THE BLOG
07/16/2014 08:41 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2014

Is Casual Sex Healthy?

Finding Your Cup of Tea

In today's digital world, casual sex is easier to find and experience than ever. Thanks to "adult friend finder" websites and apps, nearly anyone looking for a no-strings-attached sexual encounter can find one quickly and easily. Apps like Tinder, Blendr, and Ashley Madison facilitate heterosexual hookups. Grindr, Scruff, and Bender work for gay men. PinkCupid, Dattch and Wingmaam do the job for lesbians. And yes, there are apps for bisexuals, fetishists, various ethnic groups, specific religious affiliations, younger people, older people, and even people who think they're intellectuals. Whatever you're into, there's a hookup app for you. While it's true that some of these apps really do facilitate dating and long-term relationships, most are geared toward non-intimate, right here and now sexual gratification--one-night stands, booty calls, anonymous encounters, mutual masturbation via webcam, etc. In other words, the "friend finder" label is something of a euphemism -- a little like the pre-digital world calling a certain type of establishment an "adult bookstore."

Quite frankly, a lot of these sex finder apps -- let's call them what they really are -- are pretty impressive. In the same way that other apps can help you locate a good deal on a used car with navigation, new tires, and a back-up camera, sex finder apps can put you in contact with any number of nearby potential sex partners. All you do is log on, set up your profile, and let it rip. Nearly all of these apps instantly give you a grid of profile pictures, helpfully arranged by gender and location (closest to furthest away), along with the option to initiate contact, usually with a "wink," a "smile," a "nod," or some other relatively noncommittal digital display of interest. If the other person responds to your initial foray, you have the option to chat via text or IM, send photos (sext), and more. If it turns out the sexual interest is mutual, you simply make a plan to meet and do whatever it is that works for you. No muss, no fuss, just the sex, thank you very much. Most of the time you don't even need to exchange real names. It's a bit like ordering takeout Chinese for dinner. Done and done.

Anonymous Sex: Terrific or Terrible?

If you do an Internet search on "Is Casual Sex Healthy?" you'll get a whole lot of widely varied opinions. Without doubt, plenty of folks think hookup apps are the best thing since sliced bread, while plenty of others view them as the devil's playground. And most of the time these opinions are about as grounded in impartial scientific research as my preference for mustard over mayo. (I just think a sandwich is better with mustard, and that's the way it is.) Simply put, some people think casual sex is a great way to learn about and experience sexuality, perhaps transitioning into a longer-term, more emotionally connected relationship later on. Others see casual sex as a way to enjoy being both single and sexually active. Still others believe that sex without emotional commitment or marriage is a quick ticket to eternal damnation, or at least to low self-esteem, depression and emotional isolation.

Interestingly, there are three relatively recent studies looking at casual sex and its impact on emotional health, all focused on young (primarily college-aged) adults. The first study concluded that young adults (both men and women) who engage in casual sexual encounters do not appear to be at greater risk for harmful psychological outcomes than sexually active young adults in more committed relationships. The second study reached a different conclusion, finding that casual sex in young people (both men and women) was negatively associated with well-being and positively associated with psychological distress. The third study found that socio-sexually uninhibited young adults (both men and women) typically report a higher sense of well-being after having casual sex when compared to not having casual sex -- meaning that casual sex can be a good thing for those who are into it.

All three studies were limited in scope. The first compared only sexually active young adults having casual sex to sexually active young adults in a committed relationship. The second compared only young adults who'd had casual sex in the last month to those who hadn't, regardless of whether they were in a relationship of some sort or otherwise sexually active. The third focused primarily on casual sex as a normative experience among young adults. Furthermore, as is typical with research on human sexuality, none of the studies looked at a broad demographic swath, particularly in regard to age. As such, this conglomeration of research should be looked at as a jumping-off point for discussion rather than any sort of decisive, research-driven conclusion.

My Take

The lack of conclusive scientific research forces us to rely on social convention and personal opinion when discussing casual sex, which is hardly an ideal basis for making and defending a definitive proclamation. That said, here is mine: If casual sex doesn't violate your personal sense of integrity in terms of how you treat others, how you honor your commitments, and your individual moral code, then what you're doing is probably not going to cause you either short-term or long-term internal emotional distress. No, casual sex is not for everyone. People with strict familial upbringings, socially conservative religious and/or political views, and/or a tendency to emotionally attach to anyone they are physically intimate with will likely struggle with casual sexual activity, and they may experience negative feelings if and when they engage in it. Conversely, those who are freer with their sexuality and able to enjoy, maybe even revel in, the occasional non-intimate sexual encounter are probably thrilled with the smorgasbord of options that hookup apps and similar technologies provide.

In reality, there is no universal right or wrong opinion when it comes to casual sex. Ultimately, each person must develop his or her own sense of sexual integrity, understanding what he or she wants from sex, how he or she wants to value and treat others in the sexual arena, and what the unique and highly individualized emotional, physical and social consequences of casual sexual encounters might be for him or her. This does not, of course, mean that people will not judge others for engaging (or not engaging) in casual sex. Instead, it means we probably shouldn't take any of those judgments too seriously. As long as each person is comfortable with what he or she is doing sexually, and that behavior is both legal and non-harming to others, the activity is probably not going to result in deep emotional trauma, depression, anxiety, or any other form of lasting psychological damage.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S, is senior vice president of clinical development with Elements Behavioral Health. An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, he has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.