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A casual relationship, colloquially known as a fling, is a physical and emotional relationship between two people who may have a sexual relationship (a situation colloquially called friends with benefits[1]) or a near-sexual relationship without necessarily demanding or expecting the extra commitments of a more formal romantic relationship. Motives for casual relationships vary.[2] There are significant gender and cultural differences in acceptance of and breadth of casual relationships,[3][4][5][6] as well as in regrets about action/inaction in those relationships.[7]

A casual relationship may be part-time, or for a limited time, and may or may not be monogamous. The term encompasses friendships between people who enjoy each other's physical intimacy but do not aspire to be long-term, and may or may not involve parties who desire temporary relationships purely for purposes of sexual pleasure. In each case, the relationship's dominance in the lives of those involved is being voluntarily limited, and there is usually a sense that the relationship is intended to endure only so long as both parties wish it to.

A casual relationship differs from casual sex, which has little or no emotional element, and from a one-night stand, as the relationship extends beyond a single sexual encounter. To the extent such relationships include casual sexual contact, the relationship is generally focused on fulfilling sexual desires rather than romantic or emotional needs.

Casual relationships sometimes include mutual support, affection and enjoyment, which underpin other forms of loving relationship.

College students

This type of "no strings attached" relationship is most commonly found in young adults such as college students. The shift from childhood to adulthood brings on much exploration in different fields. One of these fields include relationships and sex.[8] This is the time of their life where they try and master the life skills they will need for the future.[8] The majority of college students have already participated in sexual intercourse before high school graduation. In most cases, Grello's study suggests that these sames students who lost their virginity in high school, lost them in a romantic relationship.[8] After experiencing sexual intercourse, most college students go on to have casual sex with either friends or peers they have been recently or newly acquainted with.[8]

A recent study published by the Archives of Sexual Behavior discovered that sixty percent of college students have participated in a casual relationship. Wayne State University and Michigan State University conducted a similar survey and sixty-six percent of the undergraduates in this study said they had also been in a casual relationship. About half of this sixty-six percent said they were currently in one right now.[9]

A casual relationship, unlike a romantic relationship, is very undefined and is hard to put norms, scripts, and expectations to it.[10] Rebecca Plante, an associate professor at Ithaca College, has specialized in research on casual relationships, and says that this type of relationship can be beneficial. Casual relationships establish a "healthy outlet for sexual needs and desires." [10]

Types of college-aged lovers

J.A. Lee, author of Love Styles in the R.J Sternberg & M.L. Barnes: The psychology of love journal, has come up with two main types of lovers for college aged young adults. They are "Eros" lovers who are passionate lovers and "Ludas" or "Ludic" lovers, which are game-playing lovers.[11] "Eros" lovers are lovers that are often struck by "Cupid's Arrow". They often fall head over heels at the first sight of a potential relationship. "Eros" fall in love with the physical attributes of another before any other characteristic. This type of lover is also known to commit to other casual sex relationships.[11] Because physical attributes are the main reason for attraction, it is very hard to further a real romantic relationship.[8] "Ludic" lovers are out for the game. They are looking for the feeling of conquest and typically enter a relationship or hook-up with very little or no intentions of establishing any kind of commitment. They, in most cases, will have more than one sexually active partner at a given time. They also find it very hard to picture a relationship getting serious.[11]

With both of these types of lovers being open to having more than one sexual partner, it helps explain why many college students participate in casual relationships. It allows these young adults to continue to explore and master skills for the future, as well as continue to explore different sexual partners.[8]

Friends with benefits

In college, casual relationships are sometimes referred to as a "friends with benefits" relationship (FWB). Friends with benefits is a relationship between two platonic friends that occasionally have sex or hook-up.[12] This type of relationship has been found to neither fit the traditional definition of a Friendship nor fit the mold of a romantic relationship. Instead, it incorporates characteristics from both relationships.[12] Friends with benefits is a hybrid of friendships and romantic relationships.[8] A friends with benefits relationship is typically found among college students and as its popularity increases, so does the amount of attention it receives from the media and researchers.[12]

Negotiation between participants

Many casual relationships establish guidelines or a set of rules. The two participating friends in the relationship will reach an agreement about what each other expects out of the relationship.[12] Bisson tell us that a reoccurring worry in a casual relationship is that sexual intercourse or other acts of sex (oral, anal) may end up putting stress on the friendship. Another major concern, is that one of the partners will establish romantic feelings for the other.[12] Communication between the two partners is essential to making this type of relationship work and because the partners in the casual relationship are often friends before hand, talking to one another is a much more simple task.[12]

Triangle theory of love

Main article: Triangular theory of love

Robert Sternberg's Triangular theory of love offers the type of flexibility that may be suited in helping this type of relationship become successful.

Relationship maintenance and student concerns

Casual relationships, being a mix between a cross-sex friendship and a non-romantic sexual relationship, the partners face many challenges in maintaining a working relationship. Based on the exchange theory, Hughes witnessed an individual dependency on either partner as the exchange of resources, knowledge, rewards, and costs of items, becomes more and more prominent.[13] The partners may become dependent on advice the other partner gives, or the company they receive when being around one another. This may be a one way street and one partner may not feel this way.[13] Any partner that is not fully dependent upon the other typically controls the casual relationship. The dependent partner is more submissive to their dominant partner as they do not want the relationship to end.[13] This allow the less dependent partner to be able to fix and maintain the relationship the way he/she wants it to be. They normally control when they meet up, when they have sex, and when they do things together.[13]

Many students share the same concerns when it came to beginning a casual relationship with a person who was already their friend. Bisson and Levine found that there were four main worries.[9]

Romantic feelings would occur: 65.3% of students were afraid one or both of the participants would establish romantic feelings for the other.[9]
Hurting the friendship: 28.2% were worried that the friendship that was already established would be harmed.[9]
Causes negative emotions towards one another: 27.4% were concerned negative feelings would develop between the two friends.[9]
Pregnancy/STDs: 9.7% of the students surveyed were worried they would become pregnant or catch a STD.[9]

Disclosure of casual relationship to peers

Hughes's study also revealed the four main categories of why partners participating in a casual relationship did not feel the need to tell their same sex friends about the relationship. The first category was that the partners did not feel that their same sex friends needed to know this information.[13] The second category consisted of people wanting to keep the casual relationship a secret and didn't want their same sex friends to know.[13] The feeling of embarrassment was the third category. Many students said that they would feel ashamed or didn't want to be judged by their same sex friends.[13] The final category is students who didn't want to tell their same sex friends because they would show disapproval of the relationship.[13]


Hughes's study suggests that there were five main motivations to why college students wanted to be in a casual relationship.[13] The five main motivators are:

Relationship avoidance: Students that liked multiple partners at once and wanted to avoid being tied down to one person.[13]
Sex: Students find each other attractive and want to hook-up.[13]
Relationship simplicity: Students get the benefits of a relationship without all the drama.[13]
Emotional connection: Students miss the intimacy they used to have with ex relationships and want to experience it again with no strings attached.[13]
Always wanted a casual relationship: Two students that are single and want to take advantage of it together.[13]

Gender participation

A traditional stereotype of casual relationships in college are that the men initiate the sexual activity [14] Another stereotype is that men are more sexually active and women link sex with romance. This is not true all the time, especially in college students.[14] A study conducted by Paul and her team suggests that's when it comes to gender participation, there are just as many women initiating these relationships.[14] Pressure from friends and other social means may persuade college students to participate in a casual relationship or "hook-up" despite what gender they are.[14]

Environmental factors

College and University campuses our often categorized by the amount of drinking or partying that goes on there.[14] However, campuses can also be characterized by how sexually permissive the students are and also the patterns the campus has of sexual activity (intercourse, oral, anal) with one or multiple partners.[14] Being placed in an environment of already sexually active students can put pressure on other students to do the same.[14]

The environment that students are placed in often plays a role in whether or not they feel pressured into finding a casual relationship. The colleges and universities known for a larger alcohol consumption by their students seem to also have a larger number of students participating in casual relationships.[14] Researchers have struggled with the idea that the "perceived disinhibitory function" leads to the reason for increased sexual activity.[14]

Casual sex

Main article: Casual sex

Casual sex is any of certain types of sexual activity outside the context of a romantic relationship. The term is not always used consistently; some use it to refer to any extramarital sex, while some use it to refer to sex in a casual relationship.[15][16]

While providing a sexual outlet, the practice of casual sex often carries negative connotations. In some sexual relationships among teenagers in the U.S., the predominant activity is not penetrative sex, but rather oral sex and mutual masturbation, as this reduces the risks associated with sexual promiscuity, such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Some medical authorities – such as Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a professor of pediatrics – suggest that teenagers do not view oral sex as "real sex" and use it to remain in a state of "technical" virginity.[17]

A common factor found in many studies on casual sex is that sexual intercourse occurs within a relationship between two partners that have no commitment towards one another. Casual sex presents itself as less risky than random sexual intercourse because of your prior knowledge of the partner you are having sexual intercourse with.[14] When participating in casual sex, you are more likely to know your partner (on a more personal level) than a partner you just have a "one night stand" with.[14]

Alcohol consumption

According to clinical psychologist Catherine Grello, "alcohol consumption appears to have a direct link with casual sex." [8] The more alcohol that is involved the higher the possibility of a casual relationship forming. Both male and female college students are more likely to engage in sexual activity while intoxicated.[8] Consumption of alcohol increases the perceptions of attraction between partners which leads to sexual activity as a much higher rate. Also, with intoxication, low self-esteem and symptoms of depression may be adding factors to increase the chances to engage in this type of relationship or sexual activity.[8]

See also


  1. Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. URL accessed 2011-05-21.
  2. Belle, Heather; Michelle Fiordaliso (2009). Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Ex*, Sourcebooks Casablanca.
  3. Chara PJ, Kuennen LM (February 1994). Diverging gender attitudes regarding casual sex: a cross-sectional study. Psychol Rep 74 (1): 57–8.
  4. Cubbins LA, Tanfer K (June 2000). The influence of gender on sex: a study of men's and women's self-reported high-risk sex behavior. Arch Sex Behav 29 (3): 229–57.
  5. Welsh DP, Grello CM, Harper MS (August 2006). No strings attached: the nature of casual sex in college students. J Sex Res 43 (3): 255–67.
  6. Gwen J. Broude, 'Male-Female Relationships in Cross-Cultural Perspective: A Study of Sex and Intimacy' Cross-Cultural Research, Vol. 18, No. 2, 154–181 (1983) Abstract: Societies are neither entirely consistent nor entirely arbitrary in their patterning of heterosexual relationships. This research suggests that sexual relationships, and male sexual orientation are not highly related to each other.
  7. Roese NJ, Pennington GL, Coleman J, Janicki M, Li NP, Kenrick DT (June 2006). Sex differences in regret: all for love or some for lust?. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 32 (6): 770–80.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 8.8 8.9 Grello, Catherine M., Welsh, Deborah P.; Harper, Melinda S. (11). No strings attached; The nature of casual sex in college students. Journal of Sex Research 43 (3): 255–267.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 Study: 'Friends With Benefits' Sex Common in College. Imaginova Corp.. URL accessed on 24 April 2012.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Maley, David 'Friends With Benefits' Lets Couples Get Close But Not Too Close, Says Ithaca College Expert. URL accessed on 24 April 2012.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Lee, J.A. (1988). Love Styles. R.J Sternberg & M.L. Barnes: The psychology of love: 38–67.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 Bisson, Melissa A., Levine, Timothy R. (13). Negotiating a Friends with Benefits Relationship. Archives of Sexual Behavior 38 (1): 66–73.
  13. 13.00 13.01 13.02 13.03 13.04 13.05 13.06 13.07 13.08 13.09 13.10 13.11 13.12 13.13 Hughes, Mikayla, Morrison, Kelly, Asada, Kelli Jean K. (2005). What's love got to do with it? Exploring the impact of maintenance rules, love attitudes, and network support on friends with benefits relationships. Western Journal of Communication 69 (1): 49–66.
  14. 14.00 14.01 14.02 14.03 14.04 14.05 14.06 14.07 14.08 14.09 14.10 Paul, Elizabeth L., McManus, Brian; Hayes, Allison (Feb 2000). "Hookups": Characteristics and Correlates of College Students' Spontaneous and Anonymous Sexual Experiences. The Journal of Sex Research 37 (1): 76–88.
  15. casual – Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  16. casual sex – Definitions from
  17. Halpern-Fisher B University of California at San Francisco [1]

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