Casual sex in college

No, before you get excited, that wasn’t an offer. Psychologists have chosen some fascinating topics for study. The evolutionary roots of personality. The nature of mental disorder. The antecedents of a fulfilling life. And now… “What happens when college students get horny!”

Most ‘first-time’ experiences happen in the context of a romantic relationship, but there is a trend now, towards sex with a friend, or with strangers. And the earlier your first time is, the more likely you are to have casual partners in the future. So ‘casual sex’ can refer to hook-ups with a friend (some papers in the scientific literature really do refer to it as a ‘hook up’) or stranger, and can be of long or short duration (the relationship, presumably; not the act itself).

This move towards more casual sex seems to be the general trend, rather than specific to a particular subculture. The reasons for this could be many – greater availability of contraception, alcohol, changing social norms. The explanation is unclear, but as a lot of experimentation happens at college, this seems to be a good place to look.

Catherine Grello, Deborah Welsh, and Melinda Harper carried out a large survey, which asked people about their hook ups, alcohol use, previous sexual experiences, and also included a validated measure of depressive symptoms. (1) The results were pretty interesting. I present to you….

The psychology of the hook-up


Sure I’ll call ya… (Storem)


Firstly, as the stereotype might predict, more males than females reported having engaged in casual sex. Maybe I’m missing something, but I can’t see how this adds up unless:

  • Females are viewing casual sex as something more
  • Males are viewing something more as casual
  • Males are hooking up more off-campus than females

Also in line with stereotypes, females typically expected the hook up to be the beginning of a romance (18% female vs. 3% male), while more males expected the relationship continue on a casual basis (33% male vs. 16% female). Interestingly, females were more likely to view the sex as ‘experimentation’.

First-time experiences

As predicted, those who had earlier first-time sexual experiences were more likely to hook up. But more interesting is this: females who engaged in casual sex tended to describe their first sexual experience more negatively than either males or females who did not hook up.

Alcohol and drugs

Again fairly obvious, but alcohol and drug use were commonly involved in hooking up – 65% of those who reported casual sex were either drunk or high at the time. Beer goggles earning their money?


Males who had the lowest levels of depression, and females who reported the highest levels of depressive symptoms were the most likely to engage in casual sex. Added to this, the more depressive symptoms a female reported, the more casual sex partners she was likely to have. This did not hold true for sex with a romantic partner, which had no relationship to depression. Why are symptoms of depression higher among females who hook up more? The authors suggest a few possibilities:

  • They are seeking external validation from sex
  • They are maintaining a depressive cycle by unconsciously selecting partners with whom a healthy relationship is unlikely
  • The depression increases the desire for a healthy relationship, and they engage in casual sex to try to get into a romantic relationship

And what about the less depressed males, why are they more likely to hook up? One possibility is simply that they are more attractive, as evolutionary theories predict that females perceive a self-confident man as having more resources.

There were also more depressive symptoms in males and females in the people who regretted their hook ups.


Incredibly (or not?), 21% of those who hooked up were involved in a relationship with another person at the time! That’s one in five! Maybe they should try Urge Surfing whenever they feel the, umm, need. No gender was more likely to cheat than the other. When someone did cheat, they reported that the sex was less ‘affectionate’ than those who were not cheating.

While people who cheated did tend to regret the experience, they did not have higher symptoms of depression.

Although there are a number of limitations to the study such as whether the results are transferable to other colleges, and it was limited to heterosexual sex (due to not enough gay or bi participants), some of these results are very interesting, particularly the link between casual sex and depression. But maybe this is the wrong time of year to be talking about hook ups. Tomorrow we’ll look at love.


(1) Grello, C. M., D. P. Welsh, and M. S. Harper. (2006). No strings attached: The nature of casual sex in college students. The Journal of Sex Research, 43(3): 255-267.


  • Warren Davies says:

    This was my 100th post!

  • Jenn says:

    I think very appropriate for the Valentine’s Day weekend! Appreciated your stats in this article too…I def learned a lot. I’m surprised it wasn’t higher than 65% on drugs/alcohol though! 🙂

    Great read,

    • Warren Davies says:

      Thanks Jenn! Yes based on my observations and experiences at university, I would have put it higher than 65% too!

  • Hi Warren

    This is absolutely true nowadays. Base on what I observed, not just the college students are doing this CASUAL SEX thing but also some high school students who are practicing this. I guess, most students are influenced by their environment or from the movies they are watching. Curiosity of doing something first time to them leads the students to try Casual Sex. Thanks for sharing this interesting topic.
    .-= 12 Month Car Leasing´s last blog ..12 Month Car Leasing: How It Can Help You Save Money =-.

  • eddyjason says:

    Nowadays people have been exposed to sex almost on everything and young people become brave to have sex on early age.When someone say “don’t do it” well you know what happen:)
    .-= eddyjason´s last blog ..Stop The Cramming =-.

  • Haw says:

    i complete agree. Sex has become should a Hugh fact that college student are more focus on the next laid rather than their grade. porn site such as youporn, redtube, boldporn, and etc has become the ever growing trend for students.

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