To some people, sex is a meaningful step and should only happen in the confines of a monogamous relationship. To others, exclusivity is less relevant and casual sex is normal. But what factors lead to these differing attitudes and behaviors? A study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior explores how a myriad of factors, including peers and families, can influence sexual behavior for emerging adults.
Romance and sex are important aspects of many young adults’ lives. Previous studies showed that around half of them engage in casual sex, but some also experience negative effects from it, such as psychological distress and difficulties in maintaining monogamous relationships. This study sought to better understand the factors may contribute to the decision to have casual sex or be non-exclusive for emerging adults.
For their study, Angela M. Kaufman-Parks and her colleagues examined data from a group of adolescents in Ohio over a period of several years to understand how their relationships with parents, peers, and romantic partners influence their sexual behaviors as they transitioned into adulthood.
The researchers analyzed data from 694 participants that was pulled from 5 waves of the Toledo Adolescent Relationship Study, which at wave 1 focused on 7th, 9th, and 11th graders from Ohio. Casual sex and sexual non-exclusivity were measured at wave 5. To ascertain family influence, data was pulled from wave 1 that focused on if the parent had gotten pregnant or known someone who had gotten pregnant as a teenager.
At wave 5, participants answered questions retrospectively about interparental conflict. Peer influence was measured at waves 3, 4, and 5. Participants responded to questions about their peer’s sexual behavior and attitudes. Partner’s non-exclusivity was measured in the first 4 waves. Dynamics of intimate relationships were measured at wave 5 and included union status and questions about relationship uncertainty. Additionally, demographic information was collected for all participants.
The findings of the study showed that both casual sex and sexual non-exclusivity were relatively common among emerging adults. The results indicated that family, peer, and romantic relationship contexts all played a role in influencing individuals’ likelihood of engaging in casual sex or sexual non-exclusivity.
Approximately one third of participants reported partaking in casual sex in the two years prior to wave 5 and approximately a quarter of participants reported engaging in sexual non-exclusive behaviors with their most recent or current partner.
Interparental conflict was significantly linked with higher levels of casual sex. This could be because individuals who witnessed conflict between their parents learned that romantic partners may not be trustworthy, leading them to seek casual sex encounters as a way to fulfill their sexual desires without becoming too emotionally involved, the researchers said
When the participant’s friends or peers were involved in behaviors where they had multiple sexual partners or were more open about their sexuality, it was more likely for the participant to also have casual sex. This suggests that one’s social environment can impact decisions when it comes to having casual sexual relationships. Another factor that predicted casual sex was age, with casual sex lessening as age increased.
Individuals who reported greater uncertainty about the long-term prospects of their relationships with their primary partners were more likely to engage in sexual non-exclusivity. Those who experienced relationship churning, which refers to breaking up and getting back together with their partner at least once, were also more likely to engage in sexually non-exclusive behaviors. On the other hand, individuals in marital unions were less likely to report engaging in sexual non-exclusivity compared to those in dating relationships.
This study took important steps into better understanding what could influence sexual behaviors for emerging adults. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that the data was collected from Ohio and may not be generalizable to other regions. Additionally, there were not enough participants in same-sex relationships to report on, so they were omitted from this study. Future research could attempt to bridge this gap.
“We find that emerging adults’ peers and past and current romantic relationships are key determinates in influencing the choice to engage in both casual sex and sexually nonexclusive behaviors, and that emerging adults’ families are also an important context to consider when predicting casual sex engagement,” the researchers concluded.
“These findings are important in that while many emerging adults do view casual sex experiences positively, not all do. Rather, at least some populations of emerging adults have been found to experience psychological distress, anxiety, and depression following casual sex engagement, particularly when casual sex encounters are followed by negative experiences such as loneliness and disappointment that a casual sex partner did not continue the relationship.”
The study, “The Influence of Peers, Romantic Partners, and Families on Emerging Adults’ Sexual Behavior“, was authored by Angela M. Kaufman-Parks, Monica A. Longmore, Wendy D. Manning, and Peggy C. Giordano.