Original Paper

Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 44, Issue 4, pp 945-959

First online:

Does Casual Sex Harm College Students’ Well-Being? A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Motivation

  • Zhana VrangalovaAffiliated withDepartment of Human Development, Cornell University Email author 

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Engagement in casual sex (or hooking up) is generally feared to have negative well-being consequences; however, empirical evidence is inconclusive, pointing toward potential moderators. Using self-determination theory (SDT), we hypothesized that well-being following hookups would depend on the type and level of motivation for hooking up. A university-wide sample of 528 undergraduates completed online surveys at the beginning (T1) and end (T3) of one academic year. After controlling for demographics, personality traits (i.e., neuroticism and extraversion), prior casual and romantic sex, and T1 well-being, having genital hookups between T1 and T3 for non-autonomous reasons (i.e., due to self-imposed pressures, external contingencies and controls, or complete lack of intentionality) was linked to lower self-esteem, higher depression and anxiety, and more physical symptoms. Autonomous hookup motivation (i.e., emanating from one’s self) was not linked to any outcomes. Compared to peers without hookups, those with high non-autonomy in their hookups typically had inferior well-being; this was not true of those with low non-autonomy hookups. Gender differences, implications for SDT and casual sex research, and implications for educational programs and clinical work are discussed.


Autonomous motivation Casual sex Hooking up Psychological well-being Self-determination theory