Between the time we hit puberty and the time many of us get married, we engage in a variety of sexual relationships and experiences. These experiences nurture skills that enable us to effectively choose and interact with our partners. Research focusing on romantic relationships has found that participating in romantic relationships helps us grow in a number of ways, including:
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?
Developmental scientists have worked to explain the prevalence of casual sexual experiences. Some of these explanations focus on emerging adulthood as a period of exploration, in which individuals experiment in both their personal lives and their careers before settling down. Choosing casual partners over committed romantic relationships allows emerging adults to focus on their education or careers while enjoying sexual satisfaction (Calzo, 2014; Shulman & Connolly, 2013). Additionally, historical changes in sexual norms, increasing age at marriage, and turbulent economic circumstances may have contributed to increases in the likelihood of having casual sex over romantic relationships (Garcia & Reiber, 2008; Monto & Carey, 2014).
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:
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.
Calzo, J. P. (2013). Hookup sex versus romantic relationship sex in college: Why do we care and what do we do? Journal of Adolescent Health, 52, 515-516. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.03.001
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
Furman, W., & Collibee, C. (2014). Sexual activity with romantic and nonromantic partners and psychosocial adjustment in young adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43, 1327-1341. doi: 10.1007/s10508-014-0293-3
Garcia, J. R., & Reiber, C. (2008). Hook-up behavior: A biopsychosocial perspective. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2, 192-208. doi: 10.1037/h0099345
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.
Lehmiller, J. J., VanderDrift, L. E., & Kelly, J. R. (2014). Sexual communication, satisfaction, and condom use behavior in friends with benefits and romantic partners. Journal of Sex Research, 51, 74-85. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2012.719167
Monto, M. A., & Carey, A. G. (2014). A new standard of sexual behavior? Are claims associated with the “hookup culture” supported by general social survey data?. The Journal of Sex Research, 51, 605-615. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2014.90603
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.
Shulman, S., & Connolly, J. (2013). The challenge of romantic relationships in emerging adulthood: Reconceptualization of the field. Emerging Adulthood, 1, 27-39. doi: 10.1177/2167696812467330
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