- Exploring sexual behaviors
- Discovering sexual identities
- Understanding our own romantic needs and preferences
- Using insight from past relationships to learn from mistakes and make thoughtful romantic decisions that result in the desired outcomes
- Dealing with difficult emotions that result from romantic experiences in a way that preserves mental health
- Gaining social skills from interacting with romantic partners, including treating others with respect, communicating, and solving problems
- Developing a romantic attachment style
The skills that romantic relationships foster (Collins, Welsh, & Furman, 2009; Davila, Steinberg, Miller, Stroud, Starr, & Yoneda, 2009; Davila, Stroud, Miller, & Steinberg, 2007) help shape the long-term committed relationships that many people have as adults. However, romantic relationships are certainly not the exclusive context in which people develop sexual and interpersonal competencies. Many individuals participate in casual sexual experiences like hooking up and friends with benefits. How might these experiences also shape our development?
In addition to thinking about why people have casual sex, researchers ask, “Why does it matter?” Most research on the importance of casual sexual experiences focuses on possible negative implications for emotional well-being, including depression and self-esteem (Furman & Collibee, 2014; Sandberg-Thoma & Kamp Dush, 2014). Almost nothing is known, empirically, about the positive effects that casual sexual experiences might have on development (Shulman & Connolly, 2013).
I would like to make the argument that successfully navigating casual sexual experiences can promote the same sexual and interpersonal competencies fostered by romantic relationships. Let’s revisit them:
- Exploring sexual behaviors. Well, this one is kind of obvious. Any sexual experience lets you explore sexual behaviors. In some ways, casual sexual experiences may facilitate sexual exploration. Not knowing a partner well or expecting any future interactions with them might liberate individuals to engage in new behaviors, maybe something that they would be embarrassed to ask for with a committed partner. On the other hand, the intimacy, communication, and trust that characterize committed relationships contribute to increased sexual satisfaction compared to casual sexual encounters, suggesting that casual sex may not always be the best way to explore sexual behaviors (Lehmiller, van der Drift, & Kelly, 2014).
- Discovering sexual identities. For gay and lesbian individuals, first same-sex sexual encounters often occur with nonromantic partners (Herdt & Boxer, 1996). When same-sex sexual activity is stigmatized, anonymity can protect one’s reputation, making casual sex appealing. For people who may not identify as gay/lesbian, but are curious about their sexual preferences, committing to a same-sex romantic relationship may be more daunting than committing to a one-night stand.
- Understanding our own needs and preferences/Using insight from past experiences to learn from mistakes and make thoughtful decisions that result in the desired outcomes. How we react to casual sexual experiences may shape our future choices. Although many people enjoy their experiences, others feel used or disappointed. People who feel upset that their emotional needs were not met by a casual sexual experience may gain insight into their romantic/sexual needs, fostering a stronger self-concept that guides their future sexual decisions. As a result, these individuals might choose to avoid casual sexual experiences in the future, instead favoring romantic relationships. In contrast, analyzing why positive experiences were positive may help individuals continue to make good choices in their future sexual experiences, whether they occur with romantic or nonromantic partners.
- Dealing with difficult emotions in a way that preserves mental health. Having unsatisfying casual sexual encounters predicts increases in depression and loneliness (Strokoff, Owen, & Fincham, 2014), suggesting that negative sexual encounters can be emotionally damaging. Dealing with the emotional fallout of a bad hookup can be a learning experience, if one takes away new strategies for communicating needs to a partner, making decisions about whether to engage in sexual behaviors, and managing negative emotions when they arise.
- Gaining social skills from interacting with partners, including treating others with respect, communicating, and solving problems. Interacting with sexual partners helps adolescents and emerging adults practice obtaining consent, and setting and respecting sexual boundaries. By practicing these skills, individuals learn the risks of not communicating, such as sexual boundary-crossing and unprotected sex, and the rewards of communicating well, such as sexual satisfaction.
- Developing a romantic attachment style. It’s less clear to me how involvement in casual sexual experiences might facilitate attachment style development. These experiences are typically marked by low emotional intimacy and reciprocity—in other words, people don’t use their hookup partners as a secure base. As a result of these characteristics, casual sexual experiences may have no bearing on romantic attachment. On the other hand, having positive experiences with casual partners may teach people that sexual partners are trustworthy, contributing to secure attachment. In contrast, negative experiences in which trust is violated or emotional needs are not may foster anxiety or avoidance of physical or emotional intimacy with future partners.
These thoughts are just the musings of someone who thinks about casual sex often; we don’t know the long-term influences of casual sexual experiences. We need a better understanding of how casual sexual experiences fit into our developmental trajectories, including how we move into and out of casual and romantic experiences over adolescence and emerging adulthood, and how different types of experiences shape our romantic competencies. If the goal is to promote healthy relationships, we must make sure that we understand the importance of the wide range of sexual relationships in which individuals engage.
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Collins, W. A., Welsh, D. P., & Furman, W. (2009). Adolescent romantic relationships. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 631-652. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163459
Davila, J., Steinberg, S. J., Miller, M. R., Stroud, C. B., Starr, L. R., & Yoneda, A. (2009). Assessing romantic competence in adolescence: The romantic competence interview. Journal of Adolescence, 32, 55-75. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2007.12.001
Davila, J., Stroud, C. B., Miller, M. R., & Steinberg, S. J. (2007). Commentary: Defining and understanding adolescent romantic competence: Progress, challenges, and implications. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 36, 534-540. doi: 10.1080/15374410701662147
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Herdt, G., & Boxer, A. M. (1996). Children of horizons: How gay and lesbian teens are leading a new way out of the closet. Boston: Beacon Press.
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Sandberg-Thoma, S. E., & Kamp Dush, C. M. (2014). Casual sexual relationships and mental health in adolescence and emerging adulthood. The Journal of Sex Research, 51, 121-130.
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Strokoff, J., Owen, J., & Fincham, F. D. (2014). Diverse reactions to hooking up among US university students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, (ahead-of-print). doi: 10.1007/s10508-014-0299-x