One-night stands, also known as casual sex or hookups, refer to sexual encounters between two people who are not in a committed romantic relationship and do not expect the relationship to continue beyond a single sexual encounter. One-night stands are common in many parts of the world, but views on their acceptability vary. In this article, we will focus specifically on the prevalence of one-night stands in the United States.
What is a one-night stand?
A one-night stand is a sexual encounter between two people who are not romantic partners or dating each other. The key factors that define a one-night stand are:
- It is usually a one-time sexual encounter
- There is no expectation that a relationship will develop
- Both parties understand it is casual sex and nothing more
A one-night stand is different from hooking up, which can include a range of sexual behaviors from kissing to intercourse, and may happen more than once between the same partners. However, the general idea is the same – it’s casual sex without commitment.
What are the motivations behind one-night stands?
There are a variety of reasons why people engage in one-night stands, including:
- Physical pleasure and attraction
- Thrill of no-strings-attached sex
- Sexual experimentation and variety in partners
- Emotional connection or intimacy without commitment
- Curiosity and new experiences
- Loneliness or lack of emotional fulfillment
The motivations can vary for each individual and encounter. For some it’s about pleasure, while others may use it to avoid emotional connection. Understanding the many motivations behind one-night stands can help explain their prevalence.
Prevalence of One-Night Stands in the United States
Research shows that one-night stands and casual sexual encounters are common across age groups in the United States. Here is an overview of data on their prevalence:
Younger demographics are more likely to have one-night stands
- A 2020 survey of over 1,000 undergraduate students found over 60% reported having a one-night stand at least once in the past year.
- A 2016 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found 64.5% of female and 77.6% of male college-aged participants reported at least one one-night stand.
- Research from The Kinsey Institute states that between 60-80% of North American college students have had some sort of hookup experience.
This data indicates that one-night stands are a common occurrence among young adults and college students in their late teens and early 20s. The culture of casual sex and hookups on college campuses likely contributes to these statistics.
Significant numbers of older adults also have one-night stands
While less common, casual sex is still prevalent among older demographics:
- A 2017 study found 27% of single, sexually active adults aged 25-45 had one or more one-night stands within the past year.
- 11% of partnered but unmarried adults aged 25-45 reported the same.
- 18% of single seniors aged 65+ claimed to have had a one-night stand.
- 3% of partnered seniors aged 65+ also reported one or more casual sexual partners within the past year.
So while not as ubiquitous as among college-aged adults, one-night stands are still undertaken by a significant number of older single and partnered adults.
Men are more likely to engage in one-night stands
Across age groups, research consistently shows men are more likely to engage in, initiate, and have positive attitudes towards one-night stands compared to women:
- A 2020 study of over 26,000 college students found men had 2 times more one-night stands compared to women.
- Data from a 2017 survey revealed 22% of single men aged 25-45 had one or more one-night stands in the past year vs. 11% of women.
- Among partnered men aged 25-45, 16% reported having casual sex outside of their relationship, compared to 6% of partnered women.
However, the gender gap may be narrowing in younger generations, with younger women reporting similar or even higher rates of casual sex compared to past generations.
Usage of dating apps is linked to more frequent one-night stands
The rise of dating apps like Tinder and Grindr has impacted rates of casual sex:
- A 2019 study found Tinder users were more likely to have had a one-night stand and casual sexual partners compared to non-users.
- 26% of Tinder users reported having at least 4 one-night stands in the past year, compared to only 8% of non-users.
- A 2016 study of Grindr users found 77% reported more frequent one-night stands since using the app.
Easy access to willing partners via apps has enabled more impulsive and frequent one-night stands for those inclined towards casual sex.
Cultural Attitudes and Trends
Beyond the statistics, there are also cultural factors and trends that reveal how American society views and engages in one-night stands.
General attitudes are becoming more permissive
American culture has become more open-minded and permissive regarding casual sex and one-night stands:
- A 2015 study found 58% of Americans said one-night stands were “not at all wrong,” up from just 35% who said so in the 1970s.
- 60% stated one-night stands are “not wrong at all” among those aged 18-29.
- Greater acceptance of non-marital sex and rise of individualistic beliefs contribute to more favorable views.
While stigmas still exist, overall societal attitudes are shifting to be more accepting that one-night stands are a common occurrence.
But double standards between genders persist
Despite progress, double standards still remain when it comes to perceptions of men and women who engage in casual sex:
- A 2019 survey showed only 49% of Americans believed it was acceptable for unmarried women to have casual sex, while 63% said it was acceptable for unmarried men.
- A separate 2019 study found college-aged students judged women harshly for initiating hookups, but not men.
- There is often still a stigma against women having multiple casual sexual partners.
So while societal attitudes are generally becoming more permissive, old gender stereotypes continue influence perceptions of appropriate sexual behavior for men and women.
Social media is making one-night stands more visible
Social media has made one-night stands and behaviors like “walk of shame” more visible:
- 15% of Americans admit to having posted about a one-night stand on social media.
- Hashtag trends like #ONS and #WalkofShame emerge periodically with people sharing stories.
- Dating app connects have also led to “screenshot exposes” being posted after bad hookup experiences.
This increased openness and documentation of one-night stands online demonstrates how they are now engrained in mainstream culture, for better or worse.
But misinformation and unclear motivations persist
Despite one-night stands being common, clear communication about motivations and intentions is still lacking:
- 17% of women and 10% of men admit they’ve hooked up with someone while hoping it would turn into a relationship.
- A Journal of Sex Research study found over 60% of participants reported misleading a partner about their motivations to get them to agree to sex.
- There are still assumptions that women only want relationships, while men want sex.
Lack of open communication, misrepresentation of intentions, and persisting assumptions continue to complicate perceptions about one-night stand behaviors between genders.
Attitudes and behaviors towards one-night stands also vary across different states and regions of the US:
More common in liberal urban areas
Casual sex is more widespread in socially progressive and densely populated areas:
- States like New York, California, and Nevada have greater numbers of people actively dating and engaging in casual sex.
- A Seattle study found 78% of participants reported having at least one one-night stand.
- Acceptance of different sexualities also contributes to more open attitudes.
The anonymity of crowded cities, acceptance of diverse lifestyles, and vibrant dating scenes likely enable more one-night stand opportunities.
Less common in conservative religious communities
Socially conservative and religious areas tend to frown upon one-night stands:
- A study across 48 states found religious beliefs and participation correlated strongly with disapproval of any non-marital sex.
- Research shows evangelical Protestant teens are less likely to engage in casual sex than mainline Protestant and Catholic teens.
- Rural southern states like Alabama and Arkansas tend to have more negative views of one-night stands.
Strong religious and moral attitudes in these types of communities act as a barrier to acceptance of short-term casual sexual behaviors.
College towns have very high rates
One-night stands are incredibly common in college towns:
- Missoula, MT and Gainesville, FL have been ranked the top cities for one-night stands due to high bars per capita and colleges.
- Up to 75% of students at University of Michigan reported at least one casual sexual encounter.
- Greek life and alcohol use also fuel hookup culture on campuses.
The influx of students, partying, Greek life, and dating apps converge to create a perfect environment for no-strings-attached sexual encounters.
Comparison to Other Countries
To better understand the prevalence of one-night stands in the US, it is also useful to compare rates to other countries:
Higher rates than European countries
Research suggests American adults generally have more one-night stands than their European counterparts:
- A 2004 Durex global sex survey found 29% of Americans reported having a one-night stand, compared to only 13% of Spaniards.
- Separate data from 2004 found 30% of American respondents had casual sex partners vs. 13% of Germans.
- US rates were also higher than those reported in the UK and Canada.
The more liberal sexual culture and attitudes in the US compared to many European cultures likely contributes to higher rates of short-term sexual encounters.
Lower than other sexually liberal cultures
However, the US still lags behind some other sexually adventurous cultures:
- A 2010 survey showed one-third of Australians reported having at least 2 one-night stands in the past year.
- Over 65% of Brazilian respondents indicated having casual sex at least once in the past 12 months.
- Data from Canada and the UK also showed higher rates than the US among younger demographics.
Countries that value openness towards sexuality while also emphasizing casual dating appear to exhibit higher rates of one-night stands.
Difficult to make direct comparisons
It is challenging to make apples-to-apples comparisons between countries due to differences in survey measures and cultural openness:
- Less sexual openness in some cultures may inhibit people from reporting one-night stands.
- Different sexual norms surrounding singles vs. partnered individuals also complicates direct comparisons.
- Variation in what is considered a one-night stand vs. prolonged casual relationship makes rates hard to compare.
So while the data shows the US has higher one-night stand rates than comparable Western cultures, the degree of difference is difficult to quantify precisely.
One-night stands are a fairly common occurrence across all demographics of American adults, especially among younger people and college students. While stigmas still exist, cultural attitudes have shifted to be more accepting of casual sex between consenting adults. Double standards between genders and miscommunication still complicate perceptions of one-night stands. Regionally, rates are highest in more sexually liberal cities and college towns, and lowest in conservative religious areas. Compared to other countries, the US has higher rates of one-night stands than European nations, but lower rates than other sexually adventurous cultures like Brazil. Rates are challenging to compare directly due to differences in sexual norms. In conclusion, one-night stands are widespread in American hookup culture, though not as ubiquitous as pop culture sometimes portrays. While it may not be a lifestyle every adult pursues, it is certainly common enough to be considered a mainstream behavior.