Are Attitudes Towards Casual Sex Changing?

With the advent of Tinder and other dating apps, the way people meet has changed forever, but how are attitudes towards casual sex changing and what impact will the Coronavirus pandemic have?

Existing research

Relatively few studies have been conducted around the prevalence of one night stands in the UK specifically but broad societal overlaps with American culture mean studies conducted in the US should still be relevant in reflecting wider trends. It’s also worth remembering that any data collected could still fail to give an accurate picture due to the stigma that still exists around casual sex, particularly for women, who are traditionally more likely to be labelled promiscuous. For example, 63% of men said they’d had a one-night stand in the last month compared to 48% of women, according to the ONE condoms survey. While this could be accurate and women do indeed have fewer one night stands than men, it’s also possible that the disparity can be partially attributed to women being less willing to admit to having casual sex.

One study conducted by Harvard University in 2017, found that hook-up culture was actually much less prevalent amongst young people than we are often led to believe. It instead drew more worrying conclusions about young peoples’ ability to form meaningful, long-lasting romantic relationships and the prevalence of sexual harassment. Most troubling was the revelation that many young people believe there to be more of a hook-up culture amongst their peers than was actually the case, something which had a detrimental effect upon their mental health. 

A 2012 study published by the American Psychological Association highlighted the impact of the portrayal of casual sex in popular culture and the media and how TV, in particular, can influence the opinions young people form around sex. This study suggested a variety of reasons for the rise of hookup culture with the most significant being that the majority of men and women, while motivated to engage in casual sex, often desire a romantic relationship. This study also referenced findings from a 2008 study which suggested shifting life-history patterns could be key. In short, people are getting married and settling down later while reaching puberty earlier, leaving more years in between where people are physically able to reproduce but not psychologically ready to settle down, the result of this being hook-up culture.

New research

In addition to the existing research available, a small survey was conducted in preparation for this article. In total 83 people took part in an online questionnaire intended to explore people’s attitudes towards one night stands. While the demographic information wasn’t the focus of the survey, it’s worth noting that 81% of respondents identified as female and 92% were aged 18-24 meaning the results of the survey will be largely reflective of that group.

Perhaps the most surprising result from this survey was the prevalence of one night stands before COVID-19. 50% of respondents said they never had one night stands, with another 40% saying they only had them occasionally, an interesting result in a society seemingly dominated by hook-up culture and dating apps like Tinder and Grindr. There was much less agreement when people were asked how well they’d need to know someone before sleeping with them. 38% said they’d want to be in a relationship or dating, 32% said they’d sleep with an acquaintance, 23% would sleep with a stranger, and only 7% saying they’d sleep with a friend. This relatively even three-way split showed a surprising lack of consensus, it seems the only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that friends with benefits only really happens in movies.

In addition to exploring whether there’s a broader shift taking place in society, respondents were also asked how the Coronavirus Pandemic has changed how likely they’d be to have a one-night stand. Interestingly 58% said it hadn’t changed their attitude and, more in line with what was expected, 37% they’d be less likely to have a one-night stand post-COVID-19. However, in relation to this result, it’s worth remembering that when respondents were asked how often they had one night stands before the pandemic, 51% said never and 40% said occasionally which explains why the pandemic hasn’t affected people’s views that much; many weren’t having one night stands to begin with.

People were also given the chance to provide additional comments, of which there were 19. There was a broad consensus amongst these comments that while Coronavirus wouldn’t put people off one night stands entirely, many said they’d be slightly less likely to have them and be more aware of the health implications and the spread of the virus. Others noted that with the virus around they’d be more likely to sleep with friends and acquaintances rather than strangers as it feels ‘safer’.

Potential explanations

So what other factors could be at play here? From the people I’ve spoken to, it seems many young people are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the binge drinking culture of the 2000s. Where students would once go clubbing, get drunk, and stumble back to the place of someone they’d just met, more young people seem to be appreciating a more relaxed night out in a beer garden or in more upscale bars. Perhaps it’s not people’s attitudes changing but the night-out culture more generally evolving in such a way that doesn’t lend itself to casual sex. There’s also the possibility that people are being increasingly exposed to more positive, pro-relationship content in the media. With couple and family vloggers more popular than ever, the internet filled with examples of ‘relationship goals’ and arguably more well-intentioned dating shows on TV than we’ve seen before. It seems times are changing and a string of sexual conquests doesn’t get you the bragging rights that it used to. Maybe we have Georgia Steel to thank for inspiring a generation of women to be loyal. Babe.

It’s also worth considering whether it’s not the attitudes of individuals changing but the attitudes of society. With dating apps like Tinder making casual sex much more common, various respondents noted how sex is becoming increasingly less taboo, particularly for women. As a result, many are being more honest about the casual sex they’re having, whereas a decade ago they’d have felt the need to lie for fear of being slut-shamed. Interestingly, the destigmatisation of casual sex, while making people more open about it in conversation or amongst friends, likely makes it less talked about in the media. Perhaps one night stands aren’t happening any less but their frequency just isn’t newsworthy anymore.

While this is by no means an exhaustive exploration of the many complex social issues surrounding individuals’ and society’s attitudes towards one night stands, it seems there may be something of a divide occurring amongst young people. From previous studies, the survey conducted for this piece, and the other individual comments, it seems there are two dominant views. Some people are having more casual sex than ever, thanks to dating apps and lessening societal judgement and others prefer to only having sex with someone they’re in a relationship with. While there’s no clear indication of a large scale change in attitude, it appears that society more broadly is evolving to just let everyone do their own thing and not make a big deal of it, whether you want to sleep with a different person every night or love a long term relationship, you do you.

Words by Louisa Merrick-White

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