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Relationships

How One-Night Stands Turn Into Something More

When emotional connection is stronger than sexual pull.

Key points

  • One-night stands have good prospects (about 27%) of turning into a long-term relationship.
  • Participants who had one-night stands reported experiencing more emotional than sexual connection.
  • In booty-call relationships, individuals were more likely to leave immediately after sex than after one-night stands.
  • Unintentionally, and against all odds, one-night stands can become meaningful relationships.

"My first one-night stand turned into a three-year relationship.” —A woman

One-night stands are regarded as the most superficial and least intimate form of casual sex. Yet surprising empirical findings cast serious doubts on this assertion.

Types of casual sex

I'm not the type of guy who enjoys one-night stands. It leaves me feeling very empty and cynical. It's not even fun sexually. I need to feel something for the woman and entertain the vain hope that it may lead to a relationship.” —Ben Affleck

Jocelyn Wentland and Elke Reissing (2011) divide casual sexual relationships into four major types: “one-night stands,” “booty calls,” “f*ck buddies,” and “friends with benefits.” Each type is distinguished from the others by both its degree of superficiality and its temporal aspects. Wentland and Reissing argue that one-night stands are the most superficial encounters, involving the least emotionally intimate experience and often take place between strangers or after brief acquaintance. Booty calls refer to a communication initiated with the urgent intent of having a sexual encounter. Unlike one-night stands, the purpose of booty calls is to engage in repeated sexual activity with an acquaintance. When booty calls become too regular or frequent, the participants are considered to be f*ck buddies, which are already friends, but their friendship is largely limited to sexual interactions. Friendship with (sexual) benefits involves the most profound activity among casual sexual relationships (Wentland & Reissing, 2011; Ben-Ze’ev, 2019, and here).

How women feel about one-night stands

One-night stands are not for me. I think it's gross when you just give it up.” —Paris Hilton

Claire Moran and Christina Lee (2014) interviewed Australian women about non-romantic sex. Their responses were interesting:

“Having one-night stands provides sexual satisfaction without the constraints of a relationship. At the end of the day, I’m still sexually satisfied, but I’m not in a relationship, because I don’t want to be. These men are just going to be a one-night stand, and they’re not the kind of person that you would be interested in pursuing anything like a relationship with. They’re people that I just want to have sex with.” —Jacqueline

“It has always been very random, so that is nice. It’s not like ‘it’s Friday night so I have to hook up.’” —Natasha

“I don’t go out with the aim of bringing anyone home. It’s kind of a lucky surprise and if we had sex and both enjoyed it and had a cuddle and then parted on the same ‘that was great, see you later’, that’s good.” —Daisy

Here are random claims (from Reddit) of women about their experiences of one-night stands:

“I had an amazing one-night stand with a guy who I actually ended up dating. It was great. We seriously hit it off immediately. It was like the greatest sex ever. We were sooo good together. It was sad when he had to leave later.”

“I have only one rule for one night stands: It's got to be someone you've never seen before, and will never see again. Once I follow that, it's all good!”

“I choose to have one-night stands because I love sex, but I don't want the emotional attachments of a relationship. Simple as that.”

One-night stands: Surprising findings

I think every woman should have a one-night stand. If it's done right, it can be liberating.” —Rachel Perry

Because of the superficiality of the encounter, one-night stands are perceived to be the opposite of serious love. It seems counterintuitive that they will develop into long-term serious romantic relationships. The very term, “one-night stand,” indicates that it is a brief, superficial, and inconsequential experience, taking place only once, for the specific purpose of sexual gratification.

Contrary to this reasoning, Helen Fisher (2014) found that about 27% of those who had one-night stands testified that their experiences turned into long-term relationships. Fisher further argues that men were three times more likely to want to turn a one-night stand into a relationship.

Furthermore, The Knot 2021 study of dating apps shows that although Tinder has a reputation for generating mainly casual sexual relationships, and in particular one-night stands, Tinder was responsible for pairing about a quarter of newlyweds who met online, making it the best dating app for marriage.

Other surprising findings come from research by Peter Jonason and colleagues (2011) who studied the ‘booty-call’ relationship. They argued that a booty-call sits between the most superficial relationship—one-night stands, and the most serious one—long-term romantic relationships. Nevertheless, the researchers were surprised to find that participants who engaged in one-night stands reported more emotional than sexual acts, as did those in serious romantic relationships. After booty-call sex, individuals were more likely to leave immediately, as opposed to one-night stands where individuals stayed longer. These results suggest that one-night stands and serious romantic relationships are more alike than they are different in regards to their sexual and emotional activities. Accordingly, the use of emotional activities to accelerate a sexual one (foreplay, for example,) may be necessary in both one-night stands and serious romantic relationships (Jonason et al., 2011).

Explaining the paradoxical results

Soup dumplings, sitcoms, one-night stands—good ones leave you wanting more.” —Eddie Huang

There are various possible reasons to explain the seemingly paradoxical nature of one-night stands. A major reason is the undetermined nature of such relationships. Other casual relationships, such as booty-calls, f*ck-buddies, and friends-with-benefits, are ongoing relationships, in which both partners have agreed on its boundaries. As one-night-stands are novel experiences, their nature and future remain undecided; the only agreed arrangement is that the meeting is intended to last one night only. The future development of the relationship is determined by the quality of the nightly experience. This gives participants the incentive to have emotional, romantic interactions during the whole night—before, during, and after sex.

Moreover, since the intended brevity of the experience may be the last time the two meet, participants often feel greater freedom to be themselves and behave in an authentic manner without worrying about their lover’s reactions. The high-quality sex, associated with no prior expectations, can be a pleasant surprise. The closeness created during a sexual encounter can make people more open to reveal their genuine feelings and to abolish barriers.

Concluding remarks

I'm always looking for meaningful one-night stands.” —Dudley Moore

In a humorous and paradoxical manner, Dudley Moore connects one-night stands with the search for meaning. Nevertheless, this can be indeed the case. Unintentionally, and against all odds, one-night stands can sometimes be quite meaningful, leading to meaningful positive relationships. To be sure, this is not the most common case, but it is still often a reality.

It seems, then, that when a one-night stand lasts beyond one night, there are reasonable chances for further development, since the spontaneous starting point is a positive one.

Facebook image: antoniodiaz/Shutterstock

References

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.

Jonason, P. K., Li, N. P., & Richardson, J. (2011). Positioning the booty-call relationship on the spectrum of relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 48, 486-495.‏

Moran, C., & Lee, C. (2014). Australian women talk about non-romantic sex. Psychology & Sexuality, 5, 210-231.‏

Wentland, J. J., & Reissing, E. D. (2011). Taking casual sex not too casually: Exploring definitions of casual sexual relationships. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 20, 75-91.

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