Poor Mental Health and Casual Sexual Relationships

Poor mental health may lead to more casual sex – and vice versa – in teens and young adults, according to researchers from the Ohio State University.

The study involved data from over 10,000 American young people who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Information was first collected when the participants were in grades 7 through 12. They were again interviewed as “emerging adults” whose ages ranged from 18 to 26.

The participants were asked about their experiences with casual sexual relationships, sometimes called “hookups” or “friends with benefits.” They were also asked whether they had symptoms of depression or any thoughts of suicide.

Twenty-nine percent of the emerging adults reported having a casual sex relationship in the past.

Participants who were more depressed or seriously considered suicide as adolescents were more likely to have causal sex as young adults, the researchers said. And suicidal thoughts as young adults were more common among those who had casual sex as adolescents.

“There’s always been a question about which one is the cause and which is the effect. This study provides evidence that poor mental health can lead to casual sex, but also that casual sex leads to additional declines in mental health,” said lead author Sara Sandberg-Thoma in a press release.

The researchers were surprised to find that the association between poor mental health and casual sex was similar for both men and women. This contrasts with a double standard that often exists, in which men are encouraged to pursue casual sex, but women are not.

Casual sex may have some benefits, the authors said. From these types of relationships, young people can learn more about their own sexuality and that of their partners. They can also determine what they want and don’t want in a committed relationship.

However, such relationships can also interfere with finding a more stable relationship, the type that many young people seek as they mature.

The researchers acknowledged some limitations in their study. They explained that the type of casual sex partner may influence mental health outcomes. For example, casual sex with a stranger might affect someone differently than casual sex with a friend.

Also, the idea of “sex” could be defined in different ways. For some, it may mean intercourse. For others, it could include other types sex, like oral sex. Similarly, the idea of “casual” could be interpreted differently. One person’s causal sex relationship could be interpreted as dating by another.

Future research may address these concerns. In the meantime, the study results could help healthcare providers who work with teens and young adults.

The study was published online in October in The Journal of Sex Research.


The Journal of Sex Research

Sandberg-Thoma, Sara E. and Claire M. Kamp Dush

“Casual Sexual Relationships and Mental Health in Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood”

(Full-text. Published online: October 29, 2013)


The Ohio State University

Grabmeier, Jeff

“How Poor Mental Health and Casual Sex Reinforce Each Other”

(November 19, 2013)