There was no difference for physical symptoms (e.g., being sick).
People who want to have sex for their own bodily autonomy, then, don’t seem to have lower psychological well-being than people who score higher in high non-autonomy. This also fits in with moral incongruence. Similar results were found in Townsend, Jonason, and Wasserman (2020).
Using a Likert scale (responses range from 1=strongly agree to 7=strongly disagree), McKeen, Anderson, and Mitchell (2022) found that, again, it does not seem like casual sex has negative effects, according to their sample of 701 people.
Both men and women neither agreed nor disagreed that they felt lonely after a hookup, women did not agree nor disagree that they felt unhappy after the hookup, and men somewhat disagreed, neither men nor women felt rejected, had regret, or negative feelings about themselves. In fact, most people felt good after a hook-up, not worse.
Before we move on, we have to ask if depressive symptoms lead to casual sex and more sex partners. As found in the Ramrakha et al. study, most people did not report mental health issues, so it does not seem like low mental health leads to casual sex/ more sex partners, but more evidence is needed.
Going back to Deutsch and Slutske’s sub-sample to control for genetic confoundings, it was found that between times 1 and 3, neither depressive symptoms nor suicide ideation at wave 1 predicted casual sex or more casual sex partners at the time 3. However, twins who contemplated suicide in wave 1 had a higher chance of engaging in casual sex in wave 2 but not having more sexual partners. Depressive symptoms at wave 1 predicted wave 2 sexual partners. As the authors note,
Our results were largely unsupportive of any causal relationships; only an interaction between within-twin Wave I depressive symptoms and Wave II (adolescence) number of sexual partners was significant; this interaction disappeared when examining Wave III (young adulthood) number of sexual partners. Overall, the results indicate there may be a modest causal relation between earlier depressive symptoms in adolescence and more casual sexual partners in adolescence, particularly for boys, but that casual sexual behavior does not seem to cause later psychological distress, as measured by depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation
This suggests that, once again, casual sex does not cause later psychological distress, and the relationship between depressive symptoms in wave 1 was associated with the number of sexual partners in wave 2 but disappeared as time went on. An inconsistent relationship, but I do not think the relationship between waves 1 and 2 is causal as autonomy and stigma were not adjusted for in these models, something is shown to be variables in the issue.
McKeen, Anderson, and Mitchell also offer evidence on why people engage in casual sex.
As can be seen, both men and women did not agree that they had casual sex because they were feeling miserable or unhappy, things we can use as proxies for depression.
All in all, it seems that, while studies have found a negative correlation between casual sex/ number of sex partners and different psychological traits related to mental health, these findings are not causal as adjusting for prior mental health shows no increases following casual sex or later on, and moral incongruence and sociosexuality, and bodily autonomy can also help explain these negative relationships. It does not seem like casual sex has negative effects on one’s psychological well-being in a causal way, and some of this can be explained by moral disapproval but continuing to engage in casual sex.
Furthermore, it does not seem like people engage in casual sex or have multiple sexual partners because of lower mental health. The studies finding a negative relationship suggest a spurious correlation between the two that’s due to other variables rather than the number of sexual partners one has, and the lower mental health —> casual sex/ more sexual partners idea is not supported to any significant degree.
The issue of marital quality, or lower marital quality, is one discussed in Rector et al. and other locations. For example, Wolfinger (2018) finds that data from the National Survey of Family Growth shows a negative relationship between the number of sex partners one has and their happiness in a marriage.
However, once further variables are held constant, the number of sexual partners one has is unrelated to the probability of having a happy relationship, according to data from 5 different countries which features cohabiting and married couples (Heiman et al. 2009).
McNabney, Hevesi, and Rowland (2020) found that among their log regression of 2,424 women, number of sex partners had no effect on relationship satisfaction or sexual satisfaction.
What about the possibility that having more sexual partners might hinder someone from getting married? Surely, since families are important to society, this is an awfully bad effect that we should discuss.
While it is true that people who have more sexual partners are less likely to be married than those with no pre-marital partners or those with fewer pre-marital partners, this is not a permanent effect. Looking at 17 waves of the NLSY97, it was found that having more sexual partners doesn’t stop women from getting into marriage. When comparing those with multiple sexual partners to those with none or a few, the women that had more sexual partners simply got married at a later age. Virgins also have a lower odd of getting married, but this could also be partially explained by unmeasured variables (Wolfinger and Perry 2021).
What about divorce? Wolfinger (2016) found that when using the National Survey of Family Growth, women with more sexual partners were more likely to divorce, but there’s a caveat. Those with 2 partners were more likely to divorce than those with 3-9 partners, but those with 10+ partners were more likely to divorce than those with 2 partners or more. However, those with 0-1 partners had a lower divorce rate than those with more premarital sexual partners, but those with 1 partner were more likely to report being divorced than those with 0 premarital partners.
Wolfinger (2021) recently replicated these studies and found that more sexual partners before marriage was associated with divorce, even after holding other variables constant.
The same results were also found in late-marrying respondents, where Wolfinger broke it down by # of pre-marital sexual partners.
However, Wolfinger provides no data on how many people with multiple pre-marital partners were actually divorced. If anything, the results would probably suggest the same as those dealing with mental health: not many people are divorced, to begin with.
Furthermore, the evidence suggests it’s mixed right now. In a sample of 100 divorced persons and 50 adjusted couples, premarital sex did not have a significant effect on creating the divorce (Kunda and Gosh 1977). When it comes to the correlation between premarital sex and divorce, the relationship is not causal, according to one study. Kahn and London (1991) looked at the 1988 National Survey of Family Growth, specifically women aged 15-44. The sample was limited to white women since there was a small number of non-white virgins in the data.
Once unobserved differences were controlled for, there was no statistically significant correlation between premarital sex and divorce. This means that “the results suggest that the observed relationship between virginity status and the risk of divorce reflects neither a direct nor indirect causal relationship but rather is a function of the selectivity of virgins concerning unobserved variables that also protect against the risk of divorce.” In other words, premarital sex does not cause divorce, but rather it’s due to selection effects.
Of course, mixed data does not allow us to actually come to a conclusion, so we shouldn't make any premature claims on if more sexual partners before marriage actually lead to divorce in a causal way. These studies should adjust for personality since it’s possible that those who have certain personalities associated with having less successful relationships are more likely to divorce.
For example, one variable harmful to relationships is masculinity. Not masculinity overall, but taking some aspects of it too far. As noted in another article, partners who score higher on masculinity have a lower relationship quality. Women with multiple sexual partners, or at least a high amount of them, score higher on masculinity (Mikach and Bailey 1998).
It’s possible personality traits, like masculinity, might be more prevalent in those with many sexual partners which puts a strain on relationships that lead to divorce. Studies should thus adjust for personality and see if the relationship persists.
Until then, no judgment will be made on if there is a causal relationship between pre-marital partners and higher chances of divorce.
Sometimes when discussing the issue, the issue of “pair-bonding” is brought up. For example, writing in the Christian Post, Blair (2013) notes:
According to neuropsychologist Dr. Tim Jennings in the Conquer Series report: “When you have premarital sex, your reward circuitry is bonded to them now, and it will be much deeper and hurtful. Oftentimes, in breakups of people who’ve been sexually active, they can’t tolerate the sense of emptiness, so they rush into another relationship. The neuro circuits did not have time to reset, and so they’re impaired in their ability to bond with the next person, and they may become sexually active with them. This is just a repetitive cycle, and there are real impairments in bonding going on.” “Knowing how these neurochemicals interact and change the brain help us understand why sex is meant [to be kept] within the boundaries of marriage,” the reported noted.
Obviously, they’re arguing against casual sex through the lens of religion, but is there any truth to this? Is oxytocin, which is associated with pair-bonding, for example, going to be affected by casual sex and thus pair-bonding diminishes? No.
Oxytocin is one of many neuropeptides that are produced and found in mammals. It plays a part in many things, like sexual arousal (Blaicher et al. 1999; Cera et al. 2021), helps a mother bond with her child (Uvnas-Moberg 2016), and even during social interactions. From this evidence, it sure does sound like oxytocin is the love hormone, right? No, especially since oxytocin is released in stressful situations (Taylor et al. 2006) and not just ones that promote bonding. Clearly, the effects of oxytocin are not as straightforward as some have argued, nor does it support the idea of oxytocin being the “love hormone”.
There is 0 evidence that having PMS/ MPS will lead to a decrease in oxytocin or anything of that nature. It’s just a claim being made that has 0 evidence to suggest if it’s true or not. It seems highly unlikely that pre-marital sex would lead to diminished pair-bonding.
In conclusion, it does not seem like casual sex or the number of sex partners one has will affect their psychological well-being. Not only do most people not report lower psychological well-being, but once prior mental health is adjusted for, pre-marital sex does not lead to lower psychological well-being after or in later assessments. The negative relationship found in prior studies can also be explained by moral incongruence, bodily autonomy, and sociosexuality rather than a causal relationship assumed by some people. The idea of lower mental health leading to casual sex or more sex partners is also not supported.
The issue of marital quality is a lot less clear when it comes to divorce, so judgment on a causal relationship will be withheld for now. However, it does not seem as if having multiple pre-marital sexual partners will hinder one from getting into marriage or being happy in their relationship. The issue of pair-bonding is also just incredibly stupid.
I want to make some comments on moral incongruence and psychological well-being though. Whether people want to have casual sex or not is up to them, however, there are some people who have developed moral disapproval towards it because of the stigma around it caused by some people who are against others having casual sex, even though they want to engage with it. It’s important for people to step back and ask themselves “why am I against casual sex?” If the answer is due to what other people have said and it has caused this stigma around it towards you that stops you from doing it, you should see if this is what you actually believe (i.e., you actually think its bad) or if others have said it so you blindly follow these beliefs. From there, decide what you think is the best for you. If you decide to have casual sex, practice safe sex, please. Take care of your sexual health and do not hookup with people who aren’t good for either your sexual health or mental health.