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    Future Sex: The Science of the One-Night Stand

    Written by

    Kelly Bourdet

    By now we’ve all read the recent ESPN story on all the crazy, hard-bodied sexual shenanigans of the Olympic Village. A notable face includes the sheer number of condoms purchased for use at the Olympic Village (100,000!). Well, today, Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte’s mother was inexplicably discussing her son’s sexual habits on the set of NBC’s Today show, explaining, “He goes out on one-night stands. He’s not able to give fully to a relationship because he’s always on the go.”

    That’s, um, extremely awkward. But what’s the science behind one-night stands? Why do some people enjoy and seek casual sex – plenty of them aren’t Olympians with a unyielding training schedule – while others prefer sex with a partner in a committed relationship? A couple of years ago a research team led by Justin Garcia, a SUNY Doctoral Diversity Fellow in the laboratory of evolutionary anthropology and health at Binghamton University, State University of New York found that a propensity for casual sex appeared to be genetic.

    One of the biggest predictors for an individual’s risky sexual behaviors seemed to be a certain variant of the dopamine receptor D4 polymorphism, or DRD4 gene. This gene is also closely linked to other compulsive, risk-taking behaviors like gambling and alcohol use. Now, these genes don’t “make” anyone do anything. A single gene’s expression exists within a system of many other genes, and all of our behaviors are also dependent upon our cultural and value systems, things that are at least partially due to external factors. But, the variant of DRD4 found to be closely related to histories of uncommitted sex changes the way that dopamine – a powerful reward chemical – is released when a person indulges in risky behaviors. So while it might not force anyone to engage in a one-night stand, it probably makes it feel much better when they do it.

    Now, fifty years ago, no mother would ever have spoken with a national news outlet regarding her son’s one-night stands. Lochte would probably have had a nice girlfriend cheering him on from the stands. So it’s certainly not simply a matter of genetics. Plenty of people possess the variant of the DRD4 gene in the 50s, and while people will always have casual sex, it was not nearly as prevalent and socially acceptable then as it is today. A new study out this week found links between the amount of sexual content in movies viewed by kids and their sexual habits later in life.

    Can you imagine the mother of a female Olympic athlete giving an interview applauding her daughter’s one-night stands?

    Researchers at the University of Missouri analyzed information from 1,228 kids who were 12 and 14 years old at the study’s start. The participants reported which films they had seen of 50 top-grossing films released between 1998 and 2004; these films had been rated by the researchers based on sexual content. Six years later the participants were asked questions regarding their sexual behaviors to evaluate when they had first had sex, and what types of riskier sexual behaviors they were engaged in. They study found an association between watching films with sexual content as children and behaviors such as casual sex, sex with multiple partners, and casual sex without a condom in the teenagers.

    Now, this study is almost anecdotal, in that it simply reflects what we likely already suspected. In a larger sense, that our culture affects behaviors. I’ve always looked askance at people who claim that violence in films doesn’t translate to violence in real life or that sex in films doesn’t translate to sex in real life. Of course, these elements don’t force anyone to do anything, just like our genetic makeup doesn’t handcuff us and take us to the brothel, but we’re a species that likes to operate within norms. If you normalize something – if you widely accept it in your culture of entertainment – then more people are going to actually do it.

    Now there have also been studies examining the gender differences in casual sexual behavior. We all know the prevailing gendered cost-benefit analysis of one night stands, namely that men are willing to engage because, evolutionarily speaking, their risk of consequence is lower. Women, evolutionarily speaking, could end up with an 18-year “consequence” from that one little act of purely casual sex. But we’ve circumvented evolutionary consequences, in a sense, with contraception. But the way that each gender views the cultural significance of their one-night stand remains different.

    In a 2008 study published in Human Nature, researchers surveyed more than 3,300 individuals, most of whom were between the ages of 17 and 40 about one-night stands. More than half of the participants reported engaging in a one-night stand at some point in their lives, but their reactions to the event were markedly different. While 80 percent of men reported positive feelings as a result of the encounter, only 54 percent of women did.

    Women predominantly reported “regret at being used.” Also stating: “I felt cheap,” “horrified afterward,” and “I felt degraded. Made myself look cheap and easy. Total regret.” In contrast, men felt that one-night stands were a good way to blow off steam and felt a sense of accomplishment. We still exist in a culture that lauds men’s sexual conquests while judging women’s. Of course things are changing, with female casual sex being not nearly as stigmatized today as in the recent past. But can you imagine the mother of a female Olympic athlete giving an interview acknowledging and applauding her daughter’s one-night stands? Me neither.