Regret and casual sex may go hand in hand but for different reasons, depending on the sex of the participants.
According to new research by psychologists at UCLA and the University of Texas at Austin, men are more likely to regret not seizing the opportunity for a quick and meaningless tryst, while women are more remorseful about actually jumping into bed for a one-night stand.
Evolutionary pressures probably explain the stark contrast in remorse between men and women when it comes to casual sex, say the researchers behind the findings, which appear in the current issue of the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.
"For men, throughout evolutionary history, every missed opportunity to have sex with a new partner was potentially a missed reproductive opportunity — a costly loss from an evolutionary perspective," said Martie Haselton, a UCLA professor of psychology and communication studies in whose lab the research was conducted. "But for women, reproduction required much more investment in each offspring, including nine months of pregnancy and potentially two additional years of breastfeeding. The consequences of casual sex were so much higher for ancestral women than for ancestral men, and this is likely to have shaped emotional reactions to sexual liaisons even today."
"These findings are consistent with the notion that the psychology of sexual regret was shaped by recurrent sex differences in selection pressures operating over deep time," said co-author David Buss, a University of Texas at Austin evolutionary psychologist.
In three studies, the researchers asked more than 24,000 participants about their sexual regrets. In the first study, the respondents evaluated hypothetical scenarios in which someone regretted taking advantage of or failing to take advantage of an opportunity to have sex. They were then asked to rate the main character's remorse on a five-point scale.
In the second study, participants were given a list of common sexual regrets and were asked to indicate which ones they had personally experienced.
The last study replicated the second (which included heterosexual participants), but with a larger sample of individuals that included gay, lesbian and bisexual respondents.
According to the findings:
- The three most common regrets for women, in descending order, were: losing their virginity to the wrong partner (24 percent), cheating on a present or past partner (23 percent) and moving too fast sexually (20 percent).
- For men, the top three regrets were, in descending order: being too shy to make a move on a prospective sexual partner (27 percent), not being more sexually adventurous when young (23 percent) and not being more sexually adventurous during their single days (19 percent).
- More women (17 percent) than men (10 percent) included "having sex with a physically unattractive partner" as a top regret.
While rates of actually engaging in casual sex were similar overall among participants (56 percent total), women reported more frequent and more intense regrets about it.
Comparing gay men and lesbian women, and bisexual men and bisexual women, a similar pattern held — women tended to regret casual sexual actions more than men did.
None of the 39 sexual-action regrets ranked by participants were statistically more common for men than for women, and only one of the 30 sexual-inaction regrets was more common for women than for men.
Many factors may be at work, the researchers conceded, but evolutionary pressures may well be at the root of them.
"We do not doubt that social norms, such as a sexual 'double standard,' play a major role in sexual regret," said lead author Andrew Galperin, who worked on the project before completing his Ph.D. in psychology at UCLA in 2012. "But these norms themselves might have roots in the ancient selection pressures shaping women's and men's minds."
"One thing that is fascinating about these emotional reactions in the present is that they are often far removed from the reproductive consequences of the ancestral past," Haselton said. "For example, we have reliable methods of contraception. But that doesn't seem to have erased the sex differences in women's and men's responses, which have a deep evolutionary history."