Is casual sex worth it?
July 28th, 2011
07:09 AM ET

Is casual sex worth it?

Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs about sex on Thursdays on The Chart. Read more from him at his website, GoodInBed.

To do it, or not to do it: That is the question of casual sex - at least as depicted on film.

In both "Friends With Benefits" (currently playing) and the previously released "No Strings Attached," casual sex is anything but casual. It’s carefully weighed, hotly debated, methodically scrutinized and, of course, comically miscalculated. As in most romantic comedies, the casual sex turns out to be quite committed and just a part of falling in love and living happily ever after.

In the movies, blind lust and romantic love often intersect seamlessly, but in reality, casual sex is often an emotional dead-end rather than an on-ramp to relationship bliss.

Anthropologist Helen Fisher describes love as a three-phase system:

1) Lust, in which we can attach to anyone.

2) Attraction, in which lust finds its focus and blossoms into romantic love.

3) Attachment, in which romantic love matures into a long-term relationship.

Casual sex is often an expression of Phase 1 (lust at its most unfocused), but, unfortunately, many people go into it with the false hope that it will lead to romantic love. And that’s where life does not imitate the movies.

That’s not to say that casual sex is a bad thing. It can be loads of fun, as well as a way of trying out new things and practicing your sex skills for that future special person. But casual sex isn’t always so simple.

As my colleague Emily Nagoski, author of the Good in Bed Guide to Female Orgasms, writes, “Especially when it comes to having sex with someone for the first time, the question of what it is you actually want when you want sex is very complicated indeed. Because what do you want, when you want sex? Do you want to get laid? Do you want a relationship? Do you want love? Do you want revenge? Do you want to rebel? Do you want to get pregnant? ... Then there’s the question of whether or not (and what kind of) sex will get you what you want. Sex will get you laid. Whether or not it gets you a relationship or love or revenge or rebellion or a baby is less certain, and so the decision becomes complicated.”

Casual sex has its risks and rewards, although the movies tend to focus more on the risk of falling in love than, say, the very real consequence of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.

As the authors of "Sex in America" write of their interviews with more than 3,000 people, “Although we find that large numbers of Americans have had a sexually transmitted disease at least once in their lives, there is nothing random about where the diseases strike … the people who are most likely to be infected share one key characteristic: They have many sex partners.”

As it turns out, if a man has two to four sexual partners in his lifetime, his chances of ever having contracted a sexually transmitted infection are about 3%.

As the number of partners increases, so does the risk. With more than 20 partners, his risk is about 28%, almost a 1,000% increase. The same rough pattern is true of women, with the spectrum of percentages increasing from 5% to 35%.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the more partners a person has had, the more likely it is that he or she has engaged with those partners outside of a monogamous relationship, and that his or her partner falls into a similar pattern of casual sex, thereby greatly increasing the risk of having come into contact with  a sexually transmitted infection.

Casual sex could trigger a domino effect of risky behaviors.

“The more partners an individual has,” according to "Sex in America," “the more likely he or she is to have sex with people who themselves have many partners, the more likely he or she is to have sex with virtual strangers, the more likely she or he is to have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol during some sexual encounters, and while it is more likely that a condom was used, the rate of increased use of a condom does not seem great enough to offset the higher risks of infection.”

I’m not trying to scare anyone out of casual sex. As Dr. Alex Comfort had to say in his book "The Joy of Sex," “There is no occasion for panic, or for losing out on the joy of sex - simply informed caution.”

So is casual sex worth it? You tell me. Like the recent spate of movies, does it ever have a happy ending?

Follow @CNNHealth on Twitter

soundoff (1,574 Responses)


    July 28, 2011 at 16:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Devils Advocate

      ...and that answer is "YES"!

      July 28, 2011 at 17:01 | Report abuse |
    • LRoy


      July 29, 2011 at 10:14 | Report abuse |
  2. Dirk Waldon

    Man! You are peeing on a live wire messing with 'THE MAN himself.

    July 28, 2011 at 16:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Poodles

    I have casual relations with garden gnomes, farm animals, corpses, midgets with eye patches, jars of peanut butter, paper shredders, grilled cheese sandwiches, and clowns.

    July 28, 2011 at 17:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LRoy

      I love you! I'm the same way, not all what you mentioned, but other items. And don't forget the cats!

      July 29, 2011 at 10:16 | Report abuse |
    • mimi_nef

      Grilled cheese sandwiches??!! Doesn't that lead to nasty hot cheese burns?

      August 13, 2011 at 14:31 | Report abuse |
  4. studdmuffins

    Hormonal release with potential trophy...Yeah, it's worth it.

    July 28, 2011 at 17:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Evan

    Ian, I have a feeling you get a lot of Wall Street ladies requesting you for special therapy assigniments in Manhattan (that's a compliment, great photo).

    July 28, 2011 at 17:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. phil

    That's a great question. W T F W J D?

    The correct answer is..... Nothing. That's because jesus never existed. The bible is only a story passed down for generations that is used to control people through fear and submission. That is the only reason it was written...by a crazy man, bent on controlling others.

    July 28, 2011 at 17:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ArranWebb

      There is little dispute that Jesus existed – just like dinosaurs. The dispute is regarding if he was the son of God, if he died for our sins and if he rose from the dead. And if he is watching over you now.

      July 28, 2011 at 23:07 | Report abuse |
  7. David in Corpus

    Lovely blog today. Thanks all and that thank you goes out to all the prudes, hos, and everything in between.

    July 28, 2011 at 17:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Keyser

    Jesus would have and did do his apostles and possibly Mary Magdelin.

    July 28, 2011 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Keyser

    'Truth' Clearly already has an STD and is none to happy about it. Tsk-tsk

    July 28, 2011 at 18:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Robert

    I would love to post a comment, but either this comment system is total junk or it's filtering out stuff that's pro-Christianity.

    July 28, 2011 at 18:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. DowntownDude

    Wow. There are a lot of unhappy people here, and they all want to slander Jesus.

    These two things are not unrelated.

    July 28, 2011 at 18:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. TheJ-Man

    I'd rather live a short and entertaining life than a long and boring one. But to each their own– continue on your path, if of course, that allows you to even cross the street.

    July 28, 2011 at 19:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. phil

    @ DowntownDude

    Just because I do not subscribe to the same beliefs as you do does not make me an unhappy person. Atheists are not unhappy. I do not know why people think this is the case. We do not hate god. We cannot hate something that does not exist. We're not satanists.

    We are intelligent and listen to logic and reason rather than blindly follow around a silly idea. There is proof that god does not exist, you just have to accept it. But you choose to hide behind your faith and continue praying, expecting results each time.

    July 28, 2011 at 19:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Mickey1313

    Thiests are STUPID

    July 28, 2011 at 22:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Alley Oop

    Does a chicken have lips?

    July 28, 2011 at 22:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Evan F

    It would seem cnns agenda is one of evil. Screening comments that uphold the status quo of doing evil are only posted.

    July 28, 2011 at 23:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Diana

    Sometimes yes it is but most times, no it's not worth it.

    July 29, 2011 at 01:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Pocket Rocket

    Casual or formal, its all good.

    July 29, 2011 at 01:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. lovehurts86


    July 29, 2011 at 05:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Robert Paulson

    I wouldn't know. I've never been able to get any.

    July 29, 2011 at 05:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LRoy

      Thank God I'm a virgin until you marry me.

      July 29, 2011 at 10:18 | Report abuse |
  21. James

    you seem frustrated. We all wonder why 😉

    July 29, 2011 at 07:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Pat

    Wife and I swap with another couple. Works great and no feelings attached.

    July 29, 2011 at 09:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • tina

      no attachments? really?? just wait until your wife runs off with the other man. hope you didn't really love her. oh wait, you must not if you share each other with others. no thanks! disgusting and immoral.

      August 26, 2011 at 17:29 | Report abuse |
  23. Franklin Graham

    I'm duckin' down my drawers, suckin' beer thru straws, didn't you get yours.

    July 29, 2011 at 09:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. jay

    Stop blaming christians... this guy is obviously just cant get any and is taking it out on those who can

    July 29, 2011 at 10:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Nancy

    William...while AIDS may not be a death sentence...the price of anti-retroviral drugs isn't chump change either.

    July 29, 2011 at 11:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Facet

      We're only sharing it (once we deicde) with people who we KNOW won't be rude about it. People can be really mean about baby names, but in the end its Hubby and my decision, it really doesnt matter what other people think of it.It is, however, well known that if we have a daughter her MIDDLE name will be MacKenzie (my maiden name) and if its a boy the MIDDLE name will be Glenn (my father's first name and my middle name). Hubs is happy to give me a chance to "pass on" my name, so to speak. Plus, he likes those names anyway, lol.

      October 14, 2012 at 00:20 | Report abuse |
  26. Bonnie

    Never. American girls, keep your virginity until like age 20 and sell it to a rich man for $2-3 million. By then, you'll know money is a trash and true love for lifetime by an honorable man is priceless. American boys, if you treat girls lightly, you'll be enslaved by evil witches for the rest of your life. You trash your own life by belittling woman. Life is fair. Get your share.

    July 29, 2011 at 12:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Bonnie

    CNN, why do you prevent me from posting facts?

    July 29, 2011 at 12:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Turdmidget

    I bet you're fun at parties.

    July 29, 2011 at 14:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. In the name of Jesus Christ

    I speak in the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is alive. I have seen Him. He lives! Verily, verily, I say unto you, those that sin, and know that they sin, will pay the price if they die in their sins. Remember, Jesus will not save you in your sins, but will save you from your sins if you repent and turn away from your sins. If you go on sinning, the devil is your master, and you will get your 'rewards' from the devil, and remember that there is no good thing that comes from the devil. Instead, choose light, choose Jesus, and live. Why choose to die? In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • mimi_nef

      We're going to die either way.

      Why deprive ourselves of pleasure while we live?

      August 13, 2011 at 14:33 | Report abuse |
  30. tina

    NO WAY. Leads to STD's. Speaking out of experience. NOT worth it. I regret it every day.

    August 26, 2011 at 17:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Stanley Siegel

    Check this out: "In Defense of Casual Sex" http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/intelligent-lust/201112/in-defense-casual-sex

    December 13, 2011 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Guy

    There's nothing wrong with casual sex as long as you're careful and know what you're getting into emotionally. If you're UK based, try here http://www.casualsex.co.uk

    January 14, 2012 at 14:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Eagle77

    Why not have casual sex? As long as you check with the other person if they have any STDs etc, it would be perfectly fine for anyone.


    February 6, 2012 at 19:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Country

    Excellent weblog right here! Also your website a lot up fast! What host are you the use of? Can I am getting your associate link for your host? I want my web site loaded up as quickly as yours lol

    April 9, 2012 at 05:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. nameless

    personally i am unable to have anymore casual sex and celibacy is not a lot of fun either.

    i am jealous of women who can hook up without hangups but i do not admire the harmful health risks.

    i think it works like a drink, it fulfills our human needs to be caressed and achieve orgasm but it can also be a sham and the omission of true affection and caring is theatrical. it is play acting with the sole purpose of having needs met. if you can handle it, go ahead but don't expect anything from the moment or the other person, except perhaps to be able to repeat it again for the same reason. amazingly, some relationships and lasting ones, do start this way but it never worked for me because i have always wanted love.

    it suits men more so than women, though modern women are doing a good job of becoming immune to attachment and seem to be getting enjoyment from casual sex relationships.

    a few moments of joy and ultimately for me, i felt intense sadness and lonliness

    November 30, 2013 at 10:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Lisy

    Casual sex is a great idea!!! I advice t it for all those average people who have very low index of emotional intelligence, insecurity, bipolarity and suffered abandon and indifference from their parents!!! Anthropologically speaking the 9O% of global population has mediocre CI and is highly susceptible to be manipulated by irrational and hedonistic behavior, as fashion, parties and all kind of social activities!! Being unable of controlling your archaic mechanism of neurotransmitters without questioning the outcome of your actions ,is an indicator of intellectual weakness ,lack of judgment, maturity and individuality!!!! Monogamy is an evolutionary mechanism of our brain, to preserve the biological, pathological and mental integrity and preserve the specie, decreasing the genetic and bacterial risks or conflict of any kind!!!

    May 4, 2018 at 18:54 | Report abuse | Reply
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