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Casual sex more depressing for women, study says

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(U-WIRE) COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- College women engaging in casual sex are more likely to experience depression symptoms than college men with similar sexual practices, a study published in the Journal of Sex Research found.

Although the finding might be conventional wisdom among students dealing with unpredictable relationships in the sometimes whimsical college dating scene, researchers said the study, published in August 2006, shows evidence that women can suffer more psychologically negative effects than college-age men.

"We were really trying to get a sampling of how [college students] conceptualize sexuality and sexual behaviors," said Dr. Catherine Grello, a clinical psychologist and one of the study's authors. "I think for some people, [casual sex] seems to be an OK thing. For some people it's not."

The study analyzed factors and circumstances surrounding casual sex to discover links between casual sex, depression and infidelity. It used a sample of 404 undergraduate psychology students under the age of 21 from the University of Tennessee. It excluded homosexual and married students because their numbers were not large enough to be representative, Grello said.

Of the surveyed students who reported being sexually active, more than 50 percent said they had sex outside of romantic relationships.

Of those students, 18 percent of women and only 3 percent of men expected the casual encounters to become romantic, the study showed.

"I think a lot of times women are looking for a sort of physical intimacy or closeness, and will sometimes allow themselves to engage in casual sex to feel some of that physical closeness," said Dr. Marta Hopkinson, director of mental health at the University Health Center. "Then afterwards [they] realize they're not getting what they really wanted, and that can be depressing."

The study also found students more often participated in casual sex with friends, rather than strangers or acquaintances. In other words, said Grello, "friends with benefits" were more common than "one-night stands."

Although the study concluded casual sex among friends was often more intimate and often existed at a romantic but noncommittal level, Grello warned that miscommunication could affect the mental health of those involved.

"I think it has to be clear what the relationship is," Grello said. "If it's casual and both parties are in agreement, OK, but if it's one person thinking it's something else, I would think that would be a problem. The partners need to communicate, regardless of whether it's a casual relationship, a committed relationship or just a friendship."

Jonathan Kandell, head of counseling services at the University of Maryland Counseling Center, said problems also arise when one person involved in a "friends with benefits" relationship wants to stop having casual sex.

"What can happen is that sometimes people want to go back and say, 'I don't want to have sex with you anymore, let's be friends,' and re-establishing that boundary for many people can be very difficult," Kandell said.

Grello said some students have one-night stands, which are often associated with drug and alcohol use, as opposed to causal sex with friends. Most students surveyed reported having met their most recent casual sex partner in a bar, party or other location with drugs or alcohol, according to the study.

That connection between casual sex and drugs and alcohol is worrisome, Hopkinson said.

"When women drink a lot they can put themselves in compromising positions," Hopkinson said, noting that a good portion of the depression women feel after casual sex is probably tied to feelings of guilt for having done something they would not do when sober.

In terms of infidelity, the study found 20 percent of those who participated in casual sex did so while involved in a different romantic relationship. It also found those in different romantic relationships acted less affectionately toward their casual sex partner than those outside of romantic relationships.

Romantic sexual behavior, according to the study, was not associated with depression.

Alli Matson, who is the coordinator of sexual health education programs at the health center, stressed that although most of the study's conclusions are easy to agree with from a sexual health perspective, many college women these days have casual sex without experiencing depression.

"I think that women these days are a lot more open to the concept of casual sex," Matson said.

(C) 2006 The Diamondback via U-WIRE

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