While the term "casual sex" tends to imply a purely physical act—one that’s completely devoid of emotional intimacy and attachment—it actually appears to be somewhat of a misnomer. New research suggests that young adults actually want a surprising amount of intimacy from so-called “casual” encounters.
A new study published in the Journal of Relationships Research led by a team of scientists at The Kinsey Institute and Binghamton University challenges us to rethink our assumptions about casual sex—and about how young men and women feel about it more broadly. Specifically, the researchers sought to better understand people’s attitudes toward intimate behaviors during sex and how they are similar or different in a casual context versus a romantic context. To that end, they conducted an online survey of 638 college students aged 25 and younger. Most participants identified as exclusively heterosexual (83 percent) and reported having had casual sex before (63 percent).
Participants were asked whether they would engage in four different intimate/affectionate behaviors with a casual partner and, separately, a romantic partner: cuddling, foreplay, gazing into each other’s eyes, and sleeping together after sex while embracing. They were also asked about their preferred relationship type right now—casual versus romantic.
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Perhaps not surprisingly, most people (nine in ten) wanted to engage in all four of these affectionate behaviors with a romantic partner. When it came to casual sex, the numbers were more variable, but most people still wanted to engage in at least some of these activities: 79 percent wanted foreplay, 58 percent wanted cuddling, 42 percent wanted to spend the night, and 27 percent wanted eye gazing. This pattern suggests that the more intimate a given behavior is, the less likely people are to want it with a casual partner.
Women were more likely than men to want to cuddle and spend the night during casual sex; however, there were no gender differences when it came to the desire for foreplay or eye gazing. Also, those who had a preference for casual encounters were more likely to want intimacy from casual sex. This suggests that people who don’t want a romantic commitment at the moment may try to fill their intimacy needs through casual sex.
By contrast, those who had a preference for romantic relationships wanted less intimacy from casual sex. According to lead study author Justin Garcia, a Kinsey Institute research scientist, “this might suggest that those who prefer romantic relationships, rather than engaging in affectionate behaviors to simulate the intimacy of a romantic relationship, are more cautious and reserve affectionate activity for relationship contexts.” That said, although people who preferred romances were more likely to want “just sex” during a casual encounter, a majority of them still wanted to do things like cuddle with a casual partner.
There are obviously some limitations to this study, not the least of which is that it focused on college students. It’s likely that people’s relationship preferences and the degree to which they want intimacy from casual sex change with age. In addition, the researchers only considered four intimate behaviors, and there are obviously a lot more ways that intimacy could potentially be expressed with a sexual partner.
More research would therefore be useful, especially research that considers how people’s personalities factor into all of this. That said, what this study tells us is that, while casual sex is indeed “just sex” for some people, most young people don’t appear to want completely emotionless encounters. “These findings highlight that the absence of a romantic relationship does not mean the absence of desiring or experiencing intimate behaviors with a sexual partner. Even in casual sex encounters, many men and women were interested in affectionate behaviors, suggesting that intimacy is also a form of erotic pleasure derived from sexual interactions,” Garcia says.
While there appears to be some truth to the idea that women are more likely than men to want intimacy during casual sex, the number of men who want intimacy is significant. In this study, a majority wanted cuddling, more than one-third wanted to spend the night and embrace, and more than one-quarter wanted to gaze into their partner’s eyes. Men are more touchy-feely when it comes to casual sex than gender stereotypes suggest.
Casual sex, it seems, often isn’t as casual as the name implies. By thinking about it as “just sex” or as a “no strings attached” experience, we limit our understanding of sexual relationships and the diverse ways that people approach them.
Justin Lehmiller is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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