Men and women differ on regrets about sex

"The consequences of casual sex were so much higher for women than for men, and this is likely to have shaped emotional reactions to sexual liaisons even today," says Martie Haselton. (Credit: mrhayata/Flickr)

There appears to be a stark gender difference when it comes to feeling remorse about sexual experiences, and researchers say evolution may be to blame.

Men are more likely to regret not taking action on a potential liaison, and women are more remorseful for engaging in one-time liaisons, new research finds.

Evolutionary pressures probably explain the gender difference in sexual regret, says Martie Haselton, a social psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“For men throughout evolutionary history, every missed opportunity to have sex with a new partner is potentially a missed reproduce opportunity—a costly loss from an evolutionary perspective.” Haselton says. “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 women than for men, and this is likely to have shaped emotional reactions to sexual liaisons even today.”

Large study sample


In three studies the researchers asked participants about their sexual regrets. In the first study, 200 respondents evaluated hypothetical scenarios in which someone regretted pursuing or failing to pursue an opportunity to have sex. They were then asked to rate their remorse on a five-point scale.

In the second study, 395 participants were given a list of common sexual regrets and were asked to indicate which ones they have personally experienced. The last study replicated the second one with a larger sample of 24,230 individuals that included gay, lesbian, and bisexual respondents.

“Prior sex researchers have focused primarily on the emotion of sexual attraction in sexual decisions,” says David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at UT Austin. “These studies point to the importance of a neglected mating emotion—sexual regret—which feels experientially negative but in fact can be highly functional in guiding adaptive sexual decisions.”

What the results show

The top three most common regrets for women are: losing 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 are: 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.

Although rates of actually engaging in casual sex were similar overall among participants (56 percent), 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 activity more than men did.

Regret comes after the fact, so it’s not protective, Haselton notes. But it might help women avoid a potentially costly action again.

“One thing that is fascinating about these emotional reactions in the present is that they might be far removed from the reproductive consequences of the ancestral past,” Haselton says. “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 might have a deep evolutionary history.”

Andrew Galperin, a former social psychology doctoral student at UCLA, led the study, which is published in the current issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Source: UT Austin