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Smartphone apps like Tinder, Grindr, Down, Tingle and Snapchat have opened up a new chapter in the complicated world of dating and casual sex.  Dubbed “hookup culture,” smartphone users 18-30 years of age are said to be navigating a very different sexual landscape than their parents did.

Early research on the topic found that undergraduates who engaged in casual sex reported lower self-esteem than those who did not.  Yet, other studies reported no evidence of higher risk for depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, or body dissatisfaction.

According to adjunct professor Zhana Vrangalova of New York University, the phenomenon of casual sex is layered with individual, interpersonal, emotional, and social factors.  Reasons for engaging in hookups are different.

Her recently published study demonstrates that casual sex is not harmful in and of itself, rather one’s motivations for engaging in casual sex is what affects psychological well-being.

Vrangalova draws upon self-determination theory:  Behaviours arise from autonomous or non-autonomous motivations.  When we do something for autonomous reasons, we are engaging in behaviours that reflect our values – the ‘right’ reasons.  When we do something for non-autonomous reasons, we are seeking reward and avoiding punishment – the ‘wrong’ reasons.

In the context of casual sex, Vrangalova and her team of researchers were able to show that those who hooked up for non-autonomous reasons (i.e. wanting to feel better about themselves, wanting to please someone else, hoping it would lead to a romantic relationship, and wanting favours or revenge) had lower self-esteem and higher levels of depression and anxiety.

But those who engaged in casual sex for autonomous reasons – fun and enjoyment, sexual exploration, learning about oneself – reported higher than normal levels of self-esteem and satisfaction, with lower levels of anxiety.

If hooking up for the right reasons, casual sex does not appear to have a negative impact.  Still it’s not so simple.  A number of issues need to be addressed.

Many studies examine “hookup culture” on college campuses, particularly the sex life of middle to upper class young adults.  Since college years are often a tumultuous time of self-discovery and changing opinions, longitudinal research on the long-term benefits (or drawbacks) of casual sex need to be carried out.  Few studies have explored how casual sex affects the mental health of individuals above age 30.

Outside the college domain, information on how different casual sex arrangements (one night stands vs. friends with benefits vs. non-monogamy) affect mental health is scarce, as is research exploring how casual sex behaviours vary between people of different ethnicities.  Preliminary research shows that non-white women report lower desire for casual sex.  How or why this is the case has not been examined.

There is little doubt that the sexual landscape has changed in the past few decades. Technologies, and more specifically social media, have altered the way we approach and engage in interpersonal relationships. But the idea that younger generations are ditching the traditional dating scene in favour of hooking up has not been supported by recent research.

Hang-outs, group dates, friends with benefits, no-strings-attached… For those emerging adults who are engaging in these behaviours with a psychologically healthy frame of mind, is it really so bad?

– Magdelena Belanger, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today