Casual sex and Well-Being


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This poster presentation at the Annual Meeting of the International Academy of Sex Research in Chicago in August 2014 details two studies looking at the link between engaging in casual sex and psychological health over time. I find that the way casual sex impacts wellbeing depends on why people engage in casual sex (i.e., their casual sex motivation) and how strongly they are interested and approving of casual sex in general (i.e., their sociosexual orientation).

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Casual sex and Well-Being

  1. 1. INTRODUCTION Casual sex (CS), sex with little emotional attachment or romantic commitment, is a common experience among youth today, with prevalence of up to 80% in college students (Garcia et al., 2012). Many have raised concerns that CS has detrimental consequences on youth’s mental health (Claxton & van Dulmen, 2013). Yet, longitudinal findings are mostly nonsignificant (Eisenberg et al., 2009; Fielder & Carey, 2010; Grello et al., 2003; Monahan & Lee, 2008; Meier, 2007; Owen et al., 2011; Shulman et al., 2009), suggesting presence of important individual, situational, or interpersonal moderators. Few such moderators have been examined to date. Goals and hypotheses of current studies. • Study 1. According to self-determination theory (SDT), acting intentionally and with an internal perceived locus of causality leads to wellbeing, while unintentionality and external regulation lead to wellbeing decrements (Deci & Ryan, 2000). SDT has been tested in multiple domains, but not CS. We examine whether self-determination in CS motives influences wellbeing over 1 academic year after controlling for initial wellbeing levels. • H1: Autonomous motivation will be linked to higher wellbeing (H1a); nonautonomous motivation will be linked to lower wellbeing (H1b) among those with CS experiences; • H2: Those with high CS self-determination will have similar or higher wellbeing (H2a), while those with low CS self-determination will have lower wellbeing when compared to those without CS; • Study 2. To examine whether trait-sociosexuality, one’s relatively stable personality orientation toward CS (Penke & Asendorpf, 2009), moderates the link between weekly CS and weekly wellbeing. • H3: On CS weeks (but not no-CS weeks), the unrestricted will have higher wellbeing than the restricted (H3a), and the unrestricted (but not the restricted) will have higher wellbeing on CS than no-CS weeks (H3b). • Both studies predicted no main effects of CS on wellbeing and tested for sex differences, given greater concern for women’s wellbeing following CS (Paul, 2006; Stepp, 2007). METHOD – STUDY 1 Participants and procedures. In Fall 2009, all 6,500 registered freshmen and juniors were contacted through the university registrar. 528 students completed similar 35-min online questionnaires at beginning (T1) and end (T3) of academic year (8% response + retention rate): 64% women; 44% freshmen; 79% heterosexual; 70% White; 44% nonbelievers; 51% upper-middle class or higher, 33% middle class; 47% single, 39% in a serious relationship, 13% casually dating or hooking up. Representative distribution across colleges. Measures CS since T1. Whether they had a genital sexual encounter (including genital touching, oral, vagina, or anal sex) with a one-night stand or a longer casual partner (e.g., friends-with- benefits, fuck buddies). CS motivation since T1. Those with at least one genital hookup since T1 (n = 196) reported their motivations for hooking up during this period on a scale of 1 (none of my hookups) to 7 (all of my hookups) on an 8-item motivation scale constructed for this study based on SDT, previous SDT-based studies, and past research on CS motivation. Based on principal component analysis and theory, 3 items assessed autonomous motives (“fun,” “explore sexuality.” and “important experience”), and 5 assessed nonautonomous motives (“feel better/avoid unpleasant feelings,” “please someone else or situation compelled it”, “get a favor, material reward, or revenge,” “hoping it would lead to a long-term relationship,” and “tricked or coerced/did not actually want to hook up”). Wellbeing at T1 and T3. Brief Symptom Inventory (Derogatis, 1993) 5- and 6-item subscales assessed past week depression and anxiety from 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely). 10- item Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965) assessed general self-esteem from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Adapted version of Emmons’ (1991) checklist assessed past week physical symptoms from 0 (not once) to 7 (every day), including cold and flu, aches and pains, digestive problems, allergies, and sleeping difficulties. Controls. School year, gender, SES, neuroticism, extraversion, any genital romantic sex by T3, number of lifetime genital hookup partners at T1, and T1 wellbeing. Does Casual Sex Harm Well-Being? The Role of Motivation and Sociosexuality Zhana Vrangalova REFERENCES: Claxton, S. E. & van Dulmen, M. H. M. (2013). Casual sexual relationships and experiences in emerging adulthood. Emerging Adulthood, 1, 138-150. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “What” and “Why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psych Inquiry, 11, 227-268. Garcia, J. R., Reiber, C., Massey, S. G., & Merriwether, A. M. (2012). Sexual hookup culture: A review. Rev Gen Psychol, 16, 161-176. Penke, L., & Asendorpf, J. (2008). Beyond global sociosexual orientation: A more differentiated look at sociosexuality. J Pers &Soc Psychol, 95, 1113-1135. DISCUSSION - With exception of anxiety in men in Study 1, there were no main effects of genital CS on wellbeing, suggesting no uniformly negative or positive short-term or long-term links among college students of either sex. - High nonautonomous CS motivation was linked to lower wellbeing among CS experienced, and to lower wellbeing when compared to those without CS. Those with low nonautonomous CS motivation were no different or higher in wellbeing than no-CS peers. - Sociosexually unrestricted people reported higher weekly wellbeing than unrestricted people when engaging in CS; unrestricted people also had higher wellbeing on CS weeks compared to no-CS weeks. - Results suggest that whether CS is harmful or beneficial to wellbeing depends on individual (sociosexuality) and situational (motivation) factors. RESULTS – STUDY 1 No main effects of CS since T1 on T3 wellbeing (all participants). CS-men had higher anxiety than no-CS men (d = .44); no differences in anxiety in women, or in depression, self-esteem, and physical symptoms in all participants. CS motivation effects on T3 wellbeing among CS experienced (see Table below). - Autonomous motivation – no links to any wellbeing outcomes. - Nonautonomous motivation – linked to higher depression and anxiety, more physical symptoms, and lower self-esteem. RESULTS – STUDY 2 Main effects of Weekly CS on Weekly Wellbeing. None. Interaction between Trait-Sociosexuality and Weekly CS. - Significant for self-esteem, γ = .09* (.04), and life satisfaction, γ = .10* (.04); - Not significant for depression, γ = .02 (.03), or anxiety, γ = -.01 (.03), both ps > .10. Between-person comparisons (see Figure 1 below). - On no-CS weeks, high- and low-SOI people (+1/-1 SD) did not differ in weekly self- esteem, γ = .05 (.04), or life satisfaction, γ = .02 (.04), both ps > .10. - On CS weeks, high-SOI individuals had higher self-esteem, γ = .14** (.05), and life satisfaction, γ = .12* (.05), than low-SOI individuals. Within-person comparisons. - Among 73 high-SOI people (above Mdn) with at least 1 CS week (62% of all high-SOI people), self-esteem, γ = .14** (.05), and life satisfaction, γ = .15** (.06), were higher on CS weeks compared to no-CS weeks. - Among 24 low-SOI people (below Mdn) with at least 1 CS week (21% of all low-SOI people), self-esteem, γ = -.17† (.01), and life satisfaction, γ = -.16 (.12), p > .10, were somewhat lower on CS than no-CS weeks, but not significantly different. T3 Lo-Na & Hi-NA: Mdn-based Depression - Hi-NA > No-HU, d = 0.33** - Lo-NA = No-HU, d = -0.11 Anxiety Men - Hi-NA > No-HU, d = 0.53** - Lo-NA = No-HU, d = 0.33† Women - Hi-NA = No-HU, d = -0.07 - Lo-NA = No-HU, d = -0.19 Physical symptoms - Hi-NA = No-HU, d = 0.13 - Lo-NA = No-HU, d = -0.14 Self- esteem - Hi-NA < No-HU, d = -0.19† - Lo-NA > No-HU, d = 0.34** METHOD – STUDY 2 Participants and procedures. 230 freshmen and juniors (a subset of T1 participants in Study 1) who were either single or casually dating at the beginning of the study: 65% female; 36% non-White; 48% freshmen. After completing baseline questionnaire at beginning of academic semester, they completed weekly measures of sexual experiences and wellbeing for 12 consecutive weeks. Measures Trait-level sociosexuality. Sociosexual Orientation Inventory-Revised (SOI-R; Penke & Asendorpf, 2008), a 9-item measure of CS desire, attitudes, and past experiences. Weekly CS. Whether they had a genital sexual encounter (including genital touching, oral, vagina, or anal sex) with a casual partner (e.g., one-night stand, friends-with-benefits, fuck buddies, ex-partners, just friends). Weekly wellbeing. Self-esteem was assessed with 4 items from Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (1965); life satisfaction assessed with 4 items from Satisfaction with Life Scale (Pavot & Diener, 1993); depression and anxiety assessed with respective subscales of Brief Symptom Inventory (Derogatis, 1993). All rated on 5-point scales. Analytic plan. Weekly data (Level 1) were nested within participants (Level 2), and were analyzed with multilevel random coefficient models with HLM 7.0 . All models control for previous week’s wellbeing at Level 1, and for gender, race, school year, extraversion, and neuroticism at Level 2. Descriptive info - 2,413 weekly reports were completed, M = 10.5 out of 12 weeks (SD = 2.53) per participant; 94% of participants completed 6+ reports. - 11.3% weekly reports had at least one CS encounter; 42% participants had CS on at least 1 week; average proportion of weeks w/ CS was 0.13 (SD = 0.21) per participant. - Higher-SOI people were more likely to engage in weekly CS than lower-SOI people, OR=1.93*** [1.64, 2.28]. Comparisons between: - Low-Nonautonomy (Lo-NA) and No- Hookup (No-HU); and - High-Nonautonomy (Hi-NA) and No- HU (see Figure 1 left).