College Student ‘Hook-Ups’ Linked to Psychological Distress

college students talking

The idea of a “hook-up,” the casual sexual encounter currently popular among single people, makes parents cringe as they send their new college students off for freshman year. Parents may be concerned that their teen is destined for heartbreak, and possibly more serious issues, if they have sex too casually.

The current popularity of casual sex has public health specialists concerned about the possibility of increased levels of sexually transmitted diseases, as well as the likelihood that some of the hook-ups may result in unplanned pregnancies.

With so many clear physical health concerns related to the hook-up, there is much more to be considered about how hook-ups affect those involved. Researchers are beginning to examine whether casual sex can have mental health risks as well.

A study recently published in The Journal of Sex Research examined the consequences of casual sex related to mental health. The research focused on whether there was any association between casual sex and the symptoms associated with various mental health diagnoses.

The study, led by Dr. Melina M. Bersamin of California State University in Sacramento, found that those who had engaged in casual sex had higher levels of depression, social anxiety and general anxiety when compared to those who had not had casual sex. The report is called, “Risky Business: Is There an Association between Casual Sex and Mental Health among Emerging Adults?”

The researchers included nearly 4,000 heterosexual college students from 30 college campuses across the United States. They were asked about their behaviors related to casual sex, as well as about several mental health areas.

The researchers considered sex to be casual if it was intercourse with someone that the participant had known for fewer than seven days. The participants filled out an online survey, producing the largest body of data ever collected on the topic. The results indicated that 11 percent of the respondents had engaged in casual sex in the last 30 days. The respondents that had engaged in casual sex were largely male.

Dr. Bersamin says that the results of the study provide evidence that casual sex may not be so casual when it comes to mental health. The findings show that it would be unwise to assume that casual sex does not impact those who participate in it.

The findings indicate that casual sex was associated with psychological distress and those who engaged in it were less likely to report general mental well-being.

The researchers also examined how gender influenced the mental health of those who engaged in casual sex. Previous research has shown that women may be more negatively impacted by casual sex because of double standards that encourage promiscuity among men but attach a stigma for women. Men are encouraged to engage in sex with more women, while women are discouraged in the same area.

In the current study, these patterns associated with gender were not evident. Gender did not seem to have any influence on the mental health reported by those who engaged in casual sex.

The researchers hope that the study will act as a springboard for future research examining connections between sexual activity and mental health. Further research is needed to determine whether casual sex is associated with psychological distress or if the presence of a mental health issue may lead to risky sexual behaviors. It is possible that the connection works in both directions.

The evidence does suggest that there may be reason for teens and young adults to exercise caution when considering a casual hook-up. Even as researchers are still examining the potential mental health issues that could be associated with casual sex, there are multiple physical health risks that make casual sex a dangerous behavior.

Parents may feel conflicted about whether to talk with their college student about casual sex. However, parents should strive to keep an open dialogue with their teens about casual sex, substance use and other important decisions in which there are serious risks.

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