Contrary to the aphorism, for many people, sex isn’t pizza: Bad sex is worse than no sex. And even with a bunch of practice, it can be difficult to predict a satisfying experience from an unsettling one. What if there were a way to avoid negative post-hook-up vibes, or to at least curb the likelihood of them arising?
In the past, when I’ve gone weeks or—god forbid—months without sex, I’d feel lonely, hard up, and would wonder whether there was something wrong with me, especially since some friends claim to hook-up multiple times a week with different people. When that feeling would hit, it was like a perfect storm of dejection. I’d go onto Grindr or Scruff, or sometimes switch between the two obsessively, scrolling through grids of men, determined to have someone over. I’d pick out the most willing participant, the sexier the better, but I would sometimes settle for someone who was just satisfactory, telling myself that I needed them for sex more than the eye candy. And sometimes, when they arrived at my place, they may not be as attractive as their photos, or I’d quickly realize there was zero chemistry. We’d often get on with it anyway since I was out to prove there was nothing wrong with me, of course.
More often than not, after the guy left, I’d feel kind of down for having gone through with it, particularly if there was no attraction or chemistry. I’d be even more lonely and hard up than I was before. Turns out this isn’t unusual though. A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, examined 528 undergraduate students over the course of nine months to see how hooking-up influenced four aspects of their wellbeing: Self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and physical health symptoms. Using something called, self-determination theory (SDT), Zhana Vrangalova, who is a sex writer, educator, and the author of the study, predicted that the type and level of motivation for a hookup was a determining factor in how someone felt after.
The idea behind SDT is that if we do things for the “right” reasons, we feel good. If we do the exact same thing for the “wrong” reason, then we don’t.
“Right,” or autonomous, reasons for hooking-up include things like sexual desire, physical attraction, experimentation, and novelty. Surprisingly, this study found that hooking-up for these reasons had no bearing on the participants’ well-being.
According to SDT, when engaging in behavior for the “wrong” or non-autonomous reasons, it affects our well-being negatively. Hooking up because of things like self-imposed pressures, the need for self-affirmation, trying to please someone, or hoping it might lead to “something more” were found to be linked to low self-esteem, higher depression and anxiety, and more physical symptoms.
This may explain why I felt lousy after some of those hook-ups.
There are ways to limit bad feelings following a hook-up and it has more to do self-reflection. By questioning the motivations behind a specific hook-up, deciding whether the reasons are autonomous or not, and acting accordingly can help to prevent negative outcomes, more or less. It could also be useful to analyze motivations for hooking-ups in our lives, more generally overall: How much you’re doing it, with whom, and why.
Well, sort of. The study found that those who hooked-up for high non-autonomous reasons typically didn’t fare as well as those who didn’t hook-up at all, so it’s not that no sex is better than bad sex. Based on Vrangalova’s study, it’s that no sex is better than sex for the wrong reasons.
All that said, studies have shown that on average, people feel more positively after hooking-up than negatively. Casual sex has many benefits too: It can offer sexual pleasure, enhanced self-confidence, empowerment, freedom, and can add an element of adventure to our lives, so it’s certainly worthwhile. Thing is, if you can decrease your chances of bad feelings after a casual lay with just a bit of self-reflection, why wouldn’t you?