How Covid killed the one-night stand – and made us all kinkier

How Covid killed the one-night stand – and made us all kinkier

1/27/2022 9:18:00 AM

How Covid killed the one-night stand – and made us all kinkier

Restrictions starved us of intimacy – and the data suggests we found it not in one-off fumbles, but rather by getting experimental in bed

A lot of people, in the pre-pandemic days, used to really like one-night stands, too. The sex therapist Jenny Keane hosts a wide-ranging sex chat through her Instagram account. On it, one woman wrote appreciatively: “The sex is purely focused on pleasure. You’re not thinking about your relationship dynamics, them not doing the dishes. It’s about being served and cared for physically. It can be a very empowering and beautiful thing.”

the web-based studynot been a model of sexual restraintThose most likely to have had any physical contact in the four months since lockdown – most likely to have had penetrative sex, most likely to have had sex several times a week or every day, most likely to have sex toys, and most likely to report an improved sex life during the pandemic – were those in the “casual” bracket (having sex but not in a settled relationship). In sum, there has been no shortage of sexual activity among single people; there is just less churn, which is to say the pace of relationships has changed from a mayfly’s to a caterpillar’s.

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Thu 27 Jan 2022 06.00 GMT A one-night stand, people used to say, is like a short story: if it is any good, you want it to go on for longer; if it isn’t, you could have done with 15 minutes’ more sleep. To which the retort is: sure – but a lot of people really like short stories. A lot of people, in the pre-pandemic days, used to really like one-night stands, too. The sex therapist Jenny Keane hosts a wide-ranging sex chat through her Instagram account. On it, one woman wrote appreciatively: “The sex is purely focused on pleasure. You’re not thinking about your relationship dynamics, them not doing the dishes. It’s about being served and cared for physically. It can be a very empowering and beautiful thing.” But not any more. While it is difficult to separate the immediate pandemic effects from long-term trends, the one-night stand has been replaced by encounters that may still be casual, but aren’t total one-offs: the friendship with benefits, if you like, or the “situationship”. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) is a huge-sample longitudinal study that has taken place every 10 years since 1990. In 2020, the usual face-to-face fieldwork was interrupted by Covid, but the web-based study that replaced it found a precipitous drop in the number of sexually active people reporting a new sexual partner over the previous four weeks, down by half (from 8% to 4%). Fair enough: it was the start of lockdown and no one was meant to be doing anything with anyone they didn’t live with. The researchers then divided the responses into four groups: those not in a relationship and not having sex; those not in a relationship but having sex; those in a relationship and living apart; and those in a cohabiting relationship. When they drilled down into these, they discovered patterns that would certainly have surprised and discomfited the health secretary (unless that health secretary was Matt Hancock, who has not been a model of sexual restraint ). A survey found that 25% of single people felt ‘out of practice’ after so many months of social distancing Those most likely to have had any physical contact in the four months since lockdown – most likely to have had penetrative sex, most likely to have had sex several times a week or every day, most likely to have sex toys, and most likely to report an improved sex life during the pandemic – were those in the “casual” bracket (having sex but not in a settled relationship). In sum, there has been no shortage of sexual activity among single people; there is just less churn, which is to say the pace of relationships has changed from a mayfly’s to a caterpillar’s. This has been the experience of Marie, 48, who is recently divorced. “In your 20s, you’d go into a bar and you’d lock eyes with the one you wanted a one-night stand with, and you’d go home with him,” she says. Now, however, she is having two casual “ongoing encounters”, which are “absolutely perfect”, she says. “Obviously, I’m nearly 50; I didn’t think I could do that kind of thing again.” Where does someone look if they do want a one-stand? Not in bars, apparently. “Until now, I don’t think I’d ever been out for an evening and ended up just with the people I went out with,” says Jess, 27, from Edinburgh. “Someone would know someone else from another group, the two groups would merge – that used to happen all the time. You can sleep with someone you’ve just met, knowing you don’t want to take it any further, in a way you wouldn’t with a friend.”’ “It’s very rare to get hit on in real life these days,” adds a female foot soldier in Keane’s Instagram army. “And dating apps don’t facilitate one-night stands like mums think.” We think of apps as opening up a world in which more people can connect more easily, with less risk of humiliation, which therefore results in vastly increased numbers of one-off sexual encounters. When you can make the first move on your phone and experience any rejection at one remove, what is to stop you making moves all the time? ‘In your 20s, you’d go into a bar, lock eyes with the one you wanted a one-night stand with and go home with him.’ Photograph: Image Source/Getty Images But perhaps the more important impact is that online dating has ushered in structured communication about what people actually want from sex: whether they want something long-term or no-strings. From memory, one-night stands are often rooted in pre-emptive face-saving: you don’t revisit in case the other person thinks you are more serious than they are. These minuscule considerations of pride and humiliation are obviated when everyone states their intentions in their profile. Last year, we were supposed to have a hot girl/boy summer : an explosion of promiscuity and random, meaningless, one-off sexual encounters. But not everyone thought this was likely. “Everyone in the sex toy industry, when people were talking about the summer of love, was going: ‘No, that’s not what’s going to happen,’” says Julia Margo. She is one of the founders of Hot Octopuss , a high-end sex toy company. “If you’re making sex toys, you have to understand how people are using them and how they’re having sex, because that determines what people are going to buy,” she says. At the start of the pandemic, “you could trace the spread of lockdowns by buying behaviours across the world. Once the US went into lockdown, we saw crazy sales, and those were mainly masturbatory aids.” This was in 2020; as we moved into summer, people started buying couples’ toys, then, as we entered 2021, people tended towards the interactive; things you could control by an app and use with a partner long-distance. People were trying hard to keep intimacy alive, in the face of hopelessly insurmountable barriers. “It was similar to what you saw with comms platforms at work: first people set up their home offices, then it was Zoom,” she says. Many people experienced devastating losses during Covid, while those who didn’t had a pressing and unfamiliar awareness of mortality. While the sex toy industry focused on what this meant for physical intimacy, it meant a lot emotionally, too. A carpe diem approach to love is not yet visible in marriage statistics, which lag restrictions and are hard to read, not least because lots of couples who wanted to wed before the pandemic still haven’t had a chance to rebook. However, the ground is thick with anecdotes. As the actor