Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 16, September 12, 2013


Social Exchange and Social/Physical Topography of One-Night Stands in College-Age Students

William D. Marelich, Ph.D.
Jamie L. Graham, M.A.
Department of Psychology, California State University, Fullerton

A more detailed version of the entire study may be found in:  Graham, J. L. (2012). Social exchange and topographical features of one-night stands in college-aged students (Unpublished master's thesis). California State University, Fullerton, Fullerton, CA.

Contact and Additional Information :William D. Marelich, Ph.D.,
Department of Psychology, California State University, Fullerton
800 N. State College Blvd, Fullerton, CA  92834
Phone:  (657) 278-7374  FAX:  (657) 278-7134
E-mail: wmarelich@fullerton.edu


The purpose of this current study was to assess the one-night stand phenomenon using personal interviews with individuals who recently had a single-night sexual encounter. It was expected that topographical features would be identified as well as common attributes one looks for in a sexual partner. Social Exchange Theory was used to explain the common patterns and trends of these sexual occurrences. Participants were 28 college-age students recruited from a large university in Southern California who recently had a one-night stand. Thematic qualitative analysis was performed documenting emergent themes of the precursors of one-night stands through multiple readings of interview transcripts. Themes were divided into four broad categories: behavior setting features, themes shared across gender, themes unique to males, and themes unique to females. Behavior setting features associated with hookups included the physical setting, alcohol use, and how well dressed the hookup partner was. Shared themes across gender included being recently single or unhappy in a current relationship, "flirty" touching behaviors from the partner, and being in a social setting with a group of friends. A single unique theme for males was noted; males tended to hookup with females who reacted positively to their humor. Unique themes for females included a long cultivation period by the male, the male appearing confident, the male showing extreme interest in the female, the male's exotic appearance, and the perception that the male could help with the female's career and finances. Based on Social Exchange Theory, one-night stands operate as a form of reward-cost exchange, and behavior settings can have an influence on seduction


While traditional forms of dating have been facing a decline, casual physical acquaintance relationships have continued to become a prevalent practice among college students (Paul, McManus, & Hayes, 2000; Welsh, Grello, & Harper, 2006).  These traditional forms of courtship have been replaced by a more equivocal social practice generally influenced by cultural changes (Glenn & Marquardt, 2001) and have become more of a common phenomenon especially among older adolescents and young adults (Fielder & Carey, 2009). With over 81% of college students experiencing at least one hookup episode (Bogel, 2008), the complexity of emotional reactions and aftermath can place individuals in situations of physical, social, and psychological risk (Paul et al., 2000).  Although casual physical acquaintances are observed to be noncommittal and anonymous, there is nothing casual or unemotional about them (Manning, Giordano, & Longmore, 2006; Paul & Hayes, 2002).

Using Social Exchange Theory (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959), we address the sexual decision-making process by identifying the patterns, trends, and explanations of one-night stands in college-aged students.  This form of social exchange applied to casual relationships allows for the analysis of the esoteric dynamics when it comes to individuals negotiating resources (both sexual and nonsexual) within the basis of short-term relationships.  Viewing one-night stands as a form of exchange will provide a different approach to understanding the reasons why individuals seek casual sex interactions outside a typical dating relationship, and assist in predicting these social behaviors.

Furthermore, by examining what we call topographical features and common attributes one looks for in a sexual partner, we further address topics that account for one-night stands.  Documenting how individuals act, and what they experience, when engaging in the precursors of a one-night stands will shed light on the behaviors that generally typify the process of finding one-night stand partners. More importantly, studying these predictors will help make more logical and meaningful connections between the psychological and social components of hookups.

Research Questions

1. What behaviors, patterns, or trends describe typical one-night stands?
2. Regarding topography, what are the person and/or situational features that individuals perceive or interpret as indicative of a potential partner being open to a one-night stand?


Participants were 28 students who attend a large university in Southern California, recruited from a web-based experiment management system for recruiting participants located on the University website.  The website was used to post the purpose and the qualifications needed to be able to participate. Students followed through with recruitment by using a special e-mail address provided by the web-based posting (see below for specific procedure).  The posting also indicated that qualified students who decide to participate would receive 1-hour of research credit.  Subsequent interviews focused on one-night stands that had taken place within the last 2-years. Only those 18 years of age or older were able to participate in the study.  There were no gender restrictions, and overall 9 males and 19 females were interviewed.  All interviews were tape-recorded, and the interviews lasted approximately 1 hour.  Study participants ranged in age from 18 to 24 years of age, with their average age "at" hookup being 19. 

Open-ended, semi-structured interviews were tape recorded and conducted in a private laboratory room.  After verifying the participant qualified for the study and signed the informed consent form, the participant was asked to describe a recent casual physical acquaintance experience, including information on when they decided to go out that evening, to how the night ended (up to the actual sexual act itself). They were reminded not to discuss any specific sexual acts, but only discuss the events leading to the one-night stand. 

After describing their one-night stand experience, additional probes were pursued, including “Did you have any prior intentions to have a hookup on this specific occasion?” “What kind of signals did you or your partner give off to make you appear to be more attractive?” “Was there a time you singled out your partner to get them alone?” “Can you describe to me what kind of attributes stood out about your partner, or that stood out about you—which led to this episode?" Open-ended attitudinal items were also asked about hookups (e.g., opinions about hookups, perceptions of others).


Using the interview transcripts, thematic qualitative analysis based on grounded theory methodology (Corbin & Strauss, 1990; see also Morse & Field, 1995) was performed to address emerging themes through multiple readings of the transcripts (i.e., the constant comparative method).  The transcripts were reviewed by three individuals (i.e., coders) trained in thematic analysis for qualitative research to identify emergent themes.  Key concepts revealing the underlying motives of such events were extracted and documented. 

For the constant comparative method, a coder evaluates an interview transcript and identifies any themes pertinent to the phenomena of interest.  A second transcript is then evaluated, purposely seeking the same emergent themes noted in the first transcript, and also identifying any new themes. If new themes are found in the second transcript, the coder would return to the first transcript to evaluate the presence of the theme from the second transcript.  A third transcript is then evaluated, again seeking themes already noted in the prior transcripts, and also identifying any new themes.  If new themes are identified, the coder would return to the previous transcripts to evaluate the presence of the themes.  This repetitive process using multiple readings of the transcripts continues until the coder has reached the last transcript—identifying all the possible themes related to the phenomena of interest.

Once coding is complete, themes (and sub-themes) reported are those noted by a sufficient number of respondents. Although there is no formal cutoff for a reportable theme (e.g., 20% of the sample), usually a cutoff is assigned based on the overall number of participants and what makes sense for the phenomena.  For the current study, if a minimum of 2 of the 28 respondents noted a theme or sub-theme (about 7%), it was reported. 


A number of broad categories emerged from the interviews, including those related to the behavior setting in which the one-night stand unfolded, shared themes across gender, and themes unique to males and females. 

Behavior Setting (N = 28)

Physical Setting.  Of the 28 interviewed, the physical setting and setting program played a role in the hookup, with most settings seemingly primed to spur the one-night stand. Thirty-nine percent (n = 11) reported the initial interactions with their future hookup partner took place in a Party Situation. Fourteen percent (n = 4) reported the physical setting as a Las Vegas Club, and 7% (n = 2) noted the setting as a Club (in general).  Fourteen percent of the participants (n = 4) stated the one-night stand took place at the End of a Date at a Home/Apartment. Twenty-one percent (n = 6) reported the hookup took place after just "hanging out" with their potential partner (but NOT a date) at a Home/Apartment.  Lastly, one case noted that the one-night stand took place after the group of people they were with went back to one individual's Home/Apartment

Alcohol Use.  Another behavior setting feature (part of the setting program) of one-night stands was alcohol use, with 57% reporting drinking alcohol the night they engaged in their hookup.

How Hookup Partner was Dressed.  Lastly, 29% of the participants reported that their one-night stand partner was dressed nicely, or partner had a certain style that the individual found attractive.  In other words, their "style" of dress stood out.  This may be considered partially driven by the setting program (e.g., appropriate dress/style for a club).

Shared Qualitative Themes Across Gender (N = 28)

Recently Single, or Dissatisfied with Current Relationship.  Overall, 39% of participants (n = 11) who hooked-up were primed by their current relationship status to engage in a one-night stand due to current relationship dissatisfaction or being recently single.

“. . . Maybe a month ago, my boyfriend broke up with me and I was really just -- I went through kind of a crazy phase because I was so heart broken . . . I was like oh you know I just want to meet someone and hookup. . .”

“I just recently . . . broke up with my boyfriend back in June, and I was emotionally confused so I ran and got somebody really fast, somebody that I used to talk to.”

KINO and/or Flirty Touching.  Over 85% of study participants (n = 24) who hooked-up reacted positively to physical touching, suggestive of sexual interest.  It was common for participants to describe the physical contact as “playful” or “flirty”.  We use the term KINO (short for kinesthetics) from pick-up artist lingo as our descriptive term.

“Basic flirting . . . I mean we were dancing so there was a lot of physical engagement, but as far as just during conversation went, you know, mostly sustained eye-contact, slight flirty disengagement of the eye-contact, look around and then come back, just like touches on the arm you know - playful pushing and just the basics of flirting.”

Being "Out" in a Group.  Those who had a one-night stand tended to be part of a larger group out for the evening (60%, n = 17), which possibly provides feelings of safety and security.  This most often occurred during a special occasion, such as a party, birthday, vacation, or club event.

“He was with his roommates [and] I was with some of my sorority sisters so we all went back to his place.”

“It was last December . . . it was for my 21st birthday . . . and we went to Vegas . . . and it was . . . a group of friends and then friends brought friends.” 

Unique Themes for the Males (% of N = 9)

For Males reporting a one-night stand, there was only one theme that stood out from the joint gender themes; the females' reaction to the males' humor. 

Females' Reaction to Humor was Positive.  Over 44% of males (4 of the 9 males) noted that the females they hooked-up with reacted positively to their humor. Though from the quotes below it seems females are succumbing to the males' humor, none of the females in our sample mentioned males making them laugh as a hookup determinant. Thus, this male-specific theme addresses males' perception of the females' reaction to their humor.

“I made . . . her laugh, and like, I made her feel as comfortable as possible . . . I made her feel, like, you can trust me with anything, no matter what.”

“When I’m with a girl. . . I make it a point to make a girl laugh a lot.  Like joke around and like whisper.”

Unique Themes for the Females (% of N = 19)

A Long Cultivation Period.  Over 94% of females (18 of the 19 females) noted that the males they hooked-up with spent/invested a lot of time with them (usually an entire evening), where both individuals interacted and exchanged intimate self-disclosure.

“He just seemed like a really cool guy, just everything we were talking about, from what we like to do . . . like what he does for a living, what I do for a living, what he wants to do in the future, we talked a lot . . . like 2/3rds of the time, probably . . . he kept telling me I was cute throughout the whole night.”

Extreme Interest from the Male.  Over 47% of the females (9 of the 19 females) stated that the males they hooked-up with showed extreme interest in them, making the females feel comfortable and special.

“. . . He just made it comfortable . . . we’d have friendly conversations and talk about everything you know before that.  The conversation made it comfortable, we connected . . . on a mental level . . . it was never awkward . . .”

“. . . We ate . . .and then we went back to his place, and he showed me around his apartment complex, took me into his house, you know, he had this recording studio, he showed me that for awhile you know, he was trying to make me comfortable in his home environment . . .”

Male Appeared Confident.  Over 31% of the females (6 of the 19 females) noted that the males they hooked-up with exuded confidence.

“He seemed pretty confident -- like he didn’t seem really shy or reserved, he seemed pretty out there, and like, I don’t really like quiet guys.”

“. . . His confidence -- his confidence in the way he portrayed himself and the way that he spoke, like he knew he was, you know, attractive somehow. . .”

Female Perceived the Male Could Help Her Career/Finances.  Approximately 21% of females (4 of the 19 females) interviewed reported that the males they hooked-up with appeared to provide both professional and financial opportunities.

“. . . He knew people.  And I thought, you know, this could be a good networking buddy, because I want to get into journalism, and you know, writing.  And potentially I thought about working in the entertainment industry a little bit and he could open some doors for me.  If I started that friendship with him, he could hook me up with interviews and stuff like that.”
Male Was Perceived as Exotic.  Approximately 16% of our sample females (3 of the 19 females) stated that the males that they hooked-up with appeared unique and/or exotic.
“He was different from my ex-boyfriend who was just Korean, but this guy, he was half-black, half-white, so it was a different experience . . . half-black, half-white seems more exotic than just Asian . . .”


One possible script for how a majority of the one-night stands in our sample unfolded would include (a) going out as part of a group of friends to a party, nightclub, or bar, (b) being dissatisfied with their current relationship or recently single, (c) consuming alcohol though not to the point of being drunk, (d) meeting a potential partner who shows interest and/or has desired resources, (e) spending time with the person the majority of the evening prior to the hookup, and (f) eventually being alone with the person to have intercourse.  Based on the above, three factors stand out: time invested in the hookup partner, resource exchange, and the behavior setting.

Regarding time investment, interviews revealed that at least for women (though suggested in the male interviews since the one-night stands in our sample took an evening to cultivate), large amounts of time were invested between potential partners prior to the hookup, regardless of being out at a party/nightclub or just "hanging out" at someone's home/apartment. Such time spent is an attempt by the individuals involved to increase attraction and social closeness along the lines of Social Penetration Theory (Altman & Taylor, 1973).  Further, spending time with a potential partner reduces dissonance one may experience since short-term hookups may be considered by some immoral -- by getting to know the person for even a few hours, one isn't hooking-up with a stranger.  In addition, feelings of safety and trust in a partner may be reinforced through these interactions, though past research has shown safety judgments of potential mates are not always accurate (e.g, Malloy, Fisher, Albright, Misovich, & Fisher, 1997) and lying can be prevalent (e.g., Marelich, Lundquist, Painter, & Mechanic, 2008).

An alternative explanation is that time investment is a seduction strategy, slowing wearing down potential partners and plying them with alcohol to cloud their judgment.  However, none of those interviewed alluded to this type of purposeful tactic, whether falling prey to such a strategy or its implementation.  In describing their one-night stands, none reported being overly intoxicated or being with an inebriated partner. Illegal drug use such as marijuana was not mentioned by anyone.        

Regarding resource exchange as hypothesized through Social Exchange Theory, for both genders various resources (real or perceived) led to an increased interest in  potential one-night stand partners, and may ultimately be the tipping-point in an individual’s decision to engage in a one-night stand. Intimacy and sex are qualities that are exchanged in relationships (cf. Foa & Foa, 1974), and men and women no doubt exchanged such resources in our current sample. Beyond such base needs for sexual intimacy (e.g., Marelich, Shelton, & Grandfield, 2013), what further contributed to the female's decision to hookup were the additional resources of their male partners (e.g., professional/financial benefits).  Men in our sample didn't mention any additional resources offered by women -- possibly sex and intimacy rewards were enough, though it may be argued that men also received positive attention from the females' reaction to their humor.

A third important factor in one-night stands was the behavior-setting. Though understudied in relationship research, the actual physical setting and behavioral expectations associated with the setting can play a significant role in relationship perceptions (see Marelich, 2002, for an example addressing romantic jealousy). Using terminology from the field of Ecological Psychology (see Wicker, 1979, for an overview), behavior-settings have "setting programs" which dictate behaviors and their intent within a setting. Overall, 21% of the one-night stands reported here took place after meeting in a club. What are the behavioral setting elements and setting program within a club?  Clubs tend to operate at night adding a "cloak" of anonymity, alcohol is prevalent, music is loud so personal space is diminished to communicate and kinesthetics are required, and dancing can include close physical interactions. Together, these elements help generate a one-night stand setting program for a club. Party situations (as reported by 39% of our sample) contain similar behavior setting elements as a club except for anonymity, and should be viewed in a similar vein.

Although most people going to clubs or parties do not have random hookups, we conclude that these behavior settings will more likely provide one-night stand opportunities compared to going to a local coffee house or church function. Given our sample population was based in Southern California where clubs are prevalent, how would these findings generalize to smaller geographic areas?  We surmise that in such areas, a local bar with similar setting programs (alcohol, music, etc.) would be prime for one-night stands.  And certainly, smaller geographic areas will have "party" behavior settings where one-night stands can occur.

Along similar lines, the remainder of our sample reported having a one-night stand at the end of a date or after being invited to hang-out at someone's home/apartment, again showing the behavior-setting and setting program influences. Beyond personal expectations for hooking-up (which we did probe, but most reported they did not expect to have a hookup that night), what are the behavior setting elements and setting program of one's home/apartment?  Such settings are private spaces (even for college students) with areas for individuals to relax together, physically interact with each other, and where sexual activity can take place. Though sex can occur anywhere, typically people have sex within a home/apartment. Therefore, the home/apartment setting program is inclusive of sexual behaviors, and therefore also prime for one-night stands.         

Of interest throughout our interviews is that participants did not directly mention the physical attractiveness of their hookup partners as a determinant of hooking-up, contradicting research on attractiveness and short-term mating (e.g., Li & Kenrick, 2006).  As part of our qualitative protocol, we did not directly ask participants about physical attractiveness. It is possible that physical attractiveness of one's hookup partner is such an obvious determinant that it was overlooked by participants. However, we did note factors that contribute to physical attractiveness perceptions such as how well dressed potential partners were, their smoothness, confidence, and exotic features.  Hence, physical attractiveness directly wasn't mentioned but can be inferred.

There are some general caveats of the current study which warrant mention.  Our study participants were University students 18-24 years of age, and thus findings may not generalize to non-college and older populations. In addition, although we clearly stipulated participants should not have known their hookup partners prior to their hookup, and screened participants multiple times prior to the interviews and at the interview onset, some participants had at least casually met their hookup partners prior (with one individual reporting a significant interaction with their hookup partner prior, but they had not dated or had sex).  Interestingly, this is similar to those in Bogle's (2008) sample, where many knew their hookup partner prior to the sexual experience.  Future research should clearly differentiate one-night stands with strangers compared to those with partners that the individual had casually met/known to evaluate differences between these populations.  

Our research shows one-night stands take time to cultivate (e.g., an entire evening), are more likely to happen when individuals interact in specific behavior settings primed for hooking-up (e.g., a club or a private residence), are unhappy in their current relationship or recently single, when one is out socially with a group, uses alcohol, and is interested in the resources of a potential partner. Features that potential hookup partners exhibit include confidence, kinesthetics, exotic attributes, dressing to impress, and showing extreme interest in the person.  It is likely that these attributes strongly influenced one’s perception of their partner, ultimately affecting their decision to engage in a one-night stand.


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