Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health
Volume 41, Number 4, December 2009

Casual Sex and Psychological Health Among Young Adults: Is Having "Friends with Benefits" Emotionally Damaging?

By Marla E. Eisenberg, Diann M. Ackard, Michael D. Resnick and Dianne Neumark-Sztainer

CONTEXT: Speculation in public discourse suggests that sexual encounters outside a committed romantic relationship may be emotionally damaging for young people, and federal abstinence education policy has required teaching that sexual activity outside of a marital relationship is likely to have harmful psychological consequences.

METHODS: In 2003–2004, a diverse sample of 1,311 sexually active young adults (mean age, 20.5) participating in a longitudinal study in Minnesota completed a survey including measures of sexual behavior and psychological wellbeing. Chi-square tests were used to compare the prevalence of recent casual partnerships by selected demographic and personal categories. General linear modeling was then used to compare mean levels of each psychological wellbeing measure between those reporting recent casual partners and those reporting committed partners; partner type was measured both dichotomously and categorically.

RESULTS: One-fifth of participants reported that their most recent sex partner was a casual partner (i.e., casual acquaintance or close but nonexclusive partner). Casual partnerships were more common among men than among women (29% vs. 14%), and the proportions of male and female respondents reporting a recent casual partner diff ered by race or ethnicity. Scores of psychological well-being were generally consistent across sex partner categories, and no significant associations between partner type and well-being were found in adjusted analyses.

CONCLUSIONS: Young adults who engage in casual sexual encounters do not appear to be at greater risk for harmful psychological outcomes than sexually active young adults in more committed relationships.

Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2009, 41(4):231-237




Marla E. Eisenberg is assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Adolescent Health and Medicine, and in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, School of Public Health; Diann M. Ackard is in private practice and is adjunct assistant professor, and Dianne Neumark-Sztainer is professor, both in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health ; and Michael D. Resnick is professor in the Department of Pediatrics—all at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.