Social exchange and social/physical topography of one-night stands in college-age students.

Author:Marelich, William D.


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 These traditional forms of courtship have been replaced by a more equivocal social practice generally influenced by cultural changes (Glenn & Marquardt, 2001) and have become more of a common phenomenon especially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...

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