In Defense of the One-Night Stand

Sex with a stranger can be about desire, but it may say nothing about where one’s heart lies.

Romance is the mystery and excitement associated with sexual attraction. Or love, depending on where you get your definitions. Mine is based loosely on the one at Wikipedia. Yet whether we consider sexual love and bodily lust related or separate, when the word is “romance,” our thoughts turn to the courtship preceding a long and fruitful marriage, not to the riotous and liminal couplings of the one-night stand. But why not? What is more exciting and mysterious than the mutual desire for someone you hardly know?

A one-night stand doesn’t have to signal love, or even the spark that might ignite the flame. A small act can be small, after all. It could mean nothing, be forgettable, or it could be a cause for regret or reason to feel ashamed. It could be isolated, or part of a pattern of behavior. Sex with a stranger can be about desire, but it may say nothing about where one’s heart lies. A commenter on the site, Leroy Joseph, wrote this sad tale of love and one-night stands:

I was engaged to a woman once and every few months like clockwork, she would go out, have a few drinks and then sleep with another man, sometimes more than one at the same time. She was always remorseful and always truthful to me about it. I chose to stay with her even though I knew she would never be sexually exclusive with me. I did this because I loved her dearly and I knew I had a choice to accept her for who she was or I could leave. It was my choice. I never slept with anyone else all the time we were together. Why? Simply because I didn’t want to have sex with anyone but her. Again, that was my choice. We finally broke up a few years later, not because I wanted to but because she did.

I recently learned that she had been sexually abused and raped by 3 of her uncles starting at the age of 5. And a few years after we split up, she had a complete mental breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Last May, I flew 1000 miles to spend a week with her and our 27 year old daughter at a hospice where my ex was dying of cancer. It had been almost 30 years since we had split up, but I still loved her dearly and she died a few days after I had to go home to California. Yeah, she had sex with other men when we were together. I didn’t particularly like it at the time, but I accepted it because I loved her and chose to stay with her. Now knowing her past abuse and mental illness, was she really in control of her actions? Probably not. But I wouldn’t trade a second of the years I spent with her for anything. Monogamy doesn’t mean people are happy or even love each other.

This is a story of one-night stands as a pattern of self-injury, not the mystery of human souls connecting, or the excitement of physical desire. They are certainly not about love: love is what Joseph feels for her, not what his former fiancee feels for the men she remorsefully admits to having slept with.

One-night stands don’t have to be about love, to be about an important human connection. Once, in my mid-twenties, I went home with an older man who picked me up in a local gay bar. He complimented my legs, said I had soccer legs. On the stairs outside his house, I finally got up the nerve to tell him I was a trans man and he laughed, said he didn’t care. It was as if he had no preconceived notions of what our sex would be like: there was no script; he was open to anything. At some point late in the order of showering, sex, and pillow talk, he mentioned a recent separation after a long marriage, grown kids. He was late to come out and had only recently done so. I was in a position, early in my transition from female to male, to understand the grief that comes from losing one life, even if it’s the wrong life and the right thing to do to leave it behind. There is what other people thought you were, for example, and so you believed it too, and now that is over. Even when you know that you stand to gain something else better in due time, you grieve.

Eventually, both of us having come, it was very late and time for me to go, so I dressed and followed him downstairs to his kitchen. He made me espresso in his large, stainless steel kitchen and we stood and talked, waiting for the water to boil.

The counter was clean, the implements for brewing set out beside the range. He made Cuban coffee: old school strong, in a percolator, used a fine grind I recognized from the label. As he moved from range to refrigerator, I watched his shoulders beneath the dark blue robe he wore, and how he moved about as if he’d known his way around this fine kitchen for longer than he’d been living in it alone.

When the coffee was brewed, he put sweetened condensed milk in it and gave it to me to drink. None for him: he would return to bed after I left. I was twenty years younger than he was and was still in love with being out all night, the revolution of staying up far beyond bedtime. He made me Cuban coffee at two in the morning, so I could drive home alert and safe.

I knew we would not see one another again after I drank that cup.

Is a one-night stand with a man who made me coffee afterward, romantic? And if not, is it for the reason you think? It was a thoughtful gesture, romantic because it went above what was strictly necessary. He demonstrated kindness, class, and style, and for those small acts made me remember him all of these years later as a gentleman.

Leroy Joseph is also a gentleman, though his role in very different in his tale of one-night stands. The idea of happy monogamy that he must have expected from the outset, he let die, and grieved, for what was better: a life, for as long as he could have it, with a woman who he loved. Which brings me around again to the definition of the word, “romance,” and whether the origins of the word still hold any wisdom for us today, in a different kind of society. Old-school romance was born from a world of iniquity and thwarted desire. It allowed for sublimation, and also for genuine kindnesses and even sacrifice. In an ordinary one-night stand, the exchange is ideally and generally roughly equal: my sex for yours. The extra minutes that it took to boil water and brew coffee were a kindness, a sacrifice of time that he could have been falling asleep in, and gave to me for my safety and comfort. It was a small thing, a kindness possible where it was not sought.

Even the one-night stand demonstrates, with its ubiquity and allure, how much we need one another and how good it can feel when we connect, however briefly. It can be a drug, the thrill of romance. Or it can be manna, that miraculous bread that grew from the desert. The encounter with a stranger, being impersonal, can be the grounds on which we learn to give and receive a more universal loving kindness. It can teach us how to identify opportunities in which we may show love to our neighbor. Most of us look for something more certain and deeply nourishing, a daily bread of love, while others of us live our lives in reliance on the kindness of strangers. We may not value the chance connection of the one-night stand as satisfying or reliable, but these morsels feed us, too, and in times of trouble, can be all we have.

—Photo John Pastorello/Flickr

About Justin Cascio

Justin Cascio is a writer, trans man, and biome. His most recent publication is a short memoir, "Heartbreak and Detox," available on Kindle.
You can follow him on Twitter, Google, and Facebook.


  1. Specialk says:

    This was a great piece, very touching. My father brought me up to love people as they are, not as I wished they would be. I’m not sure I am totally there yet but you certainly are.

    On another note, I would love an article much along the lines of ‘defense of the one-night stand’ only with a different theme. I wasn’t abused growing up, I’ve never been abused as an adult. I am happy in my life, with myself and I love one night stands. On this website it seems that women who are open to one night stands are dismissed as being little more than whores.

    Personally I wish I had had more one night stands when I was younger. I only had a few and though they were fun now that I find myself older and wiser (mid 30’s) I crave a different type of one night stand to the ones I knew. As a youngster even if I knew it was a hook up I would still worry a little too much about things that only served as a distraction from what was going on. Did he think I was a slut? Would he think I was too into him if I kissed him like it was the last kiss I would have! (the only way to kiss mind you…)

    By my late 20’s I had hit my stride. I had a few one night stands totally on my terms, I approached the man, I took charge, I left when I wanted. If anything I went too into myself during the act, forgot about my partner at times, just enjoying the moment. I didn’t get any complaints of course, most men like to see a woman in pleasure.

    These days at the ripe old age of 35 I find myself fantasizing about more meaningful one-night stands. Ones where two people come together fully cognizant of what is happening but totally surrendering to each other, not holding anything back. One night stands generally lack intimacy yet connection and intimacy is what I like the most about sex. I don’t think it could get any better than giving yourself fully to someone for an evening and them doing the same all the while knowing you have nothing to lose as you will never see them again. But how to know when the person eyeing you from across the cafe or bar or supermarket isle is of a like mind. I guess you could say I’m a romantic one night stander….

    Anyway, I am sure there are more women out there who are willing to admit they love a good one night stand and I’d love to hear from them.

    • Valter Viglietti says:

      Thank you Specialk, your comment on this topic is really refreshing and empowering. 🙂
      (and lacking in cliches and stereotypes – thank God!)

      @Specialk: “I find myself fantasizing about more meaningful one-night stands. Ones where two people come together fully cognizant of what is happening but totally surrendering to each other, not holding anything back.”
      That’s the kind of one-night-stands (ONS) I think about (and I try to live).
      Where the people involved are not using each other, but enjoying each other.

      Many people, when talking about ONS, believe they are always about using the partner. And, sure, that’s not good.
      But the problem isn’t the ONS per se, it’s the partners’ attitude; you can be in a long-term relationship, and still using the other. It has little to do with the ONS.

      I cared for my partner in most of my ONS, and I still remember most of them with gratitude.
      Besides, when you have a ONS, you cannot know if that will be just that, or it will evolve into something else…

      • Specialk says:

        Yes Valter, I agree, most people equate ONS with using others when frankly if they are consenting adults what is the problem? People get something out of a ONS even if they also feel remorse afterwards. I’m sure most remorse comes from society telling us ONSs are bad, particularly to women who ‘must be’ harlots or deeply insecure to give their body that way to someone unknown. It’s your body, it’s not your soul, we need to all relax a little more about the whole sex thing.

        I also agree that being in a relationship does not guarantee you will not be used by your partner or vice versa. When I look back on all my relationships and all of my ONSs I feel dirtiest (yes really that is saying something for someone like me) thinking about a relationship I had with someone for 6 months. The whole time I kidded myself we were compatible, I almost challenged myself to fall in love, he was from a different part of town shall we say and in the end he ended up kicking me to the curb. We were not compatible from day one, we both used each other and in the end I was left feeling like an idiot, stupid. I’d choose to erase that relationship over any ONS I’ve had!

  2. Valter Viglietti says:

    “these morsels feed us, too, and in times of trouble, can be all we have.”

    Oh, the raw honesty, the humbleness of truth, the nakedness of reality.
    Love it, thank you.

  3. This piece really speaks to me on several levels. Like Leroy Joseph I have been in a long term relationship with a damaged soul. We had a twelve year marriage but out of bed it was very abusive, so when she got pissed off about some minor things and told me to hit the door it allowed my exit.

    But during that ten years we had a lot of playful sex. I realized that she was having extra-martial relations within a few weeks of marriage. While I didn’t confront her about it for several months I was amused about her trying to be discreate. My job was really close by so I ate lunch at home everyday. She was very clinging so she loved it. But some times she would came sneaking in the back door all mussed up. I didn’t say that I saw her when I got home that afternoon, instead asked where she was at lunch. Oh. I was smoking a joint with one of the neighbors in the appartment complex. I told her not to worry just be honest with me. Several months later she confessed that she had had sex several times with the guy in the next house over. (We had been in the house about three weeks)

    I told her it was OK, that actually it turned me on and to prove it I showed her some magazines with wife sharing stories. After that we were two kids having fun. Several times we had threesomes during our marriage. Several times because she was legally blind and could not drive I took her to “dates” with lovers. Once I even introduced her to a lover. He was a guy in my machine shop class. It was a really funny night because she was sometimes shy around new people and since he was just out of a backwoods High School he was reserved and not agressive. So when her taking a shower and doing a little flashing didn’t get him to make a move. We were in a townhouse apartment with a kitchen on the bottom and the living room in the middle; bedrooms up top.

    Well, she comes down all upset because he wasn’t taking her bait. She was still in her bathrobe from the shower. I told her to head back up and entertain him while I finished the dishes. As she started up the steps to the living room I grabbed the robe and pulled it off. So she went up to him totally naked and freshly shaved. Yeah, they had wild monkey sex about twenty minutes later.

    After we separated I found out about the poly-movement, also if things go OK I’ll start ETSU for a MSW in August.

  4. Great piece!

  5. Joe Cardillo says:

    I like this piece Justin. I was divorced last year and in the process of working through my feelings around that I’ve realized that I was trying really hard at only one model, the white, monogamous one that is often mythological. Your anecdote demonstrates that both you and the other person were honest about your intentions. The heart craves clarity, and when that exists in a relationship (with oneself and/or others) real happiness follows and we stop making assumptions about what is right or wrong, or out of bounds.

  6. wellokaythen says:

    “Riotous and liminal.” I like that. Very post-modern. Do I detect a little grad school education? : – )

    • Justin Cascio says:

      LOL. Nope. I have a Bachelors from a state university, and that is the extent of my formal book learnin’.

    • NickMostly says:

      Loved this essay, and also made note of the use of riotous and liminal. Next time I see you around town I might actually stop to say hi, if you don’t mind.

  7. Jen, that sounds so familiar. I wrote the post that Justin mentions above under the alias of my nickname/middle name.
    I watched this woman I loved do this for several years. I don’t believe for a second that she really wanted to do the things she did. I think what she really wanted was love (and God, I loved her) but she didn’t know how to do love. She couldn’t do what she wanted so instead she did what she knew: abuse. She was taught to perform fellatio at the age of 5; her three uncles passed her around like a sex toy. Then both she and her sister were molested by their stepfather. So later in life, she just kept repeating/reliving the abuse over and over. And she was always remorseful and beat her self up for days after. It was a vicious cycle. She wanted love, but got attention from men if they thought they could have sex with her. When she was sober, “no” really meant “no,” but when she was drunk, there was no such thing as “no” when it came to sex. And it was usually the same group of three or four guys; sexual predators. They knew she was vulnerable and had no tolerance for alcohol. For the price of a few drinks, everybody got laid; cheaper than a hooker. But they were raping her, taking advantage of a drunken woman. I know she had her part in it too; she knew what would happen if she got drunk, yet she still did it, but I don’t think she mentally was in control of her actions. Still makes me sad and breaks my heart when I think about it. She is with the angels now; I hope she finally found peace.

    • As I’ve sometimes told people with various kinds of substance and relationship issues. What do you do to fill a hole in your soul. I tried for over twelve years to get her into counciling or psychiatric care but she wouldn’t go. She remarried in the past three years and unless he’s very emotional mature I feel sorry for him.

  8. Thank you Justin. Sometimes we find grace in the strangest situations.

  9. In my case, they were definitely a pattern of self-injury. Do it, beat myself up, feel immense shame, beat myself up, repeat….


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