What I Learned From One-Night Stands

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Racking up sexual partners wasn’t about being a slut, it was about discovering the importance of true intimacy

I had a very important decision to make in my early twenties. No, it wasn’t about grad school, or accepting a job far from home. It was about my sexual future.

In high school, my inexperienced friends and I imagined and talked about what it would be like to be sexually active. We agreed that a good number of bed partners would be anywhere between one and six. So, if my first boyfriend was the love of my life, then I’d be limited to one partner. If not, I figured I’d better find the love of my life within the next five or so partners, otherwise I would be what the girls in school called a slut. I just couldn’t have a “high number.” My number couldn’t ever reach double digits.

My first boyfriend was definitely not the One. Neither was my second, or third. So I began to rethink the whole scenario. After all, my number wasn’t anyone’s business but mine. Still, I had to admit that no matter how liberated I wanted to be, the concept of the one-night stand bothered me. It bothered me so much that when I met an investment banker who took me to dinner and then suggested we go back to his place, I felt I had to voice my concerns.

“This cannot be a one-night stand,” I insisted. “If you want me to come home with you, we have to schedule another date.”

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“That’s fine,” he said. “How about tomorrow?” I agreed, and felt I had solved the problem. What I had really done was just arranged two one-night stands. He was happy. I was less so, particularly when he blew me off after our second date. What does it mean when you sleep with someone, and they never want to see you again?

I mused over that question and others for some time, while still occasionally engaging in casual sex, which only momentarily addressed my insecurities and need for intimacy. More lasting was the deep hole afterwards, which left me seriously bummed out.

The feminist writer Cynthia Heimel wrote in her 1983 book “Sex Tips for Girls” that “sleeping with a man you hardly know is like eating a semi-ripe persimmon.” That’s true, at best. At worst, that persimmon is rotten to the core. I suppose there have been some instances where a couple met, had a one-night stand and lived happily ever after (or at least had a long-term relationship). I’ve never heard of that happening in real life—only on HBO.

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That brings us to the two sides of the one-night stand coin (from data collected by me and my female friends). Scenario number one: Nothing comes of it because one of you (or both) isn’t interested. That never felt good to me. I suppose there have been couples who engaged in casual sex and then, satiated in every way, went trotting off happily into the wee morning hours. No walk of shame. No regrets. And nothing I ever experienced.

Wanting to pursue a relationship with someone who sleeps with you and then doesn’t feel the same way kind of sucks. But then there’s scenario number two: You have an impulsive night in bed with someone you realize you cannot stand—and he wants to turn it into a full-fledged relationship. Then you either have to reject him, or you feel the need to try to follow up, so that the sex wasn’t just meaningless, and then the more time you spend with that person, the more you realize they’re creepy and stupid and not really attractive after all.

Once, I was traveling and hooked up with a guy who, post-sex, turned out be a total bore with gag-worthy political views. He not only followed up with me, but wanted to take things to the next level. I was panicked. It took a while to shake him off.

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Sometimes you realize you’re no longer attracted to your casual sex partner during intercourse. It’s one of the many indignities of the one-night stand and happened when I was with a man who it turned out had shaved his entire body. I only discovered this after we had shed our clothes, because—of course—I hardly knew him. There may have been some cool reason for it, I’ll never know. I only know that the stubby, slightly grown-out hair was incredibly distracting and a serious turnoff. And then, that peculiar duality of it all kicked in when he failed to call me soon after our night together. My relief was mixed with a strange outrage. Mr. Shaved Chest Weirdo wasn’t calling me?

My life partner and I have been together for almost a decade now, so I don’t think about casual sex anymore. But looking back at my younger self, I see it was all a matter of what I wanted. I wanted a relationship; I wanted a real connection; I wanted love.

Every woman has to define what the one-night stand means for herself, and I had to learn that the experience would always be inadvisable and unsatisfying: a lose-lose situation. I know now that racking up sexual partners is not about being a slut, it’s about discovering the importance of true intimacy and the rewards of love, trust and a real relationship.

One thing I was right about, though: my number. Unchanged for over ten years now, it’s still no one’s business but mine.

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