The Psychology of a One-Night Stand
The stereotype of a one-night stand is a brutally selfish, egoistically satisfied male, and a woman shamed by regret and disappointment.
Yet a memorable counter offensive was launched more than 40 years ago when Erica Jong, in her novel Fear of Flying, celebrated a female fantasy where “zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff". And, with the subsiding ecstasy, your partner melted away, freeing you both from embarrassment and commitment.
For many men and women, this is the promise of a one-night stand. The “zipless fuck" presents spontaneous and impersonal casual sex as an image of liberation: “The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game."
Negotiating the promise and pitfalls of casual sex is a serious business for many single women and men. Survey data shows that women get a raw deal in terms of pleasure: they are less likely to reach orgasm in casual sex than in a committed relationship. It shows that men have relatively low standards for one night partner selection, casting doubt on whether women should get a spike in morale from being chosen. And, if men have little respect for the casual partner, then the activity itself degrades social norms of mutual – and self – regard.
The trouble with surveys is that the questions tend to be skewed by undeclared assumptions. My own research involved interviews with women and men over a four year period; one topic often covered was sex and sexual activity. When women reflected on what they sought in sex – whether casual or committed – it was clear that reaching orgasm wasn't always their goal. They were aware, too, that men have relaxed standards for a casual sex partner: “But it's a good opportunity to enjoy a fine young man, physically," Stella, 47, laughed.
As for respect, men said that they enjoy the equality implicit in casual sex; and while men may be making mistaken assumptions about women's expectations (after all, sex can only be designated as “casual" or a one-time event if it does not issue in a continuing relationship) most women said that casual sex partners were not disrespectful or inconsiderate: while not always adept at providing pleasure, they weren't indifferent to a partner's satisfaction.
So if the downside can be avoided, what are the benefits?
Women and men alike say they enjoy the comfort of strangers: relaxing with someone outside your circle of friends, who does not know you well enough to be irritated by your familiarity, who has not yet taken sides in ongoing interpersonal debates, who will not be there to haunt you with the revelations you made the previous night.
A preliminary study on genetic dispositions for casual sex received a lot of media attention a few years ago, but it seems that lifestyle has a greater effect on risk taking, which seems to affect levels of casual sex: night owls, whether male or female, are more likely to take risks than early risers, and those who are likely to take more risks have twice as many sexual partners as early risers.
Variety is another incentive, highlighted more often by women than men. Though the pleasure of variety may be taken for granted by men, women were often explicit about the thrill of “the remarkable and subtle difference of each penis."
Of course casual sex is not only for heterosexuals (though I have less data here). The few homosexual women I interviewed who had one-night stands said they were comfortable combining casual sex with long-term friendships – though, statistically, homosexual women are least likely to be unfaithful when they are in a relationship. The homosexual men I interviewed said they experienced a deep commonality with even anonymous partners.
While some women and men speak of the pleasure of being in control, of exercising a display of indifference, and of making it clear to a partner that they expect nothing, there is little opportunity to test anyone's fantasy. That is part of the package.
It takes a robust ego to withstand the collision of personal and impersonal involved in a one-night stand. Women in very early adulthood are often shaken by regret – because, for all the change there has been, women are more likely to be shamed by words such as “slut", “slag" or even “easy". With social media as a vehicle for thoughtlessness, private acts can rapidly become public viewings. Early adulthood, too, is a time when self-confidence can be brought down with the realisation that, under the influence of alcohol, you can do something you thought only stupid people did.
For humans, sex is not an animal act; physical intimacy means something. Nor is it pleasure alone that roots sex so deeply in our lives. Sexual engagement is networked to our emotions, and this complicates the pursuit of impersonal sex for many people. There is no doubt that some people navigate through the links between physical and emotional intimacy, finding transient comfort, excitement, and simple fun. But many conclude that casual sex leaves them exposed, vulnerable and uneasy. It is not surprising that Erica Jong's character reflects, “The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one."
Click here to buy Fear Of Flying by Erica Jong
Click here to buy The Myth of Maturity: What Teenagers Need from Parents to Become Adults by Dr. Terri Apter