Is Casual Sex Immoral?

If you’ve ever spent any time on the internet engaging with fascists, authoritarians, or social conservatives of any kind, you’ve probably heard the term “degeneracy” thrown around a lot. The term degenerate is defined as “having lost the physical, mental, or moral qualities considered normal and desirable; showing evidence of a decline” but is usually used by aforementioned social conservatives to refer to various progressive social developments such as the normalization of casual sex, the LGBTQ+ community, the usage of drugs, the degradation of religious values, etc etc.

Essentially to said social conservatives anything which doesn’t fall into line with their dogmatic attachment to traditional values is a form of degeneracy which is to be at the least discouraged and at the most outlawed. One of these rising tides of degeneracy currently sweeping our society is what’s frequently referred to as “the sexual revolution.” While the so called sexual revolution encompasses a wide array of topics, i’m only going to focus on one in this article for the sake of not dragging it out, namely, the normalization of casual sex. The normalization of casual sex essentially means society moving to accept sex as a casual activity rather than holding it at the sacred, taboo status it was once held to. People who oppose this normalization claim it’s immoral, it causes depression and loneliness, it devalues intimacy, etc. In this essay, I plan to present my thoughts as well as look at the empirical evidence regarding the affects and morality of casual sex.

Indulgence VS Abstinence

“There is a beast in man that should be exercised, not exorcised”

– Anton Lavey

For decades, churches, parents, and senile health teachers have taught kids about the necessity of abstinence and the danger of indulgence. However, I posit that this is an irrational way of viewing the world and of teaching children which is based on nonsense dogma. In fact, I believe indulgence is healthy. First of all, I believe the human desire for sex has very natural evolutionary roots. The point of natural selection is to encourage behavior which propagates the passing on of our genes; Therefore, it is no mystery why we would evolve to feel the desire to engage in the single act which passes on our genes. My central point here is that sex is a very natural evolutionary desire, and by prohibiting ourselves from indulging in this desire we create unnecessary tension and frustration which manifests itself in a variety of ways which hurt us and the people around us. I believe that in order for something to be considered “immoral”, it has to cause some level of undue suffering; sex on its own does not do this (unless is non consensual in which case it isn’t sex). In fact, I would say that allowing ourselves release from these desires promotes stronger mental and physical health. Furthermore, I believe the social prohibition of this behavior does nothing but force people to castigate themselves for their very nature. The condemnation of one’s own human nature does nothing but instills within the population an unneeded burden of guilt, and forces them into a position of pointless restriction and frustration which manifests in a plethora of other destructive ways in the long term.

Does Casual Sex Make You Less Happy?

The scientific literature on the affects of casual sex is somewhat small and limited. After searching around I found 4 major studies which are the broadest in scope and most frequently cited.

The first study, published in perspectives on sexual and reproductive health in 2009, compared the psychological well being of men and women who engaged in casual sex to the psychological well being of men and women who didn’t. The team concluded that there is no significant disparities between the psychological well being of people who did and didn’t engage in casual sex. The next study, however, found different results. This study also contrasted the psychological health of those who did and didn’t engage in casual sex. However, in contrast to the previous study, this study found that casual sex is negatively correlated with psychological well being. These two studies however, left out an important variable which is absolutely essential to take into account when calculating the affects of casual sex. Namely, they didn’t take into account the level of autonomy and sociosexual restrictiveness of the interactions, which perhaps are more important to the discussion at hand than any other variable. The third study, took a more precise approach in that it controlled for sociosexuality. What this study found is that sociosexually unrestricted subjects (people who are not sexually restricted by guilt/societal pressure and are eager to have sex) saw an increase in psychological well being after casual sexual encounters, while the psychological well being of sociosexually restricted subjects was generally unaffected. Similar to the previously mentioned study, the fourth study controlled for a very similar variable. In this study, researchers isolated would they described as “autonomous” and “non autonomous” casual sexual encounters. Autonomous casual sexual encounters are sexual encounters in which the motive is autonomous and driven by genuine attraction and genuine desire. Non autonomous sexual encounters are sexual encounters which are driven by non autonomous motives such as the subject was drunk or having sex for the purpose of revenge. This study concluded that while people who had non autonomous sexual encounters saw a decrease in well being (likely out of shame, which is a product of the societal stigma of sexuality), people who had autonomous sexual encounters were generally unaffected.

The very clear conclusion is that examining all major studies, the results tend to heavily favor the notion that casual sex generally has little to no (and sometimes a positive) impact on well being. Furthermore, the areas in which casual sex was shown to decrease well being is directly attributable to social stigma. All in all, you cannot deny the fact that out of all the major studies, 3 out of the four major studies (and 2 out of the 2 more precise studies) conclude that subjects who are not burdened with societal guilt saw no decrease (and according to one study an increase) in psychological well being after engaging in casual sex.

But what about intimacy?

One objection you will always hear regarding this point is the objection that casual sex devalues intimacy. As my friend Bryan, or Unorthodox Theory put it very eloquently,

Sex is pretty sacred. And having lots of it with partners you don’t have a  strong connection to will lead to a life where you really can’t connect with someone on a higher level – and when you do, sex wont have that feeling  it’s supposed to have; an emotional connection between the flesh of you   and someone you care about deeply.

-Unorthodox Thoery

This is a seemingly entirely valid objection, which, as it should come as no surprise, I reject wholeheartedly. The problem with this assertion is that it plays off of a very common stereotype that casual sex is purely superficial and meaningless. However, this generalization is heavily contested by semi recent study designed by Ann Merriwether of Binghamton University and Justin Garcia of the Kinsey Institute, and conducted with Sean Massey of Binghamton, Amanda Gesselman of the Kinsey Institute, and Susan Seibold-Simpson of SUNY Broome. What the study found is that people who prefer casual sex encounters over relationship sex were more likely to seek intimacy and affection from said sexual encounters. The truth is, casual sex is typically not “casual”, as the name implies. As biological anthropologist Helen Fisher describes, there are 3 main systems in the brain associated with love. First, there is sexual desire. Second, there is romantic desire. Third, there is attachment and security. However, contrary to what many think, these three mechanisms are not a linear chain but rather they can occur in any order and often interact with one another. Because of this, casual sex very often leads to other layers of affection and long term relationships. Furthermore, this myth of “casual” sex is further contested by the fact that orgasm releases a flood of chemicals in the brain including oxytocin which are associated with feelings of deep attachment, causing deep intimacy even if you’re not in a long term relationship with the person you’re having sex with. People have sex because they are looking for a quick connection, however this desire for connection because of the deeply intimate nature of sex often evolves into long term connection. To further drive home this point, researchers Owen and Fincham in 2011 conducted a study which concluded that 65% of the women and 45% of the men said they hoped their hook-ups would lead to long-term relationships. In addition, 51% of the women and 42% of the men said that during hook-ups, they’d discussed the possibility of proceeding to greater commitment. Moreover, another study conducted by Justin Garcia found that  Fifty percent of women and 52% of men reported that they went into casual sex hoping to trigger a longer relationship, and in fact, 1/3 of them did.

In conclusion, this notion of casual sex being superficial and void of intimacy is just a myth. Sex is intimate by it’s very nature, and often leads to long term relationships.

The detriments of self condemnation

I alluded to earlier the fact that I believe condemning oneself for ones own human nature and restricting from healthy sexual behavior manifests itself in unhealthy ways. This is not just an assumption, but I believe it is empirically verified. For example, let’s look at one group of people who notoriously condemn themselves and others on the basis of sexual promiscuity: religious people. One study, titled “sex and secularism”, conducted by psychologists Darrel Ray and Amanda Brown, surveyed people who watched porn, masturbated, etc. Interestingly, this study found that the more religious someone is, the more guilt they feel about such activities. Furthermore, the study found that religious people on average rated their sex lives lower. Finally, the study found that children in more religious households learn about sexuality from porn because they’re too ashamed to talk to their parents. Similarly, another analysis found a positive correlation between religiosity and sexual dysfunctioning/resistance to the positive proven affects of sex therapy. It’s very common that these same people who rail against openness about sex and such naturally detest pornography. Ironically, though these social conservative types prescribe religiosity and condemnation as a solution to sexual degeneracy and pornography, according to a growing body of evidence, religiosity is positively correlated with viewership of porn. It is also true that religious people are less likely to use contraceptives, which results in increased negative sexual risk. To speak about the stigmatization of sex more generally, very noteably it has been found that sexual stigma makes one more likely to commit suicide. In fact, there are a plethora of negative mental health affects associated with sexual stigma. For example, people who’ve experienced sexual stigma are more likely to report mental illness. Unwanted pregnancies are also more common among those who experienced sexual stigma. Sexual stigma in addition also undeniably leads to guilt as shown empirically earlier in this essay by shaming people for natural sexual impulses. The affects of guilt include envy, anger, rage, anxiety, depression, depletion, loneliness, addiction, compulsive behavior, self denigration, and emptiness. At least you’re not getting laid, though. Even on the note of intimacy which the opposition to casual sex frequently brings up, while there is no evidence that casual sex devalues intimacy, there is evidence that sexual stigma does. As Dr. Noel Clark of Seattle Pacific University wrote in his dissertation,

“Sexual shame is a visceral feeling of humiliation and disgust toward one’s own body and identity as a sexual being, and a belief of being abnormal, inferior and unworthy. This feeling can be internalized but also manifests in interpersonal relationships having a negative impact on trust, communication, and physical and emotional intimacy. Sexual shame develops across the lifespan in interactions with interpersonal relationships, one’s culture and society, and subsequent critical self-appraisal (a continuous feedback loop). There is also a fear and uncertainty related to one’s power or right to make decisions, including safety decisions, related to sexual encounters, along with an internalized judgement toward one’s own sexual desire.”

In conclusion, the negative affects of casual sexual intercourse on those who are doing it autonomously without social constraint are nowhere to be found. The affects of the stigimatization, on the other hand, include premarital unwanted pregnancy, increased viewership of porn, unsafe sex, suicide, mental illness, loss of intimacy, guilt, and every negative emotion (which in other words is just every negative emotion) which is associated with guilt. However, social conservatives continuously stress the stigmatizing of sex in order to combat the imaginary threat of sexual openness. This position, as I hope to have shown, is morally and empirically incoherent.

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