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Christian Union
October 4, 2013

Columbia Alumnae Document How Promiscuity Hurts Young People


Casual sexual contact poses a substantial threat to the psychological well-being of young individuals.

That was one of the key points from Susan Krauss Whitbourne in an article the psychologist and Columbia University alumna penned for a spring issue of Psychology Today.

In particular, Whitbourne highlighted the well-documented emotional consequences associated with serial sexual encounters, including some outlined by Kinsey Institute researcher Justin Garcia and a team from Binghamton University in a comprehensive review of scholarly literature.

Common reactions include anxiety, regret, disappointment, confusion, and embarrassment, according to Whitbourne, who earned a doctorate in developmental psychology in 1974 from Columbia University. Whitbourne, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst psychologist, also participated in a recent national study that echoed some of the findings of Garcia's team and noted new questions for future exploration.

In probing the body of scholarly research on casual sex practices, Garcia pointed to evidence of more serious issues, including depression and damaged self-esteem. Such anxiety, ironically, sets the stage for future sexual dysfunction, Whitbourne noted.

Of even greater concern, Garcia noted about half the young women in one survey said they had experienced a nonconsensual sex encounter. Not surprisingly, alcohol and other substances are likely to be part of nonconsensual hookups.

The majority of studies Garcia reviewed on the relationship between hookups and mental well-being involved small samples, mostly taken from one college campus each.

However, Whitbourne participated in a recent study involving 3,900 undergraduates at 30 campuses across the United States.

In research to be published in an upcoming article for the Journal of Sex Research, Whitbourne's colleagues also noted higher distress scores as expressed by levels of depression and anxiety among individuals who had sex with someone they knew for less than a week.

"To measure well-being, we asked participants to rate their self-esteem, degree of life satisfaction, general sense of positive functioning, and feelings of self-actualization," Whitbourne wrote. "To tap into feelings of psychological despair, we asked participants to report on their feelings of depression, general anxiety, and social anxiety."

In the results, about 11 percent of students indicated they had engaged in casual sex within the last month, with a higher number of men admitting to such practices than women.

"We don't know whether poor mental health caused individuals to be more likely to engage in casual sex or whether... poor health resulted from casual sex," Whitbourne wrote.

Whitbourne served as a co-author on the paper, which was headed up by Sacramento State University psychologist Melina Bersamin and based on a multi-campus study led by Miami University psychologist Seth Schwartz.

In contrast to the notion that men are OK with casual sex but women are not, Bersamin's team did not find gender differences in levels of distress for participants of casual sex.

"Moreover, the fact that we defined casual sex in the way that we did..., it is possible that we were tapping into a population who is at particularly high-risk due to their high levels of impulsivity," Whitbourne wrote. "At that level, mental health factors may trump socialization and/or biology to wipe out gender effects."

Whitbourne urged students, parents, professionals, and college administrators to pay more attention to hookup activity and its virtually inevitable negative repercussions upon psychological well-being.
In an earlier work, another Columbia alumna also explored the dangers associated with sexual promiscuity.

In 2008, obstetrician-gynecologist Freda Bush co-authored Hooked, New Science on How Casual Sex Is Affecting Our Children, which noted American teens and young adults are carrying psychological baggage from sexual encounters.

Bush and fellow obstetrician-gynecologist Joe McIlhaney highlighted scientific research showing how sexual activity causes a release of brain chemicals that result in emotional bonding and a powerful desire for heightened intimacy.

In their 2011 follow-up, Girls Uncovered: New Research on What America's Sexual Culture Does to Young Women, the pair presented stunning findings on the development of young women in a reckless sexual culture. Namely, the physicians explored the damages associated with careless sexual activity on psychological, social, physical, and spiritual health.

Bush, who earned a master of science from Columbia University in 1970, also is a contributing writer to Faith Matters: How African American Faith Communities Can Help Prevent Teen Pregnancy. She is a frequent speaker with extensive medical and professional credentials.

In a radio interview, Bush warned that young people are not fully mature until their mid-20s. Thus, it is easy for sexually active teens and early adults to be sabotaged by emotions and hormone-driven feelings of attachment. As well, premarital sex can condition young individuals to associate sex with short-term relationships and to develop the habit of breaking up.

However, Bush also offered hope. Namely, "the brain can be remodeled and refocused," she said.

Plus, marital sexual activity offers the promise of the happiest sex, Bush said. "You have to recognize that what is best for you is to delay," she said.