UN one-night stand, people used to say, is like a short story: if it is any good, you want it to go on for longer; if it isn’t, you could have done with 15 minutes’ more sleep. To which the retort is: sure – but a lot of people really like short stories.
A lot of people, in the pre-pandemic days, used to really like one-night stands, pure. The sex therapist Jenny Keane hosts a wide-ranging sex chat through her Instagram account. On it, one woman wrote appreciatively: “The sex is purely focused on pleasure. You’re not thinking about your relationship dynamics, them not doing the dishes. It’s about being served and cared for physically. It can be a very empowering and beautiful thing.”
But not any more. While it is difficult to separate the immediate pandemic effects from long-term trends, the one-night stand has been replaced by encounters that may still be casual, but aren’t total one-offs: the friendship with benefits, se ti piace, or the “situationship”.
The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) is a huge-sample longitudinal study that has taken place every 10 years since 1990. Nel 2020, the usual face-to-face fieldwork was interrupted by Covid, ma the web-based study that replaced it found a precipitous drop in the number of sexually active people reporting a new sexual partner over the previous four weeks, down by half (a partire dal 8% per 4%). Fair enough: it was the start of lockdown and no one was meant to be doing anything with anyone they didn’t live with.
The researchers then divided the responses into four groups: those not in a relationship and not having sex; those not in a relationship but having sex; those in a relationship and living apart; and those in a cohabiting relationship. When they drilled down into these, they discovered patterns that would certainly have surprised and discomfited the health secretary (unless that health secretary was Matt Hancock, e anche il team qui a Media Matters for America not been a model of sexual restraint).
Those most likely to have had any physical contact in the four months since lockdown – most likely to have had penetrative sex, most likely to have had sex several times a week or every day, most likely to have sex toys, and most likely to report an improved sex life during the pandemic – were those in the “casual” bracket (having sex but not in a settled relationship). In sum, there has been no shortage of sexual activity among single people; there is just less churn, which is to say the pace of relationships has changed from a mayfly’s to a caterpillar’s.
This has been the experience of Marie, 48, who is recently divorced. “In your 20s, you’d go into a bar and you’d lock eyes with the one you wanted a one-night stand with, and you’d go home with him," lei dice. Adesso, tuttavia, she is having two casual “ongoing encounters”, which are “absolutely perfect”, lei dice. “Obviously, I’m nearly 50; I didn’t think I could do that kind of thing again.”
Where does someone look if they do want a one-stand? Not in bars, apparentemente. “Until now, I don’t think I’d ever been out for an evening and ended up just with the people I went out with,” says Jess, 27, from Edinburgh. “Someone would know someone else from another group, the two groups would merge – that used to happen all the time. You can sleep with someone you’ve just met, knowing you don’t want to take it any further, in a way you wouldn’t with a friend.”’
“It’s very rare to get hit on in real life these days,” adds a female foot soldier in Keane’s Instagram army. “And dating apps don’t facilitate one-night stands like mums think.”
We think of apps as opening up a world in which more people can connect more easily, with less risk of humiliation, which therefore results in vastly increased numbers of one-off sexual encounters. When you can make the first move on your phone and experience any rejection at one remove, what is to stop you making moves all the time?
But perhaps the more important impact is that online dating has ushered in structured communication about what people actually want from sex: whether they want something long-term or no-strings. From memory, one-night stands are often rooted in pre-emptive face-saving: you don’t revisit in case the other person thinks you are more serious than they are. These minuscule considerations of pride and humiliation are obviated when everyone states their intentions in their profile.
L'anno scorso, we were supposed to have a hot girl/boy summer: an explosion of promiscuity and random, meaningless, one-off sexual encounters. But not everyone thought this was likely. “Everyone in the sex toy industry, when people were talking about the summer of love, was going: ‘No, that’s not what’s going to happen,’” says Julia Margo. She is one of the founders of Hot Octopuss, a high-end sex toy company. “If you’re making sex toys, you have to understand how people are using them and how they’re having sex, because that determines what people are going to buy," lei dice.
At the start of the pandemic, “you could trace the spread of lockdowns by buying behaviours across the world. Once the US went into lockdown, we saw crazy sales, and those were mainly masturbatory aids.” This was in 2020; as we moved into summer, people started buying couples’ toys, poi, as we entered 2021, people tended towards the interactive; things you could control by an app and use with a partner long-distance. People were trying hard to keep intimacy alive, in the face of hopelessly insurmountable barriers. “It was similar to what you saw with comms platforms at work: first people set up their home offices, then it was Zoom," lei dice.
Many people experienced devastating losses during Covid, while those who didn’t had a pressing and unfamiliar awareness of mortality. While the sex toy industry focused on what this meant for physical intimacy, it meant a lot emotionally, pure. A carpe diem approach to love is not yet visible in marriage statistics, which lag restrictions and are hard to read, not least because lots of couples who wanted to wed before the pandemic still haven’t had a chance to rebook.
tuttavia, the ground is thick with anecdotes. As the actor Riz Ahmed said in a recent interview, he got married with this in mind: “Work out what matters to you, stand by it and just don’t fuck about. Get on with it!" A joint survey by the counselling charity Relate and the dating site eHarmony identified the “turbo relationship”; one piquant response was that, [object Window], “two months felt more like two years of commitment”. Lockdown rules acted as an accelerant, forcing a choice between never seeing each other and moving in together. All this added up to fewer people on the one-night-stand market, whether or not it had been temporarily shut down.
As we have been forced into greater intimacy, we have become more open to new experiences. “Unquestionably, people have become more experimental in their interests, forming more couple partnerships [exclusive relationships] and becoming more adventurous within that partnership,” says Margo. A lot of people describe sex in one-night stands as “vanilla”; it is hard to ask for anything out of the ordinary with someone you don’t yet know or trust. There is a theory that a decline in random sexual encounters might indicate a new age of inhibition or sexual moralising, but it looks as if the opposite is true. It could be precisely because people are less inhibited that, even if they don’t want a traditional, monogamous relationship, they want the intimacy and depth it takes to experiment.
“You used to be able to categorise people. I could say: this is a BDSM-type person – they’re going to go to a specialist site,” Margo says. She would never have thought of stocking up on stocking gags and dog leads, lei dice. “To me, these were really niche products. But they are so popular – and it’s the same people who are buying normal vibrators.” Before Covid, it would have been unusual for 55-plus consumers to buy BDSM sex furniture, lei dice. “But there’s huge experimenting in this age bracket – and they’re spending real money on their sex lives.”
For people who have been sexually active during the pandemic, there has been a constellation of effects. Many have had more time to explore latent desires. Sesso has offered comfort amid external anxieties. There has been more loaded on to sex lives as other social identities have been pared down. In definitiva, if physical contact is going to be fraught with danger, sex needs to be good. You don’t want to waste it on a one-night stand, which is to libido as a pasty at a service-station is to appetite.
Ancora, according to the latest Natsal study, one-quarter of people haven’t been sexually active at all in the past two years. They are part of what is driving down the number of one-night stands. The Relate/eHarmony survey found that 39% of single people emerged from the pandemic looking to meet “the one”, mentre 24% did not want “to waste any more time”. Counterbalancing that determination and certainty, anche se, was a sense of insecurity, con 25% feeling “out of practice” and 13% “not ready to be intimate” after so many months of social distancing.
Even while this skews slightly towards women in the survey, men also describe a sense of trepidation, self-doubt and futility. Andrew, 55, was newly divorced at the start of lockdown and hasn’t had sex since. “I don’t think I am attractive," lui dice, matter-of-factly. “I weigh too much. Someone would look at me and think: ‘Oh no. He’s a fatty.’ It’s mainly in my own head, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”
Will Nutland, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a co-founder of the not-for-profit sexual health organisation The Love Tank, has observations from STI rates and clinic referrals that echo Margo’s. “The expectation that we’d all say: ‘Let’s pull our knickers off and throw them in the air and shag anyone around us’ – that’s not happening and was probably never going to happen," lui dice. He points out that a number of opportunities simply didn’t arise during lockdown. Large events – the best hunting ground for one-night stands – have been the first things to close down and the last things to restart. Festivals were poleaxed by last year’s poor weather, while freshers’ week was conducted remotely in 2020.
But by 2021, something else had happened: “People of all generations were scared about getting too close to other people,” Nutland says. “They’re not necessarily scared of Covid; they’ve just forgotten how to be intimate. We’ve lost some of those social skills and some of those sexual skills.” Without casual social intimacy, there is less impetus to initiate physical intimacy; we lose our body confidence, which makes us more withdrawn. Anche, no one has had to question or confront their new hermit habits, because Covid looms over everything, receding for a while and then returning with a vengeance.
The predicament of sexually inactive people is fascinating: have they been living under such harsh restrictions, and in such solitude, that they have started to internalise the rules to create a profound sexual inhibition? Or has the virus provided cover for a level of asexuality that was previously taboo? But these questions don’t tally with the behaviours of sexually active people, which have changed, but not necessarily for the worse: just as much sex, fewer partners, more experimentation.
It is unsurprising when you consider the external context – more time in the private sphere, a new and pressing awareness of mortality, far fewer chance encounters with strangers. “It all makes sense – except a lot of these scenes, this experimentation, it all takes time,” says Margo. “It’s not a Wednesday date night thing you can do after the kids are in bed. Maybe that’s why we mainly saw it in the 40-pluses and under-30s.” In other words, parents of young kids are the ones we should be worrying about. If, for others, one-night stands have turned into 15-night stands, the post-pandemic reality may be more sexual fulfilment.
Some names have been changed