I was reading a study published in the most recent issue of The Journal of Sex Research in which it was concluded that casual sex and hookups leads to higher levels of anxiety and depression. The study surveyed 3,900 college-aged students across the United States, and interestingly enough, the feelings of anxiety and depression were similar for both men and women. I say “interestingly enough” because it is traditionally assumed that hookups empower men yet degrade women. The students who reported engaging in casual sex also reported lower levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction and happiness.
So, of course, this study could be filed away with the countless other social experiments ridden with the “chicken or egg” dilemma. Without a controlled environment, it is impossible to know if depressed and/or anxious people have more casual sex or if, as the researchers suggest, casual sex makes people depressed and anxious. My guess is that it would be considered unethical to run a social experiment that could better analyze the sequential nature of “casual sex” and “mental health,” so for now, we will have to be happy with knowing that such a relationship exists.
A lot of people will not be shocked by the study’s findings. Especially women. Many women who have casual sex end up feeling depressed afterwards, because they are hoping the encounter(s) turn into something more- like a big, expensive, flowery Cinderella wedding. I know girls who think this way even if they are completely hammered while having sex, don’t remember the encounter very well, and don’t even know the guy’s last name. But, still, when the morning light hits and they are clumsily shuffling from the guy’s apartment toward their own… this while in last night’s shoes and their now odorous, stained clothing, all while terrorist attacks are exploding inside their dehydrated heads and crusty, slept-in contacts blur their vision… all this while bringing up vomit-burp hybrids and texting their girlfriends, “Hey, don’t worry,I’m alive,” they still want to be Cinderella. And they still want whoever it was from the night before to be Prince Charming. The bad news is that statistically you would need a Fairy God Mother for that to happen.
And then there are the men. Men just want to get laid by as many women as possible and usually cannot remember the girl’s name. In lieu of a name, they will put some perfunctory description of the girl in their phone, such as “hot girl in red dress- SohO area,” so that the next time they are feeling horny they will include her as a recipient, along with 12 other girls, for when they send out their mass text message. The mass text message will be something like, “Hey girl, what are you up to tonight?” And then the guy can pick the girl he wants from all of the Eager Beavers who respond to his very special text invite.
At least this view on how men and women respond to casual sex is a traditional and common one. In that context, you could see how a woman would feel depressed and anxious after giving it up and then having her wedding-bells delusion shattered by the “Mass Texter.”
In this study, however, it was shown that men and women are equally susceptible to depression and anxiety in the aftermath of casual sex. This oddly means that men have feelings. Huh? If you’ve dated enough men over the years in large metropolitan areas, such as New York City, in which the dating ratio clearly favors men, you will find that fact utterly shocking. Truly. And every now and then I like to do a cartwheel for the sole reason of no longer having to deal with dating in New York City and instead being in a relationship in which I feel secure and happy. Yet, here is this study that goes against my defensive profiling of men-which could be summed up nicely as “Men are assholes,” – because if men get depressed after casual sex, then they are just like us women. And then the findings in this study imply that no one is happy feeling like a used piece of meat, and everyone secretly wants more but is afraid to admit it. That is an “All or None” statement which means it also is wrong. It’s wrong because most every trend, pattern, and phenomenon follows a bell-shaped curve, which means that there are weirdos in this world who do not feel depressed or anxious after casual sex, and there are weirdos in this world who can have a lot of casual sex and feel really really happy in the aftermath. The scientific community calls these weirdos, “Outliers.” 😉
I think we will never be able to decipher the cause from the effect in most social experiments. Does taking a risk lead to a particular feeling or does that particular feeling inspire someone to take a risk? Who knows. And then there are probably a million feedback loops and bidirectional arrows to the point that no one really knows why anyone does anything.
My take on this study is more individualized. And by that I mean individualized for a rational, adult brain, and not any other kind of brain. I would recommend using your rational, adult brain to ask yourself how you feel after casual sex. If you weigh the pros and cons of the encounter and come to the conclusion that you enjoy it and it is what you want in life, then perhaps casual sex is a viable option for you and one that will not toss you into the throes of depression. I say that while consciously suppressing my moralistic and society-driven notions on how I think you SHOULD feel. That’s not easy to do. I remember interrogating a couple who said they were happily swingers and also interrogating a family of polygamists who said they were content with their lifestyle, because I could not bring myself to believe that they could actually be happy with lifestyles I was taught to believe and thought were, well, wrong. Once I upchucked my own biases and rethought my opinions, I realized that I really do not know how the world is supposed to work, and I do not know what makes one person happy or another person depressed. There are millions of perceptions and desires out there- all rooted in a myriad of varying personal, religious, spiritual, familial, cultural and whatever-else type of ideals. As uncomfortable as it was, I had to learn how to respect them.
My other tidbit of advice would be to not trick yourself into thinking you are okay with doing something, like having casual sex, when you are really not okay with it. If you are authentically okay with having casual sex, then who am I to say you should not do it? Go for it. But too often, I see both women and men telling themselves that they are “okay with it,” when in reality they are not. They do not want to have casual encounters, yet they do for a variety of reasons, some of which include 1) Peer pressure 2) Feeling like they are supposed to be okay with it since so many do it, and they promise themselves that they will sort out their feelings later 3) Attempting to impress or capture their encounter partner, and etc….
The “thing” someone is pretending to enjoy or pretending that it works for him or herself does not have to be casual sex. It could be a countless number of variables relating to one’s romantic relationship. For example, you could pretend you are okay with your partner’s habit or hobby, when you really aren’t. You could pretend you are okay with being mistreated by your partner, when you really aren’t. You could pretend that you enjoy dressing a certain way to please your partner, when you really don’t. You could pretend that you aren’t being mistreated by a partner, when you really are. You could pretend to be happy in a relationship when you really aren’t but just feel stuck and don’t know how to break it off. You could pretend that you are in love with someone but aren’t and, again, just don’t know how to end the relationship. Someone could be pretending he or she is in love with you, when he or she really isn’t. My point is that there are a million ways we can pretend, and unless we are really good at fooling ourselves ( and most aren’t), all of that pretending will turn into depression and anxiety. If someone honestly enjoys casual sex, he or she won’t suffer from depression or anxiety in the aftermath. But if someone does not enjoy casual sex and is only doing it for a “pretend” reason, then it makes sense that he or she will become depressed or anxious. He or she should not have casual sex, unless for some reason, he or she desires to be depressed or anxious. Who knows. I’m sure those people exist in the world…the Art & Entertainment World. ( Tortured Souls Unite!)
Depression and Anxiety stem from our TRUE selves and not our PRETEND Selves. Our PRETEND self can pretend to not be depressed or anxious, but our TRUE self can’t. All of the feelings that radiate from our true self will define how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about the world and how we feel in the world, no matter what our PRETEND self is doing or feeling. It would be nice, but we cannot outsmart our TRUE selves with our PRETEND selves.
Another example of how our pretend selves interfere with our true selves is in the workplace. Think of all the people who pretend they like their job when in fact their true self hates it. My suspicion is that their job causes depression and anxiety. ( I only mention this, because another recently published study showed that many people are depressed because of their jobs.)
In summary, if you truly want to have casual sex, by all means do it and enjoy it. If you are only pretending to want it, then, yes, as this study indicates, you might get depressed, anxious and feel used up in the aftermath. It’s your body and it’s your brain.