Human Nature

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 157–173

The Morning after the Night Before

Affective Reactions to One-Night Stands among Mated and Unmated Women and Men

Authors

    • Psychology DepartmentDurham University
Article

DOI: 10.1007/s12110-008-9036-2

Cite this article as:
Campbell, A. Hum Nat (2008) 19: 157. doi:10.1007/s12110-008-9036-2

Abstract

Benefits to females of short-term mating have recently been identified, and it has been suggested that women have evolved adaptations for this strategy. One piece of evidence supporting such a female adaptation would be that women find the experience of a one-night stand as affectively positive as men. Individuals (N = 1,743) who had experienced a one-night stand were asked to rate aspects of their “morning after” feelings (six positive and six negative). Women were significantly more negative and less positive than men. Although women did not especially view these relationships as a prelude to long-term relationships, they felt greater regret than men about having been “used.” Extra-pair copulations were rated more negatively, but not less positively, than singles’ experiences. There was no interaction between gender and mated status on positivity or negativity. Although, in terms of subsequent affective response, women do not seem well adapted to casual sexual encounters, it may be important to distinguish impelling sexual motivation preceding intercourse from later evaluations of the event. Menstrual cycle changes may also be important in altering the strength and target of sexual motivation.

Keywords

One-night standMating strategySex differencesAffective reactions

Human mating patterns are famously diverse, and evolutionary arguments have been made for essential promiscuity, polygyny, and serial and lifelong monogamy (see Schmitt et al. 2001). The consensus appears to be that morphological evidence is consistent with monogamy combined with opportunistic, short-term relationships (Schmitt 2005a). In empirical work, there has been a lack of operational specificity about the time period that characterizes a “short-term” relationship. It may last for hours, days, or weeks, and some may ultimately progress to a long-term relationship. In this latter case, the demarcation between short- and long-term can only be applied retrospectively. In the current paper, I use the term one-night stand to capture sexual relationships that progress no further than copulation. Such relationships are not uncommon and have been referred to by other researchers as casual sex or hookups. The expression “short-term relationship” has also been used to refer both to relationships between currently unmated individuals and to extra-pair copulations. The costs and benefits of these two forms of behavior may differ for the two sexes, and this is explored in the current paper.

One-Night Stands

Differences in parental investment are argued to calibrate the rewards and costs of short-term relationships differently for males and females (Trivers 1972). Because of lower obligate parental investment, males can reap considerable benefits in terms of reproductive success by seeking a number of short-term partners. Although there are opportunity costs and the risk of sexually transmitted infection, the net benefit is sufficiently high that, it is argued, sexual selection has resulted in a greater male than female appetite for brief sexual encounters. The evidence is persuasive that men have a more positive attitude toward casual sex (Oliver and Hyde 1993); fantasize more than women about having sex with multiple, anonymous sexual partners (Leitenberg and Henning 1995); desire a greater variety and number of sexual partners (Schmitt et al. 2001); agree to have sex after a shorter time has elapsed (Schmitt et al. 2003); and lower their threshold criteria significantly for short-term as compared with long-term mates (Kenrick et al. 1990; Woodward and Richards 2005). Men agree more strongly than women with such statements as “In general, the first time I have sex with someone is the best” and “I tend to lose sexual interest in a sex partner after a few months of regular sexual intercourse” (Haselton and Buss 2001). Men more than women do not want a casual sexual experience to develop into a lasting relationship (Townsend et al. 1995). Following college hookups, men’s chief regret centers on having chosen an unattractive or undesirable partner (Paul and Hayes 2002).

The fulfilment of men’s desire for one-night stands depends on women who are willing to engage in them. Yet according to Trivers’s parental investment proposal, women’s motivation for such encounters appears anomalous. The costs accruing to women include assuming the full burden of parental care, the risk of sexually transmitted disease, and the acquisition of a reputation for easy sexual accessibility that might compromise their desirability as a long-term mate as well as excite hostility from other women. Given such disincentives, early theorists argued that women were not adapted for short-term relationships and that because of evolutionary pressure “to select males who are more likely to stay with them after insemination” (Wilson 1978:129), “it would generally be maladaptive for women to be able to be ‘blinded’ by lust” (Symons 1979:213).

Since then, evolutionary benefits of multiple mates have been proposed for females (Hrdy 1981; Jennions and Petrie 2000; Shackelford et al. 2005; Smuts 1985). These include obtaining high-quality genes, increasing the genetic diversity of offspring, promoting sperm competition, extracting immediate resources, confusing paternity (and hence securing benefits from various potential fathers), obtaining protection, and evaluating a mate as a long-term partner.

Theorists (Bleske and Buss 2000; Gangestad and Simpson 2000; Schmitt 2005a) now propose that women as well as men employ short-term mating tactics and likely possess “dedicated psychological adaptations to short-term mating” (Schmitt 2005a:267). However, the form of these adaptations is thought to differ in men and women. One proposal is that, in contrast to men’s, “women’s psychology of short-term mating appears to center more on obtaining men of high-genetic quality rather than numerous men in high-volume quantity” (Schmitt 2005a:271). Gangestad and Simpson (2000:578) are similarly explicit in their proposal that “females have evolved to prefer males who possess indicators of viability and good condition, that is, adaptive attributes that might be passed on to their offspring through genetic inheritance.” Studies indicate that women place greater emphasis on physical attractiveness in a short-term than in a long-term mate (Gangestad and Simpson 1990; Kenrick et al. 1993, Study 1; Regan 1998; Scheib 2001; Sprecher and Regan 2002), and men with low fluctuating asymmetry attract a higher number of sexual partners and experience a shorter time lapse before sex with a new partner (Gangestad and Thornhill 1997; Thornhill and Gangestad 1994).

Others have suggested that “women will place greater emphasis on the assessment process and short-term mates will be tested and evaluated as long-term prospects rather than being end goals in and of themselves” (Buss and Schmitt 1993:221). Shackelford et al. (2004: 407) concur that “Perhaps the best documented benefit of a woman’s short-term mating is the acquisition of a long-term partner.” The suggestion that women use short-term mating as a way of evaluating potential long-term mates is supported by studies that indicate that women’s requirements for character attributes in long-term and short-term mates are quite similar (Sprecher and Regan 2002). Buss and Schmitt (1993) found that women rated the traits “already in another relationship,” “promiscuous,” “unfaithful,” and “sleeps around a lot” as undesirable in a short-term partner. Compared with men, women are more willing to have sex with a hypothetical partner when there is a chance of forming a long-term relationship (Shackelford et al. 2004) and when the partner is described as having good parenting qualities, again indicating that traits desirable in a long-term partner enhance the desirability of a short-term mate (Surbey and Conohan 2000).

Have women evolved adaptations to short-term mating? The criteria for establishing an adaptation are, rightly, numerous and stringent (Andrews et al. 2002). Nevertheless, an initial step is to examine emotional feelings of pleasure or displeasure with regard to the behavior in question (Buss 1989). “Feelings are evaluative qualia whose pleasantness or unpleasantness has evolved to reflect benefits or threats to gene survival. If toxins tasted sweet, and sugar evoked a bitter taste, then our survival would be in jeopardy” (Johnston 2003:175). If women have adaptations for short-term mating, then although they should engage in one-night stands less often than men because of their more stringent selection criteria, they should have a positive affective response to the experience.

Despite the near theoretical unanimity that women as well as men are adapted for short-term mating, studies that have examined women’s evaluative or emotional responses to the one-night stand experience are not unequivocally supportive. After a college hookup, women experience greater regret and disappointment and lower levels of pride and satisfaction than men (Paul and Hayes 2002). Compared with their male peers, college women who have had a high number of sexual partners report significantly greater postcoital concern about how the partner feels about them, are more worried that the partner will not call, and make more attempts to control their feelings of dependency (Townsend 1995; Townsend et al. 1995). Townsend et al. (1995:38) have suggested that women with a high number of partners “begin to realise that coitus itself produced feelings of bonding and vulnerability, and these feelings were difficult to suppress.” Haselton and Buss (2001) found that, immediately after first coitus with their partner, college women experienced a significantly stronger rise in feelings of love, emotional involvement, and commitment than men. However, as the authors acknowledge, this study did not examine feelings in the context of a one-night stand. Anticipated responses to sexual rejection after a one-night stand are significantly more negative in women than in men (de Graaf and Sandfort 2004). Indeed, men actually anticipated experiencing stronger positive than negative emotions following the “rejection.”

The present study examines men’s and women’s responses to one-night stands that they have actually experienced rather than the more usual hypothetical or vignette paradigms. It examines both benefits and costs, disaggregating them so that it is possible to examine more specifically the dimensions on which feelings of pleasure or displeasure rest. While previous studies have focused on women’s disappointed desire for a long-term relationship, the present study includes other sources of concern, including health, exploitation, notoriety, and self-esteem risks. Benefits are also specified, including sexual satisfaction, increased self-esteem, establishment of one’s mate value, and enhanced reputation.

Extra-Pair Copulations (EPCs)

The benefits of one-night stands largely overlap for mated and unmated men. However, the associated costs are higher for mated men. Under contemporary conditions of imposed monogamy, discovery poses risks to the continuation of their current long-term union and loss of contact with children, in addition to sexual health risks. For women also, many suggested benefits are common to mated and unmated individuals: gene quality, gene diversity, sperm competition, and extraction of immediate resources. For mated women, there are additional potential benefits of avoiding infertility (as a result of their long-term mate’s impotence, poor sperm quality, or gene incompatibility) and the possibility of securing a mate replacement or back-up. However, as with men, mated women face greater costs than unmated women. EPCs pose the considerable risk of violence from her long-term partner if discovered, in addition to the costs of single motherhood, reputational damage, and contracting sexual diseases. The psychological effects of EPCs, including guilt, depression, and the likelihood of divorce, are greater when the wife rather than the husband strays (Beach et al. 1985; Glass 2003).

Despite the costs, surveys suggest that 22–25% of men and 11–15% of married women have engaged in extramarital sex (Allen et al. 2005). Motivations include curiosity, desire for variety, sensation seeking, reassurance of desirability, fun, need for power, combating a sense of inadequacy, and escapism (Allen et al. 2005). Not only do more men than women admit to extramarital affairs, but they are more likely to desire them, more active in seeking EPC partners, less disapproving of such relationships, and have a larger number of such affairs than women (see Allen et al. 2005). Echoing these findings, Greiling and Buss (2000) in a vignette study found that men were judged significantly more likely than women to have an affair in 17 of 47 different contexts. Women were judged more likely to have an affair only if the EP partner wanted a committed relationship. Other research substantiates this: While men emphasize the sexual dimension of an affair, women emphasize the emotional dimension (Glass and Wright 1985, Spanier and Margolis 1983), and women are more likely to engage in affairs that encompass both facets of intimacy. Men justify their infidelity in sexual rather than emotional terms, while the reverse is true for women (Glass and Wright 1992). Meyerling and Epling-McWherter (1986) found that men anticipate fewer costs than women (for example, guilt and negative impact on their marriage) and experience less of a deterrent effect of these negative consequences. Conversely, women feel more guilt than men about their affairs (Spanier and Margolis 1983).

The present study examines the experience of extra-pair one-night stands by both sexes. Because the potential costs are greater for mated than for unmated individuals, we would expect a more negative evaluation by individuals who are currently in a serious relationship. An interaction between gender and positivity/negativity is also expected. Such a short-lived and purely sexual experience should be more agreeable to men than to women, given the weight placed by women on the emotional dimension of infidelity. In addition, the costs in terms of possible violence and the burden of sole parental care are likely to be greater for mated women than for men.

The investigation of sexual relationships poses special methodological problems. Because undergraduate samples are easily accessible, they are most frequently used, but this limits the generalizability of results. In addition, researchers have often employed vignettes or hypothetical scenarios (e.g., Shackelford et al. 2004; Surbey and Conohan 2000; Wiederman and Dubois 1998). The present study employs an Internet sample and questions respondents about their personal experiences of one-night stands. Internet samples provide larger data sets, with consequently greater statistical power, than are typically found in social psychological research. They are also more diverse and representative with respect to gender, socioeconomic status, geographical location, and age. Reliabilities and factor structures for inventories are similar to the paper-and-pencil versions, and gender differences in traditionally administered tests are replicated on Internet samples (Birnbaum 2004).

The research questions guiding the present study are as follows: (1) Are there differences between men and women in the positivity or negativity of their morning-after evaluations of one-night stands? (2) Are there differences in the positivity or negativity of the experience between unmated and mated individuals? (3) Is there greater negativity among mated women than mated men?

Method

A British television station (Channel 4) mounted the data collection instruments on their web site between December 2004 and February 2005.1 Titled “One Night with You,” the introduction explained that the quiz was designed to investigate people’s “next-morning” feelings about one-night stands. The participants were informed that their replies were anonymous and they should answer as truthfully as possible.

Instruments

The first three questions sought background information. Respondents were asked to indicate their sex, age (5 categories), and sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual). They were then asked whether or not they had “ever had sex with someone you found attractive without the relationship going any further (a one-night stand)?” (Note that, as worded, the question does not discriminate between one-night stands that respondents recognized as such beforehand and those that were one-night stands de facto because no further contact ensued. This might be a useful distinction in future research.) If the response was “Yes,” they were asked if at the time of the one-night stand they were married, cohabiting, in a steady relationship, in a casual relationship, or not in a relationship. To those who had experienced a one-night stand, the following instructions were given: “Please now complete the rest of the questions as they apply to that experience. If you have had more than one such experience, please think of the last occasion. All the questions are about how you felt the next morning when they had gone.” (Those who had not experienced a one-night stand were asked to imagine such a hypothetical scenario and to respond to the questions. These data are not analyzed here.)

The 12 questions that followed represented six positive and six negative evaluations of the experience based on evolutionary analyses of male and female sexuality (e.g., Baumeister and Vohs 2004; Daly and Wilson 1983; Geary 1998; Ridley 1993; Symons 1979). Positive items dealt with private feelings (Sexually satisfied and content; Fully alive, an enhanced sense of well-being; More confident about yourself) and public esteem factors (Secretly hoping that your friends will hear about it; Successful because your partner was desirable to other people; Flattered that this person found you desirable). Negative items were about interpersonal relationships (Sorry because you feel that you used another person; Regret because you feel used; Disappointed that the relationship did not come to anything more), private concerns (Regret that you had let yourself down; Scared about a possible pregnancy or contracting a sexually transmitted disease), and public reputation (Worried about the loss of your reputation if other people find out). Positive and negative items were interspersed in order of presentation. They were phrased in a gender-neutral way. For each statement, respondents rated their agreement on a four-point scale: Definitely Not (0), Not really (1), Somewhat (2), Definitely (3). At the completion of the questionnaire, participants were invited to offer any further comments on the experience, including whether or not they would repeat it.

Participants

Responses were received from 3,363 individuals (1,909 men and 1,454 women), of whom 2,956 (88%) self-identified as heterosexual. Homosexual and bisexual participants were excluded from the present analysis. Of this heterosexual subsample, 1,743 (59%) had experienced a one-night stand: 998 men and 745 women. Those who were in steady, cohabiting or married relationships at the time of the one-night stand were classified for purposes of analysis as mated (N = 399, 23%); this category was composed of 265 men and 134 women. Those who were single or in a casual relationship were considered umated (N = 1,344, 77%); this category was composed of 733 men and 611 women. The age distribution for the two sexes was broadly similar: 4% were less than 26 years of age, 42% were age 17–25, 40% were age 26–40, 13% were age 41–60, and 2% were older than 60.

Results

The six positive and six negative items showed sufficient internal consistency to treat them as scales in the initial analysis (positivity scale α = .72, negativity scale α = .65). The scores on the six positive and six negative items were summed to give a score between 0 and 18 for each. A three-way analysis of variance was performed with sex and mated status as between-subject variables and the positive and negative scale totals as a repeated measure. There was a main effect for positivity-negativity, F1, 1739 = 282.01, p < 0.001, with positivity scores (mean = 9.61, SD = 3.44) being significantly higher than negative scores (mean = 6.51, SD = 3.37). There were significant interactions between positivity-negativity and sex (F1, 1739 = 107.21, p < 0.001) and between positivity-negativity and mated status (F1, 1739 = 3.88, p < 0.05). However, the three-way interaction was not significant.

Differences Between Men and Women

On the positivity scale, men (mean = 10.40, SD = 3.15) scored significantly higher than women (mean = 8.54, SD = 3.48, F1,1472 = 133.63, p < 0.001, d =.54). On the negativity scale, women (mean = 7.34, SD = 3.53) scored significantly higher than men (mean = 5.89, SD = 3.11, F1, 1472 = 81.69, p < 0.001, d = −0.45). A net benefit score can be computed by subtracting the negative from the positive scores (Fig. 1). This provides a summary guide to the valence of the experience with zero as a neutral point. Predictably, the sex difference was significant (F1, 1741 = 161.46, p < 0.001, d = .63), but what was more surprising was that out of a possible net gain of 18, women’s score was barely even positive (women’s mean = 1.21, SD = 5.80). Though significantly higher, men’s mean score (4.51, SD = 5.02) certainly does not indicate unalloyed positivity about the experience.
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs12110-008-9036-2/MediaObjects/12110_2008_9036_Fig1_HTML.gif
Fig. 1

Net gain score (positivity minus negativity) for unmated and mated males and females

To follow up these findings in more detail, we performed a series of t-tests (Table 1). Given the large sample size, conventional significance levels are not informative so I discuss only those items that showed an effect size (d) greater than 0.20. Men are more likely than women to secretly want their friends to hear about it (d = 0.42) and to feel successful because the partner was desirable to others (d = 0.24), suggesting that advertising their engagement in casual sex, especially with a desirable partner, enhances men’s reputations. In line with men’s higher sex drive, they report greater sexual satisfaction and contentment following the event (d = 0.41), as well as a greater sense of well-being (d = 0.42) and confidence about themselves (d = 0.45). Because of men’s greater eagerness to have sex after short periods of elapsed time and their relatively indiscriminate partner choice, it was expected that men would have stronger feelings of being sorry because they felt they used another person and, reciprocally that women would report greater feelings of regret because they felt used. Both predictions received support, although men’s sorrow at having used their partner (d = 0.30) was considerably weaker than women’s regret at having been used (d = −0.70).
Table 1

Means (and standard deviations) for men and women, and for mated and umated individuals on 12 items assessing “morning-after” experiences following a one-night stand (N = 1,743)

Item (response range 0–3)†

Men

Women

d

Unmated

Mated

d

Positive Items

      

Secretly hoping that your friends will hear about it.

1.27 0.86

0.89 ***0.83

0.42

1.15 0.89

0.96 *** 0.91

0.20

Successful because your partner was desirable to other people.

1.61 0.88

1.40 ***0.87

0.24

1.500.87

1.580.92

−0.08

Sexually satisfied and content

1.96

1.58 ***

0.41

1.76

1.91 **

−0.16

 

0.87

0.97

 

0.92

0.94

 

Fully alive, an enhanced sense of wellbeing.

1.73

1.35 ***

0.42

1.55

1.64

−0.10

 

0.87

0.92

 

0.89

0.97

 

More confident about yourself.

1.83

1.44 ***

0.45

1.66

1.68

−0.02

 

0.81

0.88

 

0.86

0.88

 

Flattered that this person found you desirable

1.99

1.88 **

0.13

1.94

1.98

−0.05

 

0.82

0.85

 

0.82

0.88

 

Total Positive

10.40

8.54 ***

0.54

9.56

9.76

−0.06

 

3.15

3.48

 

3.45

3.43

 

Negative Items

      

Sorry because you feel that you used another person.

0.94 0.86

0.69 *** 0.79

0.30

0.82 0.82

0.89 0.88

−0.08

Regret because you feel used.

0.54

1.18 ***

−0.70

0.83

0.75

0.09

 

0.73

0.99

 

0.91

0.92

 

Disappointed that the relationship did not come to anything more.

0.99 0.86

1.13 ** 1.02

−0.15

1.11 0.94

0.85 *** 0.89

0.28

Regret that you had let yourself down.

1.00

1.45 ***

−0.46

1.13

1.41 ***

−0.29

 

0.91

0.98

 

0.94

1.02

 

Worried about the loss of your reputation if other people find out.

1.06 0.96

1.44 *** 0.90

−0.40

1.12 0.91

1.56 *** 1.00

−0.46

Scared about a possible pregnancy or contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

1.36 0.96

1.45 0.98

−0.09

1.40 0.98

1.38 1.03

0.02

Total Negative

5.89

7.34 ***

−0.43

6.41

6.85 *

−0.13

 

3.11

3.53

 

3.32

3.52

 

†Item scoring was as follows: Definitely not (0), Not really (1), Somewhat (2), Definitely (3).

*p < 0.05; **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001.

Indeed, women’s regret at having been used was the strongest single effect size. The effect size for disappointment that the relationship did not come to anything more, although in the female direction, was small (d = −0.15), giving little support to the suggestion that women view short-term relationships as a prelude to more desirable long-term relationships. At a private level, women more than men feel regret that they have let themselves down (d = −0.46). More publicly, they do not secretly hope their friends will hear about it (d = 0.42) and are worried about the loss of reputation if other people find out (d = −0.40). Scared about a possible pregnancy or contracting a sexually transmitted disease showed a very small effect size (d = −0.09) and was the only item that failed to show a statistically significant sex difference. It might be expected that women should show higher scores here because they risk both pregnancy and disease. However, readily available contraception and condom use may have substantially equalized the sexes on this item.

Additional comments provided by 233 individuals (139 women and 94 men) give a qualitative insight into these sex differences.2 These quotations are illustrative, and there is no argument that they are representative of the full sample of respondents. Fifty-nine percent of men and 28% of women had positive recollections. Typical comments included “Euphoric” (male), “Exhilarated, sexy, wanted. Overall, one-night stands are just fun” (female), “Excitement and lust” (male), “Fun, release of restrictions, excitement” (female), “The erotic excitement of getting to know someone else’s body for the first time” (male), “It can be a thrilling experience and an adventure at that” (female), “I believe that one-night stands are a good way of blowing off sexual steam” (male), and “It felt good to do something for me for once” (female)

Twenty-three percent of men and 58% of women indicated some regret and said they would not repeat the experience. Among the men, the prevailing tone was one of isolation: “Utter emptiness”; “As for emotions, there was usually little or no connection with the girl. Probably a reflection on the shallowness of it and the lack of any long-term satisfaction”; “The next day you can’t wait to tell your friends about it, but then, after that, the emptiness comes”; “A deep-seated sense of self-loathing”; and “After a one-night stand you can feel lonely, and being lonely is part of wanting a one-night stand in the first place” (male).

Amplifying the sex difference in feelings of having been used (d = −0.70), a number of women expressed distress at their partners’ behavior following the event. They felt the men had subsequently behaved disrespectfully and dismissively toward them. While not wanting a longer relationship, many women felt a strong sense of rejection.
  • “Upset because he hasn’t talked to me after it happened.”

  • “If they blank you the next time they see you rather than just say ‘Hi’ and smile or something, then they can shatter your confidence in an instant.”

  • “I called him a few times after we had sex; then we did not speak for a long time after that. When we did meet again, he made it seem as though I had been stalking him. He reminded me that the night we spent together was just a one-night stand. I found his arrogance annoying.”

  • “He seemed more embarrassed the next day more than anything else, and the sex hadn’t been that great.”

  • “Even if I didn’t want anything to do with them after a one-night stand I would like to know whether they liked me.”

  • “Disappointment when not receiving a phone call the next day just to say ‘Thank you.’ The call came eventually, but by then it was not the same.”

In line with women’s greater sense of having let themselves down (d = −0.46), the tone of women’s negative comments were pervasively about a loss of self-worth after the experience: “I felt cheap”; “Horrified afterwards”; “I felt degraded. Made myself look cheap and easy. Total regret”; “I generally felt dirty and unhappy”; and “I just wanted to feel a bit fancied and desirable. Didn’t work, though—felt cheap and dirty after.” This last observation was echoed by other women who displayed a considerable degree of critical insight.
  • “I have a very poor self image and the man I slept with was a conquest really. He was very popular with other women and very good looking. I thought that if I slept with him it would put me on a par with my prettier and more worthy peers. Unfortunately it didn’t work and my self-esteem/confidence suffered as a result.”

  • “I understand it in some situations—a woman feels unattractive, and this is a confirmation of her attractiveness.”

  • “I basically have one-night stands because I crave attention from men. I don’t have a boyfriend but I need constant attention, and I get this by sleeping with them.”

  • “When I was younger, I thought that they would like me more if I did sleep with them. Sad when I look back on it.”

Supporting the lower endorsement of sexual satisfaction by women (d = 0.41), a number of women expressed disappointment with the quality of the sexual encounter and a sense that the experience as a whole did not live up to their preconceptions: “Thought it would be one of life’s experiences, but it was nothing like the sex found in movies”; “The expectation was better than the reality, the sex was rubbish”; “It wasn’t worth it and it wasn’t even good”; “The sex is never particularly satisfying because it is difficult to let go with someone you don’t even know”; “Not as good as sex with a partner; they are more into your needs and know your body a lot better”; “I did not gain any satisfaction from it”; and “Fulfilled my curiosity about that man but was slightly disappointed.”

Differences Between Mated and Unmated Respondents

With regard to the interaction between mated status and positivity-negativity, there were no overall differences in positivity (F1,1742 = 0.99, ns). It is worth noting, however, that this absence of overall difference results from two items on which the direction of differences reversed. Mated individuals reported being more sexually satisfied and content (F1, 1741 = 8.21, p < 0.01, d = −0.16) but, unsurprisingly, were less likely to secretly hope that their friends would hear about it (F1, 1741 = 12.63, p < 0.001, d = 0.20).

Mated individuals obtained higher scores on negativity (F1, 1742 = 5.44, p < 0.05, d = −0.13). The specter of public shame (worried about loss of reputation if others found out) was higher among the mated (F1, 1742 = 69.68, p < 0.001, d = 0.41), as was private guilt (regret that you had let yourself down; F1, 1742 = 25.51, p < 0.001, d = 0.29). Predictably, mated individuals were much less disappointed that the relationship did not come to anything more (F1, 1741 = 25.51, p < 0.001, d = 0.28). Unexpectedly there was no significant three-way interaction. Women had less positive experiences than men in general, but the increase in negativity among mated as compared with unmated individuals did not differ between the sexes.

Few mated respondents offered additional comments (22 men and 18 women). Positive responses mirrored those of the singles; “Just a huge buzz” (male), “I was very happy the day after” (female), “Lust” (male), and “Cheerful” (female). However, negative comments were more evident. There was a strong fear of detection (“Irrational thoughts that my partner would find out even though there was a slim chance”; male), awareness of betraying a trust (“I would hate to find out my husband had done the same thing too”; female), and guilt (“I felt very guilty and still do to this day”; female). Even those whose evaluation was positive seemed to feel the need to justify their action (alcohol, a one-off experience, absence of usual partner, “only” sex).

Discussion

Women rate the experience of one-night stands both less positively and more negatively than do men. Closer examination of the items helps to pin down the dimensions that drive these global differences. With regard to positive aspects of the experience, the smallest differences between the sexes were in terms of feeling flattered and successful as a result of a desirable partner’s interest; the largest differences were found on subsequent confidence, feeling fully alive, hoping that friends will hear, and sexual satisfaction. For negative aspects of the experience, a feeling of having been used was the strongest sex difference, followed by a sense of having let oneself down and loss of reputation.

The effect size for the sex difference on disappointment that the relationship did not develop further was small and suggests that women’s motivation for one-night stands does not reflect an attempt to test out or secure a long-term or back-up partner (at least not disproportionately more than men’s). Although the results suggest that women are realistic about the short-term nature of the interaction, we cannot discount the possibility that self-esteem issues may have caused women to reconstruct their memory in the direction of minimizing or denying their initial desire for a continuation of the relationship. But if women genuinely accept the short-term nature of the sexual encounter, why is the power imbalance so marked for “regret at feeling used”? Why do women feel “used” more than “using,” whereas the reverse pattern is found in men? The additional comments made by women provide clues. What the women, but not the men, appeared to resent was the insufficiency of recognition following the event. Given men’s generally higher sex drive and eagerness for casual sex, women typically act as a limiting factor or gating mechanism (Symons 1979). When a woman agrees to sex after a short period of courtship, she expects a degree of appreciation since in the economics of sexual exchange she has lowered her usual market price for the interaction (Baumeister and Vohs 2004). A failure to accord this courtesy may be read as an implication that her price is habitually low. In addition, the fact that men typically drop their standards appreciably for short-term partners raises the possibility that her partner evaluated her attractiveness as low. As the woman sees it, her male partner was willing to have a clandestine sexual encounter but would not be willing to conduct a public relationship with her. (Being “blanked” subsequently, even though the man may be merely trying to avoid embarrassing her, tends to confirm her hypothesis.) Though female respondents do not express excessive disappointment at the transient nature of the relationship, and indeed might well reject the partner’s invitation to continue it, they may nonetheless experience the absence of such an invitation as a blow to their self-esteem.

Similar results were found by de Graaf and Sandfort (2004). In their vignette study of sexual rejection in which the partner asks the respondent to leave shortly after having sex, men and women did not differ in their expectation of or desire for a second date with the hypothetical partner, but men felt more positive and women more negative about the interaction. They suggest, congruent with the present interpretation, that “aware of the sexual stereotype that men always want to have sex, women do not expect men to say no to an opportunity of sexual intercourse” (de Graaf and Sandfort 2004:396). This asymmetry between the sexes in sexual desire means that a woman’s pride, more than a man’s, is dented by “rejection,” which in the case of a one-night stand corresponds to a lack of desire to repeat the experience. This interpretation helps to shed light on an apparent anomaly in Townsend et al.’s (1995) study. They found among highly sexually active undergraduates only a small sex difference in interviewees’ spontaneous concern about “Will this relationship last?” However, women were much higher than men in expressing concern about “Is sex all partner was after; will partner call; will partner dump me in the morning?” (81% of women compared with 17% of men). This also hints at the subtle but critical distinction between a disappointed yearning for a long-term relationship and a damaged sense of self-worth at not being invited to consider (and possibly refuse) one. This might be usefully examined in future studies.

The results raise an obvious question: If women have a barely positive evaluation of the experience, why do they do it? Regardless of how the women felt after the experience, the fact remains that at the time they chose to have a transitory sexual encounter. (None of the women’s comments suggested physical coercion by the man.) This suggests the possibility that an adaptation which impels or motivates sexual intercourse may be dissociable from (and sometimes at odds with) subsequent appraisals or emotions.3 This observation applies also to men who, though more positive than women, expressed reservations about their experiences. For both sexes, the natural and immediately satisfying culmination of sexual arousal is intercourse. For women, menstrual cycle status may be an important variable in this regard. During the ovulatory phase, between approximately days 10 to 18 of the cycle, researchers have identified behavioral and preference shifts relevant to a woman’s likelihood of engaging in one-night stands (Gangestad et al. 2005). At this time, women who are not on the contraceptive pill report increased sexual desire (Regan 1996), are more physiologically aroused by explicit sexual material (Slob et al. 1996), and show stronger positive feelings and EEG responses to nude males (Krug et al. 1994; Krug et al. 2000). This increased sexual motivation seems to be preferentially directed toward short-term mates. Ovulating women show an enhanced preference for features usually associated with short-term mate preferences: Masculine faces and voices, symmetrical faces, the scent of men with symmetrical faces, and masculine interpersonal qualities (see Gangestad et al. 2005). The cyclic effect may be especially relevant to EPCs. Among women attending a disco without their male partner, estradiol levels (which rise at ovulation) were positively correlated with skin exposure and clothing tightness (Grammer et al. 2004). During the ovulatory period, mated women fantasize more frequently about sex with men other than their primary partner (Gangestad et al. 2002), and one study found that this effect was confined to women whose usual partners have low symmetry (Gangestad et al. 2005). Cycle effects therefore may not only increase sexual motivation but direct it, consciously or unconsciously, toward men of high genetic quality.

In humans, however, the capacity for representational thought and counterfactual thinking may subsequently lead to reevaluation and selective recall of the experience. Women, according to the genetic quality argument, should be more willing to have casual sex when the male partner’s mate value is high. If a woman selects a partner of low mate value (possibly as a result of alcohol or loneliness), she may subsequently regret the encounter. Subsequent downgrading of the experience may also be more marked in women than men because of the economics of the sexual marketplace: Women’s mate value is perceived to be low if they are willing to agree to low-cost sex. Women in this study also reported greater worry “about loss of reputation if others find out.” Loss of a woman’s good reputation among males can reduce her chance of securing a long-term mate and result in hostility from and exclusion by other women (Baumeister and Twenge 2002). In short, women have greater potential costs than men in terms of self-esteem and reputation, and it may only be in the cold light of day, when sexual arousal has abated, that such costs are appraised. Men too are far from wholly positive in their subsequent appraisals, but casual sex is less likely to damage their private and public self-concept.

Individual differences also affect women’s strategy choice. Developmental experiences such as early stress are associated with unrestricted sexuality (Chisholm 1999) as are a suite of interrelated personality variables, including extraversion, social assertiveness, and risk taking (Gangestad and Simpson 1990; Wright and Reise 1997). Unrestricted women also show greater childhood gender nonconformity, a more masculine gender identity, and interviewer-rated physical and behavioral masculinity (Mikach and Bailey 1999). Testosterone levels are associated with sexual activity in both sexes (Udry and Billy 1987). It is possible that personality differences may distinguish between women who experience one-night stands as positive or negative. However, if such a dichotomy of evaluations exist, we would expect to see some evidence of a bimodal distribution in the female data. No such pattern was seen for positivity, negativity or net gain.

Compared with singles, mated individuals who had engaged in extra-pair copulations did not differ in overall positivity about the experience. However, mated individuals did report higher levels of sexual satisfaction than singles, and this may reflect the fact that extramarital affairs are associated with decreased satisfaction with sex within the marriage (Allen et al. 2005; Blow and Hartnett 2005). Mated individuals were significantly more negative overall. They felt more strongly than singles that they had let themselves down, reflecting findings that unfaithful partners experience guilt, depression, and negative self-evaluations (Beach et al. 1985; Glass 2003). Concern about discovery was also prominent, and appropriate since infidelity is the most common cause of marital distress, conflict, and divorce (Allen et al. 2005). However, caution is necessary in extrapolating from these results since participants were asked quite specifically about a one-night stand. Infidelities can last for as little as one hour and as long as fifteen years (Allen et al. 2005), and clearly the present study captured only the briefest end of this continuum. Women, more than men, are likely to fall in love with their EPC partner, to emphasize the emotional satisfactions of extramarital affairs, and to describe them as long-term love relationships (Allen et al. 2005; Blow and Hartnett 2005). Hence, the present sample of “one-night-stand” women may not be typical of women who engage in extra-pair relationships more generally. The use of the “one-night-stand” operational definition may also account for the absence of an interaction between gender and mated status. For example, women experience greater guilt and anticipate greater risks, but this sex difference may have been attenuated by the very short-lived nature of the one-night experience.

What do the present data indicate about the existence or form of female adaptations for short-term mating? Evolutionary psychologists have implicitly or explicitly used spontaneous emotional responses as guides to the presence of adaptations: fear in response to snakes, disgust in response to incest, gratitude in response to assistance, anger in response to challenge, and pleasure in response to sex. In these terms, the data indicate that women find the experience of casual sex less satisfactory than men and hence are not well adapted to it. This may explain why cross-culturally fewer women than men engage in short-term relationships and extra-pair copulations (Allen et al. 2005; Schmitt 2005b). On the other hand, sexual arousal is inherently pleasurable, motivational, and appears to be an adaptation designed to ensure procreation. The fact that women, and to a lesser extent men, may subsequently regret their actions is immaterial unless these regrets are sufficiently strong as to override sexual consummation at the next opportunity. Future studies might profitably consider the possible dissociation between prior impelling sexual motivation and subsequent evaluations of the experience, especially in terms of cyclical and individual difference variables.

Footnotes
1

Data collection took place during the Christmas and New Year holidays. In the UK, this period is associated with hedonistic excess, but so too is the summer vacation period. The extent to which similar results might be found, for example, after southern European holidays is unknown.

 
2

The qualitative analysis proceeded as follows: Some comments were wholly positive or negative in tone, but comments that contained both positive and negative evaluations were disaggregated. Each evaluation was then categorized as positive or negative by two researchers blind to the sex and relationship status of respondent, κ = 0.85.

 
3

I am grateful to two anonymous reviewers for these suggestions.

 

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© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2008