The Science Behind One-Night Stands and Drunken Hookups

An investigation of the link between alcohol and one-night stands highlights a drinking culture that turns sexual encounters into gratifying sex stories.

A study of one-night stands among hard-partying young people in Norway has found that, for many, the tail is secondary to the tale to be told.

In other words: it’s not the sex — it’s the story.

“Most participants used terms such as ‘chaotic,’ ‘wild’ and ‘crazy’ when recounting these episodes, implying that explicit sexual pleasures may not have been the most important outcome of the experiences,” sociologist Willy Pedersen and his colleagues at the University of Oslo concluded in a paper published in the International Journal of Drug Policy. “Instead, the appeal seemed to be the transgression of norms in contexts allowing for time out — and the opportunity to turn them into good drinking stories afterwards.”

Pedersen and his team interviewed 104 young people about their drunken hookups. The participants were evenly divided between men and women, with an average age of 25.

There’s a risk to these encounters, especially for women, who continue as well to face cultural double standards about sexual behavior. But Pedersen called the gender differences in this study “surprisingly small,” with both men and women recounting generally positive experiences.

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“The pleasure of sex can extend well beyond the sexual interaction itself,” the researchers wrote. “It is something that is often anticipated with joy, it may be followed by a feeling of satisfaction, positive physical sensations and the psychological benefits of having been sexually aroused and coming close to another human being. Moreover, many participants emphasized that casual sex could lead to positive feedback from peers in the form of recognition and respect. That is to say, in this sample consensual casual sex was generally not associated with feelings of regret and shame in women.”

“As long as you’re careful, a one-night stand can be really fun,” one woman, identified only as Hedda, told the researchers. “One has to explore to the fullest; that’s part of sexuality. You’ve got to, like, check it out to move forward, learn new things and yeah, discover yourself and your sexuality. I learn something new every time.” 

And as the saying goes, even when it’s bad, it’s good.

“It’s not the sex itself; I mean technically speaking,” a man identified as Gunnar explained. “It is about meeting a new person, that chase and the affirmation. If you get to bring someone home, it’s about being close to another person. It’s also a good feeling physically the day after, the physical aspect of it.”

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All of the participants were heavy drinkers, many of whom frequented or worked in bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. Drinking “was taken for granted” in these circumstances, but participants “were aware that the substance could leave them open to almost any type of experience — good or poor.”

“It is difficult to understand the pleasures of drunken one-night stands without seeing how they provide great material for storytelling,” says the paper. “A narrative repertoire of pre-existing ‘crazy’ or ‘fun’ drinking stories can also explain how unpleasant sexual experiences can be interpreted as ‘wild’ and, as a result, become enjoyable.”

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