Zhana Vrangalova is a human sexuality researcher with a PhD in Developmental Psychology from Cornell University. Currently she teaches in the Psychology Department at NYU. Her research focuses on sexual orientation, consensual non-monogamy, and the effects of casual sex on emotional wellbeing. She is the originator of The Casual Sex Project, a forum for real stories from real people detailing their experiences with hookups, one-night stands, friends with benefits, and the like. Her recently published study, Who Benefits from Casual Sex: The Moderating Role of Sociosexuality, is generating a great deal of discussion among not just sexologists, but the general public, primarily because the research finds that casual sex, for people who are emotionally and socially “into it,” may actually benefit emotional and psychological wellbeing. (Previous studies looking into the effects of casual sex on wellbeing have been largely inconclusive.) I recently had the opportunity to speak with Zhana about her groundbreaking work, and I wanted to share the transcript of our conversation here.
First of all, you told me not too long ago that you were about to sit for your US citizenship exam. So congratulations to you for that. Where are you from originally, and what brought you to the US?
I’m from Macedonia, in the southeast of Europe. I was born and raised there, I went to college there. I did my BA in Psychology at University of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Skopje, the capital. Then I applied to graduate school programs here in the US, and I got into Cornell. I did my PhD at Cornell.
Did you study human sexuality as an undergraduate, or did that begin at Cornell?
While in Macedonia I did a couple of research projects both for school and for civil rights groups. I was involved in the beginning of the gay civil rights movement in Macedonia, so in addition to my schoolwork I did a couple of research projects for those organizations. I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on gay and lesbian identity development. So I was already doing some work in the sexuality realm, and then when I decided to do a PhD, I knew that it had to be something involving sexuality. It’s the most interesting thing for me. It holds my interest the longest. So when I applied to programs I only applied to departments where there was a professor or two working in the area of sexuality. I wasn’t too set on what area of sexuality I was going to study, but I knew there would be an element of sex. Given the research that I had done in Macedonia, I thought that probably my graduate work was going to focus on sexual orientation, in particular bisexuality, and that did turn out to be the case. When I got accepted to Cornell it was to work with Ritch Savin-Williams, one of the leading names in the field of sexual orientation. With him I did a lot of work on sexual orientation, specifically “mostly heterosexuality,” which is people who are not completely straight but also not same-sex oriented enough to consider themselves bisexual. That was the focus of a lot of our research, and we published several papers on that.
That wasn’t your only focus, though. You also did a lot of research on the effects of casual sex.
Yes, the casual sex stuff was my own thing, my own interest, but something my advisor fully supported me exploring. So I decided my dissertation would be on that topic.
Can you talk a bit about that research?
My work evolved from reading the existing literature on casual sex. What I found was that the approach taken when studying casual sex in relation to sexual health and wellbeing in general almost always centered on one simple correlation: Are the people who are having casual sex more depressed, with lower self-esteem, than the people who aren’t?
I looked through that research a few days ago, after reading your study. It was all extremely limited in approach.
Yes, but that’s not necessarily surprising. You usually start with very simple relationships when you study a new area, and this is a fairly new area. People only really started looking at casual sex as a phenomenon in the last 15 years or so. When I looked deeper at the research, what I noticed was that almost all of the studies came back with non-significant results, essentially finding that casual sex neither increases nor decreases mental health over time. My thinking was that either casual sex really has no effect on wellbeing, or it has a positive effect on some people, a negative effect on some people, and maybe no effect on the rest. If the latter is the case, when you combine all of the people together in one group the effects would wash out, and that would explain all of the non-significant findings in previous studies.
So I decided to investigate certain factors – personal, interpersonal, social, situational – that might influence individual reactions to casual sex. I couldn’t look at every possibility, we’d need many more studies for that, so I decided to focus on what I thought might be most significant, and that’s “authenticity,” whether you are doing things that are really in line with who you are as a person.
There were actually two studies involved here. One found that people who engage in casual sex for authentic reasons – things like they really want to have sex, they’re horny, they’re attracted to the other person, they feel that this is an important experience to have, and they want to explore their sexuality – are unaffected by their casual sex pursuits, whereas people who engage in casual sex for inauthentic reasons – things like they got drunk, everyone else is doing it and they want to fit in, they were hoping it was more than just casual sex, they’re seeking revenge, or they want to feel better about themselves – experienced a negative effect on their wellbeing. The other study looked at a personality trait called sociosexuality, which basically is a measure of how interested in and how open a person is to having casual sex. Sociosexually unrestricted people are into casual sex, whereas sociosexually restricted people don’t desire it and don’t approve of it, thinking it’s wrong. Sociosexuality then plays into authenticity. What I found was that the people who were unrestricted, who were into casual sex, benefitted after having casual sex, and people who were restricted but still engaged in casual sex typically suffered.
Can you elucidate a bit on the specific meaning “benefitted” and “suffered”?
I looked at four different wellbeing outcomes. People who benefitted experienced lower levels of depression and anxiety, and higher levels of satisfaction and self-esteem. People who suffered experienced the opposite.
Your research differs quite a lot from previous research in terms of scope. It seems to be the only study looking at how socialization might factor into the effects of casual sex.
The only other potentially moderating factor that’s been explored is gender. A lot of studies have looked at the effect of gender, thinking maybe casual sex is bad for women but not so bad for guys. Beyond gender there’s been almost no other research.
Did your findings vary based on gender?
They didn’t. That was somewhat surprising when you think of the potential consequences of casual sex – social consequences, emotional consequences, and perhaps even sexual health consequences. Those can all be potentially worse for women than for men. I had thought that maybe for women authentic motivation or being sociosexually unrestricted wouldn’t be quite as buffering as for men, but there were no differences. On average, I found that women are somewhat more sexually restricted than men, but if women are sexually unrestricted then casual sex is beneficial to their wellbeing, the same as it is with men.
Where should the next batch of research go?
One thing would be trying to replicate what I’ve done. This is just one piece of research on one very specific sample. We should look at different types of populations, including different ages like older adults or teenagers. Doing that is critical before we can take these findings for granted. Beyond that other researchers could look at other factors that might moderate peoples’ reactions to casual sex, beyond just authenticity. And they could also look deeper into what authenticity means, whether there are specific aspects of authenticity that stand out in terms of benefitting or suffering. For now, though, it looks as if people who are sociosexually unrestricted and engaging in casual sex for authentic reasons are better off afterward, while people who are sociosexually restricted or interested in casual sex for inauthentic reasons may want to avoid it, as it’s likely to negatively affect their wellbeing.