College Student ‘Hook-Ups’ Linked to Psychological Distress
Casual Sex Basics
Casual sex is becoming increasingly common in modern culture, the American Psychological Association reports. Two basic trends underlie this increase. First, adults now get married and start families at a much later age than members of previous generations. At the same time, for a number of reasons, children reach puberty at an earlier age than ever before. Together, these two trends have created a large population of young adults and teenagers who have no desire to marry or otherwise form long-term relationships, but still have a potent desire for sexual contact with others. Messages distributed through both traditional and cutting-edge media tend to reinforce the establishment of “hooking-up” as a new cultural norm among people in these age groups. Casual sex can incorporate a range of activities, from kissing to intercourse. Some participants hook up with people they know well, or with whom they share some sort of social connection. Others hook up with strangers or with people they know only slightly. Whatever the nature of the activities involved or the level of personal association, casual sex participants don’t enter their encounters in a search for ongoing romantic relationships.
Psychological Distress Basics
Mental health professionals use the term psychological distress to refer to alterations in mood and mental equilibrium that are significant enough to alter a person’s well-being, but not significant enough to qualify as symptoms of a diagnosable mental illness. In some cases, affected individuals may develop serious psychological distress (SPD), a more significant state of mental unease that frequently occurs prior to the onset of diagnosable illnesses such as anxiety disorders, various forms of bipolar disorder and major depression or other forms of depressive illness. Roughly 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent of U.S. adults develop serious psychological distress during any given 30-day time frame, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. The highest rates for SPD appear among middle-aged people. Women in all age groups develop SPD at a higher rate than their male age peers.
In the study published in the Journal of Sex Research, the Cal State researchers examined the mental health effects of casual sex among 3,907 college students (between the ages of 18 and 25) enrolled at 30 schools across the country. This examination took place in the context of a larger assessment of the intertwining effects of personal identity, cultural background and level of mental health on the chances of getting involved in various kinds of risky behavior. All of the participants had a heterosexual orientation.
Despite popular perceptions about the frequency of casual sex among older teenagers and young adults, the researchers found that only 11 percent of all study participants had “hooked up” with someone in the previous month. 7.4 percent of participating women had at least one casual sexual encounter in this time frame, while 18.6 percent of the men had at least one such encounter. When assessed in terms of such things as general life satisfaction, happiness and self-esteem, the individuals who engaged in casual sex had substantially lower levels of perceived well-being that the individuals who did not engage in casual sex. The people who participated in casual sex also exhibited substantially higher levels of three psychological distress symptoms—namely, depression, social anxiety and general anxiety—than those who did not participate in casual sex. These findings held true for both male and female college students.
The authors of the study in the Journal of Sex Research note that no one knows if casual sex leads to psychological distress and a decline in mental health, or conversely, if the presence of psychological distress and a decline in mental health lead to increased participation in casual sex. However, their findings may indicate that college students who hook up with others may be putting a considerable strain on their ability to cope with the stresses of their everyday lives.