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Research links Casual Sex in College to Psychological Distress

 College offers an opportunity to further academic studies, but it’s also an environment where students can grow and learn about themselves outside the classroom. It can be a time of personal growth yet also a source of distress for many students. These young adults are learning who they are – they’re finding their path in life, they may be experimenting with drugs and alcohol – perhaps binge drinking, or engaging in casual sex. It’s an exciting time, but also one of hidden dangers; students can develop a substance abuse problem or may struggle with a mental health disorder. Not to mention, college students may also be practicing promiscuous or unsafe sex.  Although this aspect of college life may seem normal to many young students, a new study suggests there is a correlation between casual sex and psychological distress, including higher rates of anxiety and depression.

The study, published in The Journal of Sex Research, found that rates of generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and depression were higher among students who had recently engaged in casual sex (Nauert). The study surveyed 3,900 heterosexual college students from 30 colleges and universities, all of whom were between the ages of 18 and 25. Students were asked whether or not they had had casual sex within the previous month (Otto). For the purposes of this study, casual sex was defined as having sex with someone the individual had only known for less than a week (Nauert).  They found that about 11% of these students reported having casual sex recently, and the majority of this percentage were males (Nauert). Previous studies have suggested that females respond in a more negative manner to casual sex than their male counterparts; however this study revealed that gender does not  affect the relationship between casual sex and psychological distress (Robertson, Nauert). The study also found that  this percentage group (11%) of students had higher rates of anxiety and depression, as well as a generally lower level of mental well being.

This study did have limitations to its findings; however, such as the relatively low number of college students who reported having casual sex. While the data did identify a correlation between risky sexual behavior and symptoms of psychological distress, such as anxiety and depression, it didn’t prove a causal relationship. In other words, we don’t know whether these mental symptoms originate from a student engaging in casual sex; or vice versa. However, oftentimes these answers are not easy to decipher.

Additionally  concerning the difference in responses between males and females when asked about casual sex, researchers did not account for the inherent double standard between the two genders. Men and women can often view a sexual relationship through very different lenses,  and thus the results can not unequivocally indicate a trend.

Subsequently, researchers have identified a need for further research into the relationship between casual sex, anxiety and depression, and psychological distress.  Perhaps more extensive, yet specialized testing is needed to determine whether casual sex causes these symptoms or conversely, if these psychological factors are preexisting and lead young adults to engage in promiscuous behavior.

College is, by nature, a time of freedom, excitement, and growth. , but at the same time college life can negatively impact mental health. Students may experience anxiety and depression, as well as other forms of psychological distress because of the often drastic changes college presents. If casual sex can make these already distressing symptoms worse, it would be beneficial for college students to abstain from this type of behavior, and perhaps engage in psychotherapy. Yes, a one night stand can seem like fun at the time, but the consequences can be taxing on your psychological well-being.

Dealing with anxiety and/or depression can not only be overwhelming but can also have far-reaching effects –such as lower grades, missed classes, deteriorated friendships, and ultimately a poor self-esteem. While it’s unrealistic to expect students not to engage in this behavior, it could be beneficial to present this information to both prospective college students, as well as those currently enrolled. Hopefully, this would raise awareness of the potential dangers of casual sex as it relates to mental health; that the consequences of this behavior may extend far beyond simple feelings of regret or the embarrassing “walk of shame” across campus the next day.


Works Cited

Nauert, Rick. “Casual Sex in College Tied to More Anxiety, Depression.” 1 July 2013. PsychCentral. Web. 18 July 2013.

Otto, Greg. “Study: Casual Sex Hurting College Students’ Mental Health.” 3 July 2013. US News. Web. 18 July 2013.

Robertson, Emma. “Casual sex makes you depressed and anxious, finds new study.” 3 July 2013. Daily Mail. Web. 18 July 2013.


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Written by

A native New Yorker, Bre loves the California scene and writing for Treatment4Addiction. She has been writing content for T4A for five months, and loves to learn new things, form opinions, and send them out to the world. Her interests include dance, singing, acting, talking with friends, being a daughter, and being the best big sister she can to her 16 year old brother. After attending ASU for a few months, she is interested in taking cosmetology classes and exploring her options. She looks forward to learning all she can, and doing something positive with that knowledge and experience.

Filed under: Life, Love and Relationships, Mental Illness, Research · Tags: casual sex, college, mental health, mental illness, psychological distress, Research, students, study is operated by Recovery Brands LLC, a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers, Inc.
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