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Home » Is Casual Sex Bad For You? By Dr. Zhana Vrangalova (Full Transcript)

Is Casual Sex Bad For You? By Dr. Zhana Vrangalova (Full Transcript)

Dr. Zhana Vrangalova

Here is the full text of NYC-based sex researcher, writer, and educator Dr. Zhana Vrangalova’s TEDx Talk: Is Casual Sex Bad For You? @ TEDxCollegeofWilliam&Mary.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Is Casual Sex Bad For You- – Dr. Zhana Vrangalova – TEDxCollegeofWilliam&Mary


Hi. So our world today is a far more sexually permissive place than it used to be 50 years ago.

These days, for most people, premarital sex is okay, oral sex is okay. In this post “50 Shades of Grey” era, even kinky sex is okay. But we’re still very conflicted as a society and as individuals over whether it’s acceptable and healthy to have casual sex — sex outside the confines of long-term, romantic relationships.

We are constantly surrounded by it, yet we are often told it’s bad for us, we shouldn’t be doing it. By the time we are 25, 70% of us will have hooked up at least once, and yet most of us will worry we shouldn’t really be doing it.

But there’s something that doesn’t make sense here to me about this love-hate relationship we have with casual sex. We all seem to agree that sex with a romantic partner has all these amazing benefits, from longer and healthier lives, to better relationships and greater happiness.

So, how come that same sexual activity has the exact opposite effect if our partner is a stranger or a friend? Is sex somehow good for us only because of the love and commitment we feel for our partners? And without that love and commitment, it automatically turns into a destructive force? Isn’t there something good in just, you know, sex?

When I started my PhD in Developmental Psychology, I decided to get to the bottom of this. Is casual sex objectively bad for us? Or is this just another grossly over-exaggerated moral sex panic that the US has had no shortage of?

In the 10 years since, we’ve learned a great deal about casual sex from social science research — my own and that of other scholars. But virtually 90% of that knowledge is based on US undergrads. And trust me, you are not the only people hooking up.

So to supplement our knowledge and understanding of this phenomenon, I started this website, called “The Casual Sex Project.” It’s an online space for people of all demographic backgrounds to share their true stories of hook ups.

My hope was to give people a chance to tell their stories, make sense of their experiences through this process of storytelling, but also, to paint a more diverse, richer picture of what casual sex really looks like; what it means to people, what it feels like, what its aftermath may be.

In the 10 months since the website’s been up, it’s been viewed over six million times. Over 1200 stories have been shared by people from all over the world, and it’s been written about on six continents.

So what have all these stories and studies taught us about casual sex and well-being? Well, here are a few things that you may not have been aware of.

First of all, casual sex has many potential benefits. Perhaps the most obvious one is sexual pleasure. Orgasms, hedonic ecstasy, if you will. Then there are things like learning new sexual skills, making new friends, it’s a good one. An increased sense of self-confidence, accomplishment, desirability, empowerment, freedom.

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Then there are collecting fun stories and memories to tell your friends at the senior citizens’ home, many years later, or share on the casual sex project. There’s even experiencing that deep, emotional, spiritual, intellectual connection with another human being that sometimes happens even though no romantic feelings are involved.

But casual sex has yet another powerful pull on us. As Esther Perel so eloquently puts it, humans have this fundamental need for adventure, novelty, mystery, risk, danger, the unknown, the unexpected. Some more than others, but it’s there in our DNA. And that is a need that casual sex satisfies effortlessly by its very nature, and it’s a need that’s much more difficult, if not impossible, to meet in the long-term part of long-term relationships.

Now, there are of course risks: unsatisfying sex, broken hearts, ruined friendships, regret, coercion, confusion, awkwardness, STIs and unwanted pregnancies, social stigma, disrespectful partners.

Now, people fear that most of the time these cons outweigh the pros. But that is simply not true. Study after study finds this pattern for how people feel following their hook ups. For both men and women alike, positive post-hook-up reactions — happy, pleased, excited — are much stronger than negative hook up reactions: used, empty, disappointed.

Other studies show that casual sex has little to no impact on longer-term psychological well-being. Things like self-esteem, life satisfaction, depression, anxiety.

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that all hook-ups follow this pattern, or that this pattern is typical of everybody who hooks up, and that no one’s well-being is ever affected. No, these are just averages.

When you look more closely at the people and the experiences making up these averages, you find that some hook-ups do indeed have the potential to harm or benefit well-being. And some people are more susceptible to that potential. So whether casual sex is good for you or not depends on who you are and how you do it.

There are many factors that this relationship can depend on, and I couldn’t possibly cover all of them in one 18 minute talk. But one critical one is “authenticity.” Doing only the kinds of things that are fully in line with who you are; your beliefs, your values, your desires, your needs.

Casual sex is not for everyone. Nothing sexual ever is, really. Due to differences in nature, nurture, and life circumstances, some of us have a much stronger general need for sexual novelty, and much greater comfort having sex with people we don’t know very well. So figure out where you are on this spectrum. Is hooking up with people you’re not dating something that sounds enjoyable, exciting, an important experience to have? Morally acceptable to you? Would you be hooking up with this person even if you are never going to see them afterwards? If the answer to most of these is “no,” you shouldn’t really be doing it.

Now, there’s a bit of an elephant in the room when we talk about pleasure in heterosexual casual sex: the orgasm gap between men and women. In a study of over 20,000 undergrads, 80% of men had an orgasm during their most recent hook up. This was true of only 40% of women.

Now, there’s an orgasm gap in romantic encounters too, but it’s twice as large in hook ups. This doesn’t mean that women aren’t enjoying it necessarily. In this same study, 90% of the women said they enjoyed their hook up very much, or at least somewhat. Most of them enjoyed it very much, about 70 plus percent.

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But we can all do better. I mean, this gap needs closing. Women need to learn to be more selfish, demand their sexual pleasure. And men need to learn to be more giving, try harder to please their partners, even in the briefest of one night stands. You know, casual sex doesn’t have to be devoid of all intimacy and passion. It’s not like you’re doing laundry or picking up your mail. Try to give and get as much sexual pleasure out of every hook up. That’s the whole point.

Now one major factor that keeps people from engaging in casual sex to begin with is the social stigma attached to it. This dreaded reputation is unfortunately much more constraining of women’s behavior than it is of men’s.

But here’s an interesting thing. People do indeed say they don’t want to be friends or spouses with promiscuous others. But more promiscuous college students of both sexes actually report having more friends and feeling less lonely than their less promiscuous peers.

So, if casual sex is going to be a part of your life, yes, there will be people who will judge you. But you can surround yourself with people who won’t.

Now, an unfortunate reality of hook-ups, especially college hook-ups, is how often they are driven by alcohol. When researchers asked freshmen women to track all their sexual encounters over one academic year, this is what they found. The less known the partner was, the more likely alcohol was involved. You can’t see it unfortunately at the end over there, but when it was a stranger, 90% of all hook-ups involved drinking. 63% involved heavy drinking, four or more drinks.

Then you may look at this and be like, “Yeah, so what?” But it’s not, “So what.” This is really unfortunate. Because judgment impaired due to alcohol or drugs is the number one reason for unwanted hook-ups, hook-ups you regret the next day.

Now a couple of drinks to set the mood or for liquid courage is one thing. But getting smashed? That makes you do things you didn’t want to do with people you didn’t want to do them with, it diminishes your physiological ability to enjoy sex or perform sexually, it inhibits your psychological ability to set boundaries and express desires, it weakens your determination to use condoms, it makes you more sexually aggressive or more vulnerable to sexual aggression, and it also just blurs your memories, and I mean, don’t you want to remember it? If you need to be drunk to be hooking up, you should not be hooking up at all.

Now, sexual desire and romantic love are two distinct psychological and physiological systems that evolved for two different evolutionary purposes: making babies versus staying together long enough for those babies to survive. But the two systems are not independent. Sex can set in motion a cascade of neurochemical processes in the brain that lead to love. Neurotransmitters released during sex – oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine — they make you bond to your partner even if you didn’t want that to happen. And the more you have sex with that person, the stronger that bond grows. Then, when those bonds get broken, as they often do in casual relationships, it hurts.

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Now, some people are luckier; their brains are wired in a way that they don’t get attached very easily. But you can also fight this involuntary infatuation with reason. Not every person who gives you great orgasms and treats you well afterwards would make a great long-term partner. You know, go down your relationship checklist and find all those red flags of incompatibility. Then, resist the urge to text them 20 times a day, or start naming your kids and planning your life together as soon as they leave your house. Keep yourself busy. Have a rotation of partners, perhaps. Works for you all.

Finally, casual sex is not just for single people. Remember that novelty and adventure thing I talked about in the beginning? Well, many people in long-term relationships also crave novelty, sometimes much more so than single people. Some try to suppress those needs and hope they go away; others cheat and hope their partners don’t find out. But an increasing number of people, about 4% to 5% at our current best estimate, are starting to incorporate casual sex into their long-term, loving, committed relationships in an open and honest way, in a consensually, non-monogamous way.

If this is something that might interest you, there is a growing movement of ethical or responsible non-monogamy out there that you might want to explore, starting with this awesome book called “The Ethical Slut.”

All said and done, there’s nothing inherently wrong or inherently unhealthy about wanting casual sex or having it often. Casual sex can be a source of mental and physical suffering. But it can also be an amazing experience that enriches your life and brings great happiness.

Now, unlike with romantic encounters, with hook ups you are taking a risk. And sometimes you get rewarded, and sometimes you don’t. There’s no way you can control all the factors, but there is a lot you can do to maximize your chances of getting rewarded. Take responsibility for your experience. You know, communicate clearly your likes, dislikes, limitations, expectations. Give an enthusiastic “yes” to the things you want, and a firm “no” to the things you don’t want. This kind of sexual assertiveness is important no matter the partner type. But it’s absolutely paramount with casual partners because they’re definitely not psychic, they probably don’t know you well, or at all, and sometimes they don’t care much about your safety or pleasure. So you need to help your partners treat you the way you want to be treated.

And whatever you do, please use condoms, and do not get wasted. Of course, mistakes happen. Learn from them, and move on. You know, remember the old saying: “Practice makes perfect.”

Studies actually show that the older you get, and the more you do it, the better skilled you become at navigating all these challenges of casual sex. So, it gets better. And not just for the gay kids.

Thank you.

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