The term “casual relationship” is decidedly vague. It can conjure thoughts of one-night stands, a “friends with benefits” scenario, or even just casual dating. Research confirms what many of us already believe about the types of relationships that fall into this broad category, which is that they are all somewhat different. But what might be surprising to some is that they also appear to have benefits for the people engaging in them.
Young adults have a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of different types of casual relationships. Not all of them are the same, and each of the four types identified by Canadian researchers Jocelyn Wentland and Elke Reissing come with a different set of expectations.
The 4 Types of Casual Relationships
After running focus groups with 23 participants aged 18 to 24, the researchers identified four main types of casual relationship, from least intimate to most intimate:
- One-night stand
- Booty call
- Sex buddies (the study uses a more colloquial term for “sex”)
- Friends with benefits (FWB)
The authors omitted casual dating because they wanted to explore relationship types that were not considered “dating” by the participants. Later research by the same authors, with a larger group of subjects, confirmed the definition of these four groups.
Wentland and Reissing found that five different characteristics influence each type of casual relationship:
- Frequency of contact
- Type of contact
- Personal disclosure
- Discussion of relationship
Frequency of Contact
This characteristic differentiates one-night stands from the three other kinds of casual relationships. A one-night stand is, by definition, a single contact that goes no further.2 Once the contact becomes repetitive, the relationship is in booty call, sex buddy, or FWB territory.
Type of Contact
Some relationships are sexual only, and others are both sexual and social. People in one-night stand and booty call relationships only have sexual contact.
Sex buddies and friends with benefits, on the other hand, share both sexual and social contacts. Social contact means that the people in the relationship can see each other in non-sexual contexts. They can be part of the same social circle or even be friends.
By “personal disclosure,” the researchers mean that the people in the relationship share their feelings with each other. Sex buddy and FWB relationships have an expectation of personal disclosure, but one-night stand or booty call relationships do not.
Discussion of Relationship
This characteristic is not exactly like personal disclosure, although they are similar. According to the research, only friends with benefits discuss their relationship. People involved in one-night stands, booty calls, or sex buddy relationships tend to avoid discussing the relationship at all. This means that although sex buddies can talk about their feelings and become emotionally intimate, they don’t really apply that intimacy to their relationship.
There are three friendship levels in casual relationships: none, resultant, and pre-existing. People in one-night stands and booty call relationships tend to not share a friendship with each other. Sex buddies become friends after the relationship starts, whereas friends with benefits are friends before they begin their sexual relationship.
Casual relationships are more complex than most people think. There are different levels of personal and social engagement, as well as different pathways towards longer-term relationships.
Benefits and Risks of Casual Relationships
People, especially those of university age, engage in casual relationships for many reasons. Researchers Carl Rodrigue and Mylène Fernet of the University of Quebec looked at several studies and parsed out a few different themes, describing them in a paper published in 2016.
They noted, first, that casual relationships are more common in certain contexts and periods of people’s lives. For students (the majority of the respondents in these studies), a lot of it is about the university environment encouraging those kinds of relationships. Students often said that they didn’t have the time or energy to develop long-term, emotionally committed relationships. They also talked about how the party culture normalized casual relationships.
Many of the studies mentioned how young adults use casual relationships to satisfy sexual, intimacy, companionship, and even self-confidence needs without having to commit a lot of energy or emotion into a relationship.
The lack of commitment, communication, and accountability that is inherent in casual relationships makes them attractive for young adults trying to find their place in the world.
This study also found a few negative aspects of casual relationships, like the sexual double standard (the social perception that men who sleep around a lot are “studs,” while women who do the same are “sluts”), pressure for women to accept penetrative sex as the main activity, and women feeling a lack of agency that lowers their sexual pleasure.
Participants also identified several risks associated with engaging in casual relationships, including unrequited feelings, the potential for hurt feelings, and possible regrets and mistakes because of the relationship. Participants also talked about the risks of ruining friendships with sex. However, the researchers note that good communication can mitigate a lot of these issues.
Casual Relationships Are Normal
In the context of young adulthood, university life and the beginnings of a career, casual relationships can be a great way to explore different types of sexual activities, engage with others intimately without the demands of a long-term partnership, relieve stress, and develop a social circle.
From a sex-positive perspective, casual relationships can be fun and satisfying, as long as everything is consensual. Even though most of the scholarship has young adults as participants, older adults can enjoy the benefits of casual relationships. This happens most commonly after the end of a long-term relationship.
A Word From Verywell
People engage in casual relationships for many different reasons, and there are at least four main types of these casual relationships. Most people who engage in them as young adults eventually settle down in long-term partnerships and marriages as they get older. If you are not interested in a long-term, committed relationship, for now, casual relationships can help fulfill your need for intimacy and sexual pleasure. Enter with your eyes open, communicate with your partner(s), and engage with a spirit of compassion and care for the people around you.