During my career as a psychologist in clinical practice, if there's one word I have heard more than any other from the thousands of patients I have consulted with it's 'sex',. However, in 2015 the frequency and depth of sex in my patients' lives appeared to increase in its importance, seemingly due to the ever increasingly sexualised and consumerist society we live in.
Theory states that this one small word drives each and every one of us, silently shaping our thoughts, and quietly influencing our actions. In fact many patients I see find their choices in their sex lives a defining part of the issues they are facing - afterall, although we're conscious beings, we are internally dictated to by our sexual desires.
I'm often asked about if sex is healthy for us on a psychological level. It's proven to improve the body's physical health, including increasing immune systems and lowering blood pressure, but it's the benefits to the mind where it really grows in value. In our increasingly fractious lives, sex provides both stress and anxiety relief, as well as boosting self-esteem.
So regular sex is an important part of most people's lives. But what does that mean for people without a regular partner - can a fulfilling sexual life be reached in a healthy way, outside of a relationship?
Firstly, let's dispel the myth that single people are more sexually active than couples in relationships. It's just not true, with research suggesting that people in relationships are having sex six times more often than those not in a relationship. But as this doesn't stop single people from desiring more regular sex, the question I am asked most by my single patients is 'is casual sex psychologically unhealthy?
This isn't an easy answer, as it relies not just on the individual, but also their partner, or partners*. I have worked with people for whom the answer is no, and with people who I would unequivocally answer yes to this question, with the deciding factor being one simple word; honesty.
Both parties must be honest with the other, and crucially themselves, as to what they want from the situation. If both are in close alignment then there is a strong basis for a healthy casual sexual relationship. However, if one party perceives the situation to be something different to the other, then it will almost always cause issues, which often can permeate down into the psyche, and create deep rooted long term self-esteem issues.
The problem that many people find is they believe themselves to be capable of separating love and sex, but fall into the trap of wish fulfilment, and not listening to their inner voice. This means the individual is essentially lying to themselves in order to pursue an activity that will lead to unhappiness. This is exacerbated when, during sex, the bonding hormone oxytocin is released into the body, which creates feelings of intimacy and closeness with the other person.
Usually females tend towards struggling to separate love and sex, but a large percentage of men do, also, and it is critical to be mindful of this, or one of the two parties can experience high degrees of pain.
Ultimately, the truth is that some people are capable of increasing their psychological health through purely casual sex, and these people tend to know themselves well, and can compartmentalise effectively. However, my advice would be that unless you are very sure of your own sense of self then be very careful before falling into any form of casual sexual situation, particularly if it is more than a one-off.
Dr Becky Spelman is a TV psychologist with a Harley Street practice at www.theprivatetherapyclinic.co.uk
* Note, the above advice works for sexual preferences of more than just one partner, but for ease of reading I referred to just two partners for this article