One-night stands are all about the pleasure of sex, right? Not really, says a new study

By Rico Fischer

There is the belief that heterosexuals have casual sex (one-night stands or one-off sex with acquaintances) because they simply desire the pleasure that comes with it. The underlying assumption here is that the only reason men and women, but particularly men, have casual sex, is to be quickly satisfied. Research shows that in committed relationships, there are myriads of reasons, including emotional satisfaction. But casual sex is different, right?

Taking a closer look, this understanding is dominant in the literature because it is typically the only idea that is often tested. If you ask American college students only one question (i.e. Do you enjoy casual sex?) you will get only one answer. In such questionnaire studies, young men and women, but particularly men, report that they enjoy sex. However, merely ticking a box provides no understanding of why they enjoy casual sex, or whether there is more to it.

Panteá Farvid and Virginia Braun from two universities in Auckland, recently explored this topic. In the latest edition of The Journal of Sex Research, they published their qualitative results for 30 participants (15 men and 15 women), between the ages of 18 and 46. Qualitative research is different from quantitative research because interviews elicit more detailed and varied information from participants than is often possible with questionnaires. Analysis often identifies common themes that all, or most, participants spoke about.

In their analysis, they identified four themes that most participants, both men and women, spoke about. Firstly, there is the idea that casual sex is a thrill. Surprisingly though, it was not the actual sex that was thrilling. Instead, it was the influence of an unfamiliar context, and particularly for men to ‘spice things up.’ For men, the thrill came in the form of sexual variety. For women in this sample, casual sex was seen as a form of sexual freedom. Secondly, sex was perceived as an ego boost for both sexes. They differed, though, in the way it boosted the ego. Men used casual sex as an external confirmation of their sexual ability and to be able to boast in front of their friends. In contrast, women felt more desirable. Instead of boasting about it, they celebrated this in private.

However, both men and women also found casual sex to be awkward and uncomfortable. The before and after felt awkward in that for both men and women, negotiating sex and waking up the next morning, felt strange. Interestingly, the sex itself was not pleasurable either. Men often felt stressed because they were under the pressure to “perform” or even be “sexperts.” And finally, both sexes thought of casual sex as disappointing or unfulfilling. This was particularly true for the actual sex: It did not feel like a ‘whole experience’ as the emotional intimacy was missing. Overall, men mentioned behaving in a more ‘selfish’ way during one-off sex, though.

This study shows that there is more depth to the casual sexual experiences of men and women than is often found in questionnaire studies. Casual sex is an ego boost, and the context can be thrilling, but the actual sex it is perceived as awkward, uncomfortable and disappointing. Of course, this study, like any study, needs to be considered carefully. Only 30 people who live in New Zealand were asked. Although this is large for detailed interview studies, might not generalise to people outside, or even in, New Zealand. Nonetheless, it brings in a fresh look at casual sex that expands our understanding of this subject.

About the author

Rico Fischer is a final year BSc(Hons) student at Glasgow Caledonian University. Besides being a part of the Male Psychology Network and the Male Psychology Research Team he manages the website and part of the social media outlet for the Male Psychology Network. 

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