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Research-Based Practice

Casual Sex in Adolescence: Outcomes and Implications for Practice

By Lisa K. Liace, Jessica B. Nunez, & Amy E. Luckner

Teenage sexual activity has arguably received more attention in the national media as of late than ever before. One is inundated with information concerning everything from alarming rises in the incidence and prevalence rates of sexually transmitted infections in adolescents and young adults to the latest round of suspensions (or even arrests) resulting from students sending each other sexually explicit text messages. Another alarming trend is the downward expansion of casual sexual activity from college and university campuses to middle and high school buildings. Popular opinion tends to categorize participation in casual sexual behavior during adolescence as negative, and almost certain to cause harmful physical and psychological effects ranging from unplanned pregnancy to increased depressive symptoms (e.g., Chansanchai, 2007; Stepp, 2007).

In light of these popular perceptions, the objectives of this article are to review the research literature concerning the prevalence of casual sexual behavior in adolescence and resulting developmental outcomes, as well as to examine implications for school psychology practice. Specifically, this article aims to explore two central questions: (a) what are the associations between engaging in casual sexual interactions and adolescents’ development, and (b) what actions can school psychologists and other education professionals take in order to prevent and/or reduce the potential risks associated with such behavior? Suggestions for future research will also be provided.

Prevalence of Casual Sexual Behavior in Adolescence

To begin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance conducted in 2005, 46.8% of all high school students report that they have engaged in sexual intercourse. Research on adolescents’ sexual behavior suggests that most teenagers (approximately three fourths) have their first sexual experience within a dating relationship; however, more than three fifths of sexually active adolescents eventually have sexual encounters outside of a traditional dating context with partners ranging from strangers to friends to former boyfriends or girlfriends (Manning, Giordano, & Longmore, 2006). Utilizing data from the Toledo Adolescent Relationships Study, a large scale research project that gathered survey and narrative data from 1,316 adolescents in the 7th, 9th and 11th grades, Manning and colleagues discovered that about one third of participants reported engaging in sexual intercourse, and that 61% of these teens indicated that they had had sex outside of a dating relationship.

In addition, data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health indicate that the majority of sexually active teens within the sample (mean age = 16 years) have had some sexual experience outside of a romantic relationship (Manning, Longmore, & Giordano, 2005). The study also revealed that teenagers’ sexual experiences tend to change over time, as 60% of sexually active participants reported having sex in both romantic and nonromantic relationship contexts.

Studies of young adults reveal similar findings. For instance, in an examination of the sexual behavior of 1,311 sexually active young adults (mean age = 20.5 years), Eisenberg, Ackard, Resnick, and Neumark-Sztainer (2009) found that one fifth of participants reported that their most recent sexual partner was a casual partner (i.e., a casual acquaintance or close but nonexclusive partner), as compared to a more committed partner (defined as an exclusive partner, fiancé, spouse, or spousal equivalent).

It is important to note, however, that ethnic and gender differences in casual sexual behavior have been observed. Specifically, Eisenberg and colleagues (2009) found that casual partnerships were more common among males than females (29% vs. 14% of participants), while studies conducted by Manning and colleagues (2005) and Ahrold and Meston (2010) revealed that African American participants were more likely to report having nonromantic sex than were European American participants. Conversely, Asian American participants were more likely to report holding conservative attitudes concerning the acceptability of casual sex, a result that reflects previous research findings which indicate that Asians are less likely than other ethnic groups to engage in such behavior.

In spite of ethnic and gender differences, a significant number of adolescents participate in casual sexual behavior, broadly defined here as sexual intercourse without commitment or emotional involvement, throughout adolescence and young adulthood. The above-mentioned estimates of the prevalence of casual sexual behavior in adolescence are particularly concerning given that half of the 19 million new sexually transmitted infections (STIs) diagnosed each year occur in youth between the ages of 15 and 24 (Students Against Destructive Decisions [SADD], 2007).

Asoc iations Between Casual Sexual Behavior and Adolescent Development

Because casual sexual involvement is often perceived as predisposing an individual toward having a greater number of sexual partners and making other risky sexual decisions (such as inconsistent condom use, infrequent STI testing, etc.), it is often assumed that adolescents who engage in these types of behavior are at greater risk for negative physical outcomes, such as unintended pregnancies and STIs, than adolescents who experience sexual activity in the context of a committed relationship. Furthermore, adolescents’ involvement in casual sexual activity is believed to contribute to the development of a variety of psychosocial difficulties, such as lowered self-esteem, increases in depressive symptoms, and inhibited interpersonal/relationship-building skills (Buysse, 1998; Eisenberg et al., 2009; Manning et al., 2005; Manning et al., 2006). These beliefs stand largely because traditional societal expectations continue to maintain that sexual behavior should take place within the context of a committed relationship. Similarly, federal abstinence-only education policy requires teaching that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful physical and psychological consequences (Eisenberg et al., 2009).

Overall, a review of the research in this area indicates that there are mixed findings regarding the impact of casual sexual behavior on adolescents’ psychosocial functioning. It is important to note, however, that the majority of research in this area focuses on college-age students/young adults or a mix of adolescents and young adults. The present review encompasses this entire age range; however, it should be kept in mind that there could be important developmental differences between these groups.

In an investigation of the effects of casual sexual activity (defined as sexual interaction with a casual acquaintance or close but nonexclusive partner) on the psychological health of young adults (mean age = 20.5 years), Eisenberg and colleagues (2009) found few significant differences in the psychological well-being (defined as body satisfaction, self-esteem, and depressive symptoms) of participants who engaged in casual sexual behavior and those who were involved with more committed partners. Furthermore, several studies examining the characteristics and correlates of casual sexual experiences have revealed that individuals who are involved in more committed sexual relationships do not necessarily engage in safer sexual decision-making than do individuals involved in casual sexual relationships (Buysse, 1998; Manning et al., 2006; Paul, McManus, & Hayes, 2000).

In fact, each of the studies discussed above revealed rather high rates of contraceptive use among individuals who took part in casual sexual activity. According to the results of a study conducted by Buysse (1998) on the sexual decision-making processes of a sample of 168 never-married individuals (mean age = 19.01 years), participants who were involved in stable relationships tended to utilize their ability to select an ideal partner as a method of safer sexual decision-making, whereas participants who were involved in casual relationships tended to rely more heavily on condom use.

Moreover, research has revealed that a causal link between sexual abstinence during the adolescent period and mental health later in life is not readily apparent. In a longitudinal study of the association between sexual abstinence in adolescence and mental health in adulthood, Bogart, Collins, Ellickson, and Klein (2007) recruited a sample of adolescents at age 13 and surveyed them on four separate occasions. The results indicated that adolescent sexual abstinence (from both vaginal and anal intercourse) is associated with better mental health at age 29 for females. However, this relationship was weakened once the researchers accounted for females’ educational prospects (grades and academic goals), family bonding factors (family structure and parent–adolescent communication), and unconventionality factors (substance use, deviance, and rebelliousness). The researchers suggest that any associations found between sexual abstinence and mental health are not causal, and that the promotion of sexual abstinence in adolescence may not result in fewer mental health problems in adulthood.

This is not to say, however, that engagement in casual sexual behavior during adolescence never results in negative psychosocial outcomes. A study conducted by Paul and colleagues (2000) explored the relative importance of a variety of social and psychological predictors among three groups of undergraduate students age 17–26 years. These groups included those who had never hooked up (defined as participating in a sexual encounter, usually lasting only one night, with a partner who was a stranger or brief acquaintance), those who had hooked up without sexual intercourse, and those who had hooked up with sexual intercourse. Findings revealed that participants who had never hooked up were highest on self-esteem, more securely attached to their parents, and less fearful of intimacy. Participants who had engaged in hookups, in contrast, were found to have lower levels of self-esteem.

The researchers attributed this difference in self-esteem to awareness of broad cultural mores that communicate disapproval of casual sexual behavior, a conclusion that is further supported by research examining the association between hooking up and sexual regret. In a study of the effects of hooking up (defined as performing oral sex, receiving oral sex, or engaging in sexual intercourse with someone on a single occasion or with someone known for less than 24 hours) on feelings of sexual regret in collegeage women (mean age = 20.1 years), Eshbaugh and Gute (2008) discovered that, after controlling for religiosity, age, and other sexual behavior variables, engaging in intercourse with someone once and only once and engaging in intercourse with someone known for less than 24 hours predicted sexual regret. These results indicate that while the sexual activity that takes place within the context of hookups is often perceived as being commitment- and consequence-free, it may not ultimately be inconsequential for the individuals involved. This may be especially true for middle and high school students engaged in casual sexual behavior, who, due to their young age, have limited skills for coping with the strong negative emotions that may accompany (a) violating societal and/or family principles against casual sexual activity or (b) discovering that a casual sexual partner has little desire to enter into a more traditional dating relationship.

Given that there are mixed findings regarding links between casual sexual behavior and psychosocial functioning, additional research is needed to clarify the nature of the association between these two variables. For instance, the definition of casual sex seems to vary across studies from casual sexual interactions with friends or previous partners to sexual interaction with strangers. These definitions may have different implications, and a more consistent conceptualization across studies would help elucidate the outcomes associated with casual sex. In addition, future research may need to distinguish between adolescents and young adults as well as look at individual differences in the effects of casual sex to determine whether casual sex is more problematic for certain individuals than others.

Preventive Actions for Education Professionals

Despite the lack of a consistent link between casual sexual involvement in adolescence and negative psychosocial outcomes, such behavior is still of concern to school psychologists and other school personnel. Engagement in any form of sexual contact (within a committed relationship or otherwise) poses very real threats to physical health—namely, via teen pregnancy and/or the transmission of STIs. Furthermore, some research suggests that engagement in casual sexual relationships may be related to lowered self-esteem (Paul et al., 2000). For instance, it is possible that lower self-esteem leads to engagement in casual sexual behavior or that casual sexual behavior leads to lower self-esteem. As a result, it is important that education professionals undertake focused prevention and intervention efforts in order to educate adolescents about the risks of sexual behavior, in addition to providing them with concrete strategies to reduce risk. Fortunately, the research literature points to a number of specific focus areas that school personnel can target in their prevention and intervention efforts.

Diverse approaches to intervention and prevention. Several studies highlight the importance of utilizing a more diverse approach to prevention and intervention, including offering parent trainings and/or information sessions. First, the results have shown that prevention and intervention efforts may be more effective if they are expanded beyond messages about abstinence. For instance, Bogart and colleagues (2007) found that abstinence in adolescence and mental health at age 29 may not be a causal relationship. Rather, educational prospects, family bonding, and unconventionality accounted for most of the relationship between abstinence and mental health (with educational prospects accounting for the greatest majority). Therefore, abstinence alone does not necessarily lead to better outcomes and improved mental health, and by limiting the focus of educational programs, schools may be leaving out other important factors that are related to positive psychosocial development.

School personnel may instead help improve students’ outcomes by targeting other factors and behaviors that may tie in with participation in risky sexual activity. For instance, Paul and colleagues (2000) found that individuals who had experienced hookups including sexual intercourse were differentiated from all others by high impulsivity, low concern for personal safety, low dependency, higher levels of alcohol intoxication symptomatology (i.e., blurred vision, loss of inhibition, and vomiting when they drink), a passionate/ erotic approach to relationships, and an avoidant attachment style. Likewise, in a sample of adolescents age 6 to 16, Siebenbruner, Zimmer-Gembeck, and Egeland (2007) found that adolescents who engaged in high-risk sexual behaviors (i.e., individuals who had six or more partners or used contraceptives inconsistently) demonstrated higher levels of externalizing behavior problems and were more likely to use drugs. Furthermore, the authors stated that the high-risk group’s behaviors (in comparison to the abstinent and low-risk groups) may be a symptom of a more general problem behavior profile. Taken together, these results suggest that adolescents may benefit from broader intervention efforts designed to target a variety of behaviors. In schools, these intervention and prevention efforts should be designed to promote positive decision-making, support communication skills, promote school involvement, and outline the physical risks associated with sexual activity (e.g., Christenson et al., 2008; Gettinger & Stoiber, 1999).

Home–school collaboration. While school personnel do not often have direct control over the parent–student relationship, they are in a good position to help facilitate the parent–student–school relationship and offer methods to increase positive communication among all parties by offering parent meetings and helping parents find supportive community programs. By providing students and parents with the tools needed for effective communication, school personnel can help students achieve better outcomes. For example, research indicates that parental involvement may delay sexual initiation in adolescents when there is nonjudgmental parent–adolescent communication, clear parental expectations concerning teens’ behavior, parental caring, and developmentally appropriate limit-setting on teens’ dating decision-making (Longmore, Eng, Giordano, & Manning, 2009).

Another way that school personnel can help students reach better psychosocial outcomes is by working with parents to reduce adolescents’ exposure to, and alter their perception of, sexually explicit material. In a sample of adolescents age 13 to 18, Peter and Valkenburg (2006) found that male adolescents were more likely to have recreational views of sex if they perceived sexually explicit online material as realistic. Although educators cannot limit an adolescent’s exposure to these types of material outside of school, adolescents may benefit from a sexual education program that includes information about the staged nature of what is depicted in sexually explicit material, the degrading portrayal of women, the misleading depiction of sex as readily available, and the portrayal of sex as purely physical (i.e., completely disconnected from social and relational aspects of human behavior). In terms of parental involvement, school personnel again can help parents and adolescents develop stronger communication skills and help parents understand the importance of monitoring an adolescent’s exposure to TV and/or the Internet.

Fitting interventions to student needs. However, before intervention or prevention efforts are put into place, school personnel should consider any cultural factors that may impact adolescents’ behavior or the effectiveness of the interventions. For instance, Ahrold and Meston (2010) found that views about casual sex varied among college students with different cultural backgrounds. In particular, the study showed that Asians, as a group, were less likely to engage in casual sex when compared to European American and Hispanic groups. As a result, school personnel may need to modify intervention and prevention programs in order to fit the needs and backgrounds of their students.

In another study, researchers focused on the views of inner-city adolescents between 14 to 17 years (Silver & Bauman, 2006). This study found that sexual experience was associated with male gender, older age, a single-parent home, smoking, drinking, and poorer academic performance. In addition, lower levels of knowledge concerning HIV/AIDS transmission and safer-sex practices were found in sexually inexperienced youth, which suggested an area of vulnerability compared with sexually active teens. Thus, for these youth, appropriate interventions should be aimed at increasing teens’ safer-sex decision-making skills and preventing transmission of HIV and other STIs, and should take the different strengths and weaknesses of sexually active and abstinent adolescents into consideration when developing program content and delivery strategies. To be specific, abstinent urban teens may require additional information concerning STI transmission and safer-sex practices, while sexually active inner-city adolescents may not respond to (nor find the information they need) in abstinence messages.

The research presented above provides some insight into prevention and intervention efforts that may be employed by education professionals. These efforts can be improved, however, with additional research contributions. For example, Siebenbruner and colleagues (2007) identified a possible link between high-risk sexual behavior and a general problem behavior profile characterized by externalizing problems and drug use. In the future, researchers may wish to examine whether interventions proven effective in reducing deviant behavior might also reduce participation in highrisk sexual activity. Additionally, further research is needed to clarify the purposes served by hooking up for individuals and the ties between purposes and mental health outcomes, as these variables are likely to dramatically impact the type of intervention most likely to be effective. Similarly, future investigations in this area could explore whether prevalence, mental health outcomes, and implications for intervention would differ between heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual youth.

To conclude, the issue of adolescent participation in casual sexual behavior is an important one of which school psychologists and other education professionals should be aware. While research findings to-date have been mixed regarding the relationship between casual sexual activity and negative psychosocial outcomes, the implementation of targeted prevention and intervention efforts is essential. This allows education professionals to provide students with the knowledge and skills necessary to make informed decisions about sexual partners and behaviors.

<[p>Importantly, additional research has the potential to better elucidate the psychological ramifications of casual sexual behavior which, in turn, may lead to the development of interventions that are better targeted to meet the needs of diverse groups of adolescents (e.g., sexual minority youth, abstinent adolescents, etc.). Implementation of such fine-tuned interventions may ultimately do much to reduce negative physical and psychosocial outcomes that can potentially result from participation in casual sexual behavior, thereby increasing the effectiveness of sexual education messages delivered in the schools.

References

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Bogart, L. M., Collins, R. L., Ellickson, P. L., & Klein, D. J. (2007). Association of sexual abstinence in adolescence with mental health in adulthood. Journal of Sex Research, 44, 290–298.

Buysse, A. (1998). Safer sexual decision making in stable and casual relationships: A prototype approach. Psychology and Health, 13, 55–66.

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