Field of Science

Casual sex is not so bad after all

Some women from Mars
A while ago I read a paper arguing that religion 'protected' teens against sex. It was your usual analysis - finding that religious teens are less likely to have sex outside of marriage - but the tacit presumption intrigued me. Is sex really that harmful?

Well, no one study is going to answer that, but here's one from Jesse Owen and colleagues at the University of Louisville helps shed some light on it.

Their study has the advantage over most in this field in that it's longitudinal. That means that means that they asked people a bunch of questions, and then a few months later they asked the same people the same questions, to see how their answers changed. College students are always a good testing ground for this sort of topic, and so they asked their questions at the start and end of semester. They only asked students who weren't in any kind of long term relationship.

So, just which students engaged in short-term relationships ("hooking up", in their jargon)?

Well, the ones who hooked up tended to be the ones who at the start of the semester drank more, were less thoughtful about relationships, and more likely to have had short-term flings in the past. But they were less likely to be lonely and yes, they were also less religious.

When they put all of these factors into their model the strange thing is that religion and thoughtfulness dropped out as factors. They only true 'causes' were a past experience of flings, having friends and drinking alcohol. Quelle surprise.

But did all this casual sex make them depressed and lonely? Well actually no, it did not. It didn't make them happier either, it has to be said.

In fact, there was an effect of sleeping around on happiness and loneliness, but it wasn't at all straightforward.

Basically, among all those who were happy and not lonely at the start of the term, those who hooked up during the term became less happy and more lonely than those who did not. But among all those who were depressed and lonely at the start of the term, those who hooked up during the term become more happy and less lonely than those who did not.

Hooking up was good for sad people, but not good for happy people. Make of that what you will.

One last thing. Alcohol had a greater effect on women than on men. That fits with the idea that part of the reason that women are more likely to avoid 'hooking up' is that society disapproves.

In other words, all these evolutionary-psychology yarns about differences between differences in attitudes between men and women towards casual relationships are just that - yarns.

That fits with new opinion poll data showing that, among young people in America, attitudes to relationship commitment and children have flipped. The gender stereotypes have crumbled - pretty much all the attitudes that are supposed to be typical of men are now more likely to be held by women.

Bear that in mind the next time someone tries to tell you that men are form Mars and women are from Venus!

ResearchBlogging.orgOwen J, Fincham FD, & Moore J (2011). Short-Term Prospective Study of Hooking Up Among College Students. Archives of sexual behavior PMID: 21203816

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. That fits with the idea that part of the reason that women are more likely to avoid 'hooking up' is that society disapproves.

    I'm not sure that it necessarily implies that. There are a lot of other reasons why drinking could make women more likely to hook up. For one thing, it lowers your standards. I'm not sure if any formal studies have been done on that, but a particular episode of MythBusters comes to mind. :)

  2. Yeah but why women more than men. I mean, assuming that men have standards too, and that getting the beer goggles on lowers the threshold, why does it lower it more in women? Women are more choosy, but how much of that is simply because of the social pressures (meaning that the target has to be *really* hot to be worth the social disgrace).

    Incidentally, there was a similar study in the same journal last year. They basically came to the same conclusions, although they also found that women were more likely to become distressed after hooking up. I guess that's because they're more likely to be subject to taunts and bullying as a result.

    I was taken aback by their conclusions: "Young women may benefit from personal reflection and group discussion about gender differences in how hookups are experienced."

    Maybe it's everyone else who should get the counselling?

  3. Yeah, I don't see how alcohol playing a bigger role in female hook-ups necessarily means that their concern about stigma is a social artifact or that it disqualifies any EP conclusion about male vs. female attitudes regarding casual sex. What makes you think that societal disapproval is not itself evolved?

  4. Well, one reason is that it doesn't make sense from an evo-psych point of view. What does one female gain from stopping another sleeping around?

    But the main reason is that other cultures do things differently. People in the UK were treated to a couple of examples via the fantastic new series "Human Planet" - take the Wodaabe Male Beauty Pageant, for example ("Each judge chooses her champion and may take him as her lover - even if both already have partners - and the winners are celebrated for years to come.").

    There's a similar event in Papua New Guinea, and many other examples of societally-condoned female promiscuity. The most famous being that of Tahiti.

    Then too there are the signs - from the recent poll I linked to - that attitudes in the West are changing. They're not set in stone.

    I can even construct an evo-psych story to support it. You see, in a small kin group with limited dispersal, I am almost as closely related (from a genetic perspective) to my sisters' children as I am to my own. It makes a lot of sense, in such a circumstance, to devote a lot of effort to supporting my maternal relatives (while trying to father as many children as possible outside that group, of course).

    Bonobos are an example of a matriarchal, small kin-group primate society - one that may well be similar to early human cultures. Bonobos are also famous for high promiscuity.

    The problem comes with the transition from these small groups to larger, more genetically-mixed structures (larger, settled clan groups).

    In such a situation, I'm less related to my sister's children, so I should devote more time to my own - which means controlling paternity very tightly.

    So the optimal strategy differs, and the culture we have is one that results not simply from genes, but from the society we've lived in for the past several thousand years. Both promiscuous and controlled-access strategies are 'natural' and both fit well with evolution.

    Society is changing, and as a result sexual norms are changing too.

    By the way, I'm yet to read the book "Sex at Dawn", but the reviews of it seem pretty good. It lays out the evidence for our 'natural' promiscuity.

  5. Hm. I'm not sure if it's true that some women are from Mars, but I've heard it said that Earth girls are easy . . .


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