A recently released study published in the Journal Of Sex Research found that female undergrads who exhibited promiscuous behavior were more likely to be show signs of depression. In science-speak, the conclusion was that “Hook-up behavior during college was positively correlated with experiencing clinically significant depression symptoms.” The study had almost 500 female undergrads in New York fill out a monthly survey about their sex lives and to categorize the sex as part of a “casual” or “romantic” relationship. Then they filled out a questionnaire used to diagnose depression.
Interestingly, a spokesperson for the study noted that “‘Sex in the context of romantic relationships was not correlated with depression.” They listed some potential reasons that hooking up might result in “poor mental health,” including “unfavorable attitudes toward sex outside of committed relationships, risk of acquiring a negative reputation, failure for the hook-up to transition to a romantic relationship” and “sexually unsatisfying hook-ups.”
As someone who is well acquainted both with depression and with college hook-up culture, I’m calling bullshit on all of that. A “positive correlation” doesn’t mean that the hookups are causing the depression; it only means that they’re both present. To imply that sleeping around might make one depressed is the same sort of slut-shaming, fear-mongering behavior exhibited by groups who warn that abortions raise one’s chance of getting breast cancer. I can’t remember any of my hookups, causing me more than 24 hours of consternation, no matter how horribly they went. And frankly, that was usually because I’d somehow embarrassed myself. They certainly didn’t make me depressed, or any more depressed than I had been for the previous four or five years.
To take the studies’ explanation point by point, I don’t think someone who has an “unfavorable attitude” toward casual sex would engage in it at all, and even if they did, would that slip-up then plunge them into a real, extended depression? Similarly, I doubt someone worried about getting a bad reputation would have a one-night stand. Maybe I’m lucky to live in a very sex-positive environment, but I don’t think girls really worry about their “reputations” these days. While having a lot of casual sex in high school might garner one a reputation, because teenagers are horrid, college life tends to be much more accepting, and even celebratory, about such behavior. And while “failure for the hook-up to transition to a romantic relationship” is always a bummer, minor romantic disappointment doesn’t make people depressed. Getting divorced might trigger a depressive episode. That cute boy you’ve hooked up with twice isn’t returning your calls? Not so much.
However, for some people, being depressed might make you more likely to engage in hook-ups. When you’re depressed, pretty much the only thing you want is to not feel depressed. Sex is a great way to do that! Think of that scene in High Fidelity after Laura’s dad’s funeral, where she asks Rob to have sex with her, “cause I wanna feel something else than this.” Another excellent way to ignore your sorrows is alcohol, which is in plentiful supply in a college setting, extra-tempting for depressives who might be self-medicating with it, and obviously plays a role in a lot of hook-ups. Depression messes with your cognition, so you’re quite literally not as sharp as you once were, and then alcohol clouds your judgement, lowers your inhibitions, and counter-intuitively can improve your mood, at least while you’re drunk. That’s a great recipe for hooking up with a moderately attractive stranger who you’ll have to avoid on campus for the next three semesters.
The studies found no correlation between sex in relationships and depression, implying that relationships keep one from being depressed. Again, I would argue the opposite: that depressed students are having a hard time creating or staying in relationships. Being someone’s partner can be hard, if not impossible, when you’re mentally ill. It’s hard to think about having to take care of someone else when you can barely take care of yourself. A depressed college student is probably going to be much more likely to continue the drinking-and-hooking-up carousel, a game a friend and I used to call, in all seriousness, “drowning our feelings,” than seek out a serious relationship. However, “prior research has found that being in a romantic relationship is negatively correlated with depression and poor mental health – i.e. romantic relationships are actually protective – among young adults, especially women,” so maybe I’m totally wrong. Getting a boyfriend never helped my depression, though therapy and medication did. And luckily for all of us, the study found that college hook-ups don’t predict future depression. That’s just genetics and dumb luck. And maybe cutting back on the Jungle Juice.