Casual Sex in
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
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.
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