Cover image by Dan Hernandez.
Over a year ago, I had my first one-night stand. Well, to say the least, it messed me up.
Along with the excruciating sadness and feeling of betrayal, there was also an incessant nagging of confusion. Sometimes it would push through other emotions and sit at the top of my head like a ringleader, teasing as she caressed her whip:
"Is it the person or the activity that wasn't for you?"
In the months that followed, my energy was spent on sexual exploration and occasional hookups in the hopes of finding the right answer. There were times I was left staring at the ceiling with remorse, and there were moments I left a hotel bed walking a little bolder and feeling empowered after a one-night stand. In retrospect, the answers from these encounters varied and were never consistent. Looking for an absolute answer is like walking in circles.
To tell you the truth, it wasn’t until I started writing this that I had my epiphany: the answer is actually dependent on one’s current psychological stance on casual sex.
A 2015 study suggested that a major factor in determining how casual sex will affect your well-being is why you're engaging in casual sex in the first place. It suggests that looking inwardly and closely at your personal values, desires, needs, and beliefs could tell whether a hookup will be harmful or beneficial to your mental health. As Dr. Zhana Vrangalova mentioned in her TED Talk, "Whether casual sex is good for you or not depends on who you are and how you do it."
As a Filipino who grew up in a conservative household and religious environment, my beliefs and values are deeply ingrained in me. As you can imagine, these beliefs don’t go too well with the idea of premarital sex. I didn't even realize it until I started having one-night stands.
There was this feeling that I should be romantically involved with the person with whom I first hooked up. It felt wrong giving something so "precious" and “valuable” to a stranger. I was also 20 and had never had a serious relationship in person, so getting him to be with me would tick all of my ego boxes in an instant. In hindsight, I was really lonely. Persistent loneliness can make you do things your 15-year-old self wouldn't even imagine, and that’s actually what pushed me to further test the waters of one-night stands.
The 2015 study presented two types of motives: autonomous and non-autonomous. Autonomous motives are healthy reasons for engaging in casual sex, while non-autonomous motives are the opposite. Said researcher Robert Weiss, "The study found that, regardless of gender, the people having casual sex for autonomous reasons were for the most part unaffected by this activity, whereas those who engaged in casual sex for non-autonomous reasons typically experienced a decrease in psychological well-being.”
My motivations varied with each hookup. My first one-night stand was a mess for a lot of "wrong" or non-autonomous reasons. That experience opened my eyes and prepared me for the successful sexual experiences I had a few months later.
When I separate rejuvenating hookups from those which caused me to feel like all life had been sucked out of me, I can tell that there are some clear factors at play.
I've categorized these differences as either autonomous or non-autonomous below. If your motivations in engaging in one-night stands relate to the following, then casual sex might just be beneficial to you:
One-night stands are a great training ground if one desires to improve their sexual skills. Learning the intricacies of a fantastic blowjob can be another form of accomplishment, thereby increasing your sense of self-confidence and desirability.
Although there are physical and psychological consequences of casual sex such as STIs, unwanted pregnancy, heartaches, and sabotaged friendships, these shouldn't override the pros. In the words of Dr. Vrangalova: "Please use condoms. Take responsibility for your experience. Mistakes happen. Learn from them and move on. Expect to be judged. Surround yourself with people who won't."
Love is as valid as lust. If it's mutually consensual, there's nothing inherently wrong with having sex with someone just because you find them attractive. Communicating this desire to your casual partner establishes boundaries and avoids negative emotional impact.
On the other hand, whether you're already doing it with a friend or just thinking of sleeping with a Tinder match, you might want to take a step back and reassess if your motives are as follows:
Your skin against another's skin fires chemicals in your brain that make you feel cherished and loved. Vasopressin, dopamine, oxytocin—all of these will temporarily satiate your hunger for what's not there. Unfortunately, casual sex won't cure loneliness, especially if you get too attached. Engaging in casual sex to get rid of loneliness will just make you feel more isolated.
This is not a good reason for one-night stands, considering your mind is still unstable after a breakup. When you're broken-hearted, comparing your flings to the love of your life is inevitable. Casual sex isn't an antidote, however—and it cannot be treated as such.
The Bottom Line
There is no singular, absolute rule that dictates whether casual sex is right or wrong for everyone. Reactions and responses are purely subjective for each individual. An answer from a religious person practicing celibacy would be different from that of a secular person who engages in sexual activities for fun and experience.
Putting all these motivations into consideration, however, leads us to a bottom line: casual sex may have beneficial effects for you if your beliefs, wants, needs, and values don’t conflict with it. Check on yourself often. Remember that you’re still the only one who gets to decide what’s right for you. As the saying goes, you are the master of your own destiny. Or in my own words—the dom of your own life.