Dispersal is a critically important process in ecology, but robust predictive models of animal dispersal remain elusive. We identify a potentially ubiquitous component of variation in animal dispersal that has been largely overlooked until now: the influence of mate encounters on settlement probability. We use an individual-based model to simulate dispersal in sexually-reproducing organisms that follow a simple set of movement rules based on conspecific encounters, within an environment lacking spatial habitat heterogeneity. We show that dispersal distances vary dramatically with fluctuations in population density in such a model, even in the absence of variation in dispersive traits between individuals. In a simple random-walk model with promiscuous mating, dispersal distributions become increasingly 'fat-tailed' at low population densities due to the increasing scarcity of mates. Similar variation arises in models incorporating territoriality. In a model with polygynous mating, we show that patterns of sex-biased dispersal can even be reversed across a gradient of population density, despite underlying dispersal mechanisms remaining unchanged. We show that some widespread dispersal patterns found in nature (e.g. fat tailed distributions) can arise as a result of demographic variability in the absence of heterogeneity in dispersive traits across the population. This implies that models in which individual dispersal distances are considered to be fixed traits might be unrealistic, as dispersal distances vary widely under a single dispersal mechanism when settlement is influenced by mate encounters. Mechanistic models offer a promising means of advancing our understanding of dispersal in sexually-reproducing organisms.