Sociology Ph.D. Dissertations


Casual Sex in Adolescence and Young Adulthood: A Mixed Methods Approach

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Wendy Manning, PhD (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Peggy Giordano, PhD (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Longmore Monica, PhD (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Joyner Kara, PhD (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Oldrieve Richard, PhD (Committee Member)


Extensive research has examined adolescent and young adult sexual experience with growing attention on casual sexual activity. However, prior studies have relied on college-based samples, ignoring the experiences of sixty percent of young adults who are not enrolled in four-year higher education institutions. While casual sex is more risky in terms of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, the meanings and motivations for casual sex are not well understood. Even though sexual experiences have different meanings and implications for males and females, little is known about the gendered nature of casual sex in diverse adolescent and young adult populations. Using quantitative and qualitative data from the longitudinal Toledo Adolescent Relationship Study (TARS), the current project relies upon life course, sexual scripts, and feminist theories to guide the research questions that investigate the correlates and trajectories of adolescent and young adult casual sex behavior. First, I assess the gender differences and similarities in young adult casual sex and evaluate variation according to education status. Individuals enrolled in four-year institutions have some of the lowest levels of casual sex. In addition, individuals with post-secondary education experience do not have significant gender differences in terms of casual sex behavior. This suggests that prior work that uses college-based samples underestimates the prevalence and gender differences of casual sex behavior. Second, I use growth curve modeling to develop casual sex trajectories to assess the shifts in respondents' casual sexual activity from adolescence into young adulthood and examine how time-varying covariates influence casual sex trajectories. In doing so, I find that by age 23, three-quarters of young adults have had a casual sex partner and, on average, they have had two casual sex partners. At age 15, males and females are equally likely to have had casual sex; however, males increase their number of casual sex partners at a significantly faster rate than females. Further, alcohol use, peer influence, and liberal sex attitudes are significantly related to casual sex activity for both males and females, and the influence of these covariates increases with age. Third, I analyze the motivations and implications of young adults' casual sex behavior using in-depth interviews and survey data. Respondents report traditional motivators for casual sex such as physical pleasure, enjoyment, and substance use. However, motivations for engaging in casual sex behavior are related to the young adult life course stage and include busy schedules, residential moves, and feeling too young to be tied down to a committed relationship. Additionally, young adults state that there are both negative and positive implications to casual sex behavior. The two negative implications are getting too emotionally attached to the casual sex partner and having to deal with jealous committed partners. Yet most males and females do not regret their casual sex experiences and report that there are some positive implications for casual sex. This dissertation has found that casual sex is a normative part of the young adult life course stage, and casual sex often has complex meanings and motivations associated with the behavior.