Casual sex generally leads to more positive emotional outcomes for men than for women, study finds

Women report significantly more regret, loneliness, and unhappiness than men in the wake of a hookup, according to new research published in the journal Sexuality & Culture. The new findings also indicate that engaging in casual sex to cope with negative emotions tends to lead to negative emotional outcomes for both men and women.

“It seems as though the increasing popularity of online dating is making short term relationships more readily available to both men and women,” said study author Ryan Anderson, a teaching associate at Monash University.

“At the same time, we are currently in the midst of an era where normative gender roles are certainly changing, and are arguably different to what they were 20+ years ago. Although this particular topic has been studied numerous times previously, it is very interesting and informative to re-examine the phenomenon of participation in casual sex in the light of these circumstances.”

In the study, 701 men and women between the ages of 18–82 were asked a variety of questions about their most recent hookup experience, including their motivations to engage in the hookup and its emotional outcome. The researchers defined a hookup as “any sexual activity from a kiss to coital intercourse outside of a committed relationship.” About half of the sample indicated that they were currently in a relationship, while the other half was single.

Men and women were equally likely to report engaging in the hookup because they were physically attracted to the other person or for personal enjoyment, which supports “the idea that social stigma surrounding women’s sexual agency is diminishing,” the researchers said.

“Although this is a topic which has been thoroughly investigated in the past, we are arguably in an era at the moment where gender norms and expressions of sexual orientation are different to any other time in history,” Anderson told PsyPost.

But women were more likely than men to report that they had engaged in the hookup because they were feeling miserable, feeling lonely, felt pressured by the other person, or wanted to feel better about themselves. Women were also more likely than men to report negative emotional outcomes, such as loneliness, unhappiness, rejection, regret, general negative feelings, and a perception of negative judgment from others. Conversely, men were more likely than women to report positive emotional outcomes, such as greater sexual satisfaction, happiness, self confidence, contentment, and mood improvement

Anderson and his colleagues also found evidence that particular motivations to engage in hookups were associated with negative outcomes. Having casual sex to deal with feelings of loneliness, misery, unhappiness and irritability was associated with negative emotional outcomes. But the researchers did not find a motivation that was associated with positive emotional outcomes.

“It’s very difficult to predict when someone will have a positive outcome from engaging in casual sex,” Anderson told PsyPost. “We certainly found things that predicted negative outcomes following casual sex, and there was pretty clear evidence that there were striking gender differences here (as is typically found with this kind of research). Consistent with previous research, we found that casual sex generally leads to more positive outcomes for men than for women, and nothing that we looked at actually predicted a positive outcome for women. One thing which we can kind of infer from the data is that if you are engaging in casual sex for the purpose of alleviating some kind of emotional hardship or stress, it is unlikely to lead to a positive outcome.”

Most of the sample (75.8%) identified as heterosexual. Approximately 15% identified as bisexual and 8.4% identified as homosexual.

“I guess a really big caveat here, and something that I think would be quite valuable to understand better, is how nonheterosexual individuals differ specifically from heterosexual individuals,” Anderson said. “For example, there is empirical evidence suggesting that gay men are more likely to engage in acts of casual sex than either heterosexual men or heterosexual women. But looking beyond that, it would clearly be valuable to understand how attitudes toward casual sex differ depending on an individual’s sexual orientation. More specifically, are we able to identify certain factors that predict certain outcomes in, for example, gay men or lesbian women?”

The study, “Was it Good for You? Gender Differences in Motives and Emotional Outcomes Following Casual Sex“, was authored by Billie E. McKeen, Ryan C. Anderson, and David A. Mitchell.