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The metaphysics of the one-night stand

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 25 January 2005

A one-night stand is a sexual encounter between strangers who know they will never see each other again.

These encounters often happen in hotel rooms in cities far from home and spouse and family. Their geographical and social dislocation means that they are the safest way to have sex with a person other than your partner, and they usually happen during conferences, or business trips. The etiquette of the one-night stand is quite different from that of courtship because both participants know that the relationship, such as it is, begins and ends within a few hours. Consequently, there is no talk of the age and progress of children, no endearments, no journey into the other’s life, no reconnaissance of family or prospects. The object of the exchange is sex with no strings attached. The phrase “I love you” is banned because it projects a future. Indeed, conversation is limited to the immediate, as though the world is about to end.

I began to think about one-night stands while reading John Updike’s latest novel Villages in which he describes one such encounter during which the female partner talks nonstop about abuses perpetrated by a colleague. Her anger takes centre stage leaving sex as a bodily function, which is played out in the background. They may as well have played a round of golf together as go to bed.


These sentences of Updike struck me as significant:

But it was too late, the Association of Electronic Industries was striking its tent tomorrow, and they would be winging their way back to lives for which this interlude was no lasting solution…Neither had enough to say, but as they fumbled sheepishly and sleepily for words they were acknowledging that, though they would not meet again, they had made a start, a stab at significance. There was a flavor to this, a taste, amid those of coffee and sugary fried dough, of sluggish animal ease and of mutually achieved knowledge - a swallowed mournfulness which lovers with a future avoid knowing.

I am sure the one-night stand is not a modern phenomenon. Brief encounters between men and women have existed in all of human history. But its significance for our time appears different from other times because with the fading of faith, moral imperatives have also faded. The revolution in reliable contraception has made these encounters “safe” and liberalism has told us that it is OK as long as no one gets hurt.

While these encounters appear to be as slightly significant as a handshake, the players know that something is out of joint. Something inside them knows sex that is not allowed to form a future is strange to how the grain of life runs. Indeed, they have to discipline themselves to avoid feelings of love, hopefulness and tenderness. If these were to creep in from the soul in the few absolutely private hours together, then they would enter a land in which damage was the major quality. There is the danger that the other will take up residence in the mind and haunt us while we lay beside our sleeping spouse. Our unity of purpose would be weakened, our marital lovemaking would contain another body distracting us from our passion. Perhaps that is why Updike had the female of the encounter so distracted, to protect herself from an intimacy that she could ill afford.

Their words betray that they are not at ease with what they had done. As though excusing themselves they say “they had made a start, a stab at significance”. But that is a lie. The whole episode is predicated on not making a start to anything. What is not a lie is the “swallowed mournfulness”. Such behaviour as theirs jars against a nature that the modern world has refused to recognise: sex cannot be dissociated from a hopeful future anymore than it can be dissociated from love. The players sense that what they had done was a truncation of their deepest natures. They swallow mournfulness along with their coffee and danish because they have behaved as though they were creatures that were not embedded in time, hence the reference to a “sluggish animal ease”.

In the absence of a transcendent story that gives life direction and purpose, life is understood to be a series of disconnected experiences. We book holidays on the quality of the experience. We remember a one-night stand as an experience. We say of the unusual “at least it was an experience!” A life that consists of inchoate experience must lead to madness, because we cannot grasp hold of it. Or rather, if life consists of experiences that do not fit together into some kind of story, then the person lives a shattered life.


This is how the one-night stand is significant for us, because it points to the “storylessness” of our lives, the fractured nature that pursues more and more experiences, the next having to be more dangerous or stimulating or outrageous than the last. The story of one's life becomes a series of boastful anecdotes that do not relate to each other. The one-night stand is a signifier of the quality of the times.

We do not expect that life should be unified by a story: that it is aimed at something. The secular view is that life consists of a limited time that we may spend as we see fit. This may be glossed with moralisms about helping others and such, but there is no unified telos. To ask what life is for is to invite derision or more sentimental thoughts about being kind to others. This leaves a vacuum of purpose at the centre of life that we can fill with experiences. Women want children because they want to experience motherhood. Men strive to make money because they want to experience being rich. Couples have one-night stands that consist of awkward and unsatisfactory sex because they want to experience another body.

The things we do should mean something. That is why Updike places in his character’s mouths the words, “though they would not meet again, they had made a start, a stab at significance”. The things we do should be a part of a whole, a journey towards a destination. But liberalism has erased this and given us permission to have fun in any way we see fit. It has erased the idea that life has a purpose, which is why people do things that are purposeless. The one-night stand makes no difference to the problems faced at home.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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