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Posted April 20, Reviewed by Matt Huston. The mental health consequences of having multiple sex partners were long thought to include greater rates of anxiety and depression.
At the same time, high rates of alcohol and substance abuse were thought to increase the chances of young adults engaging in unsafe sex with multiple partners. New research from a longitudinal study of over 1, New Zealanders suggests that, surprisingly, neither of these assertions is necessarily true. The majority of studies citing a relationship between mental health problems, including substance and alcohol use, and one's of sex partners are correlational in nature. The correlation-does-not-equal-causation problem in these studies also means that people with a high-risk lifestyle could seek sexual liaisons and substance use either because they have impulsive personalities or because they are anxious and depressed.
The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study was begun in the mids with a cohort of over 1, children. They were followed every two years until they were 15 and then again at ages 18, 21, 26, and They were asked to report on the of sex partners at each interval as well, allowing the researchers to compute the of partners per year. With these data in hand, Ramrakha and team were able to calculate the odds of a participant developing a psychological disorder while controlling for earlier mental health problems at each test occasion.
For both men and women, taking into prior psychological disorders, the odds of developing substance dependence increased virtually linearly with the of sex partners.
The relationship was particularly pronounced, however, for women. People having a higher of sex partners did not have higher rates of anxiety or depression; the mental health associations were limited to substance use. You might be wondering how multiple is "multiple" in the sex partner equation. The sample distribution led the researchers to divide the of partners into three groups on a yearly basis: 0 or 1, 1.
However, some participants reported more than 10 in a given year. The authors acknowledge that, even though they ruled out the effects of prior substance use on of sex partners, the possibility remains that people living a risky lifestyle have a higher of sex partners and, later on, develop mental health problems. The nature of casual sex relationships may, however, present a risk factor in and of itself. These relationships may be particularly likely to be impersonal, lacking in the potential to provide emotional fulfillment. People having a string of these relationships may turn to the self- medication provided by alcohol or drugs.
As the authors point out, drinking alcohol to cope with feelings of loneliness and despair can pave the way for later substance dependence.
Although women and men are developing similar patterns of sexual behavior and substance use, particularly in this cohort, the links were stronger for women, as I noted earlier. For women, having multiple sex partners still may go against what they regard as socially acceptable. They might cope with their feelings of shame, embarrassmentand perhaps dissatisfaction by turning to alcohol and drugs, setting them up for the future development of a substance use disorder. The upshot of this fascinating study is that if you or someone you know is involved in a series of casual or fleeting relationships, there may be alcohol or drug dependence issues down the road.
Women in particular might want to consider their reasons for becoming involved in frequent sexual pairings, and even more importantly, their feelings the morning after. The benefits of a long-term study that follows people over the critically formative early years of life is that we can learn about ways to prevent mental health problems for people as they navigate the stressful years of early adulthood.
With this knowledge, young adults, along with their parents and counselors, can perhaps be better prepared to seek intervention and pave the way for a less troubled and more fulfilling life. Ramrakha, S. The relationship between multiple sex partners and anxiety, depression, and substance dependence disorders: A cohort study. Archives Of Sexual Behaviordoi Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.
Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph. Fulfillment at Any Age. Sex Essential Re. References Ramrakha, S. About the Author. Read Next. Back Psychology Today. Back Find a Therapist. Back Get Help. Personality Passive Aggression Personality Shyness. Family Life Child Development Parenting.
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