Many believe that casual sex often begets regret, especially for women. Is that really true? Let’s look at the evidence from half a dozen studies over the past decade.
Hookups Are Often Followed by Some Regret...
Some amount of post-hookup regret is indeed common. For example, in a small Canadian undergraduate sample, 72% of men and 78% of women who had a one-night stand or sex with someone known less than 24 hours reported experiencing some level of regret about their hooking up (4). In another sample of female undergrads from a Midwestern U.S. university, those who had engaged in several different hookup behaviors (including intercourse in a one-night stand, intercourse with someone known less than 24 hours, and receiving oral sex from a little-known partner) reported higher overall sexual regret than those who had not engaged in each of those behaviors (2).
It is also true that hookups are regretted more than romantic sexual interactions, at least for women. As the graph below shows, among 100 female freshmen at a Northeastern university who had experienced both romantic and casual sex (defined broadly as not in the context of dating or in a romantic relationship, and with no mutual expectation of romantic commitment), the most recent hookup was regretted more and enjoyed less than the most recent romantic encounter (3).
... But That Regret Is Not Very Strong
The fact that hookups are often followed by some regret, and more so than romantic sex, is only half the story. The other half is that, in both sexes, post-hookup regret is not particularly strong. And it’s much lower than evaluations of the fun and pleasure casual sex provides.
For example, in the Midwestern study mentioned above (2), the vast majority of students (regardless of their hookup experience) had only “a few regrets” (61%) or “no regrets” (23%) about their sexual decisions. And only a minority reported “some regrets” (13%) or “many regrets” (3%). Similarly, as the graph above shows, in the Northeastern study of female students, regret was well below the mid-point of the scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much), while enjoyment was well above the mid-point of the scale for both romantic and casual sex (3).
Indeed, virtually every study that has assessed both negative and positive reactions following hookups has found that positive feelings are stronger and more frequent. The graph below demonstrates this pattern for 500 undergrads at a Southeastern university (6). (For an additional undergraduate example, see here).
Here is more evidence from non-undergraduate samples: Among a random sample of 700 youth (ages 18-22) from a single Ohio district, 55% of male and 37% of female respondents with at least one casual sex experience did not regret their most recent hookup “at all.” The average level of regret on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much) was higher in women (M = 2.49) than in men (M = 1.87), but still well below the midpoint of the scale for both sexes (5).
Finally, a survey administered by a British TV station assessed regret following a one-night stand with someone attractive among 1,700 adults (ages 17-60). As the graph below shows, on a scale of 0 (definitely not) to 3 (definitely), regret was at or below the mid-point of the scale for women, and well below the midpoint for men. Sexual satisfaction and enhanced sense of wellbeing, on the other hand, were at the mid-point of the scale for women and above the mid-point for men (1).
The quality of the hookup matters: Of 180 students in yet another undergraduate sample, not a single one mentioned feeling regretful or "used" following their best one-night stand with a little-known partner. In contrast, 27 percent of women and 4 percent of men felt this way following their worst one-night stand (7).
What’s the Verdict?
The fact that hookups are regretted more than romantic sex, and that those who hook up have more sexual regret than those who do not, is not surprising. With romantic partners, you know exactly what you’re getting. Presumably, you have chosen to date or marry that person precisely because, among other things, sex with them is satisfying; they respect and care about you; you can have risk-free unprotected sex (for the most part); and there are few (if any) social repercussions or complications.
With hookups, on the other hand, there are many more unknowns and potential downsides—incompatible anatomies, bad sex, disrespectful partners, (stupidly) unprotected sex, a bad reputation, the risk of cheating on a romantic partner, a ruined friendship. And the more you hook up, the higher your chances of encountering at least one of these less-than-perfect outcomes. But you may also end up with gorgeous, passionate, and responsive partners; new skills, insights, and friendships; amazing, orgasmic, transformative sex; and fun stories to tell for years.
All of these unknowns are precisely what makes hookups so exciting for many people. For this group, a little bit of regret, or an occasional bad hookup, seems a small price to pay for potentially a lot of fun.
This is no different than any other human activity that carries some risk: If you don’t ever go rock climbing, you have zero chance of falling and breaking an ankle while climbing. If you only ever climb at your tried-and-true local gym, your chance of injury is somewhat higher, but still much lower than if you climb outdoors. And the more times you go outdoors, to different cliffs and mountains you don’t know well, the higher your chances of getting hurt—but the greater your chance of having exhilarating, possibly mind-blowing adventures.
We all differ in how much novelty and excitement we crave, and how much risk we’re comfortable with in order to satisfy those cravings. Everyone needs to find the right balance for themselves, and learn to accept the consequences of their actions—or inaction. Because not hooking up can lead to just as much regret—if not more—than hooking up.
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(3) Fielder, R. L., & Carey, M. P. (2010b). Prevalence and characteristics of sexual hookups among first-semester female college students. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 36, 346-359. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2010.488118
(4) Fisher, M. L., Worth, K., Garcia, J. R., & Meredith, T. (2012). Feelings of regret following uncommitted sexual encounters in Canadian university students. Culture, Health & sexuality, 14, 45-57. doi:10.1080/13691058.2011.619579
(5) Lyons, H. A., Manning, W. D., Longmore, M. A., & Giordano, P. C. (2014). Young adult casual sexual behavior: Life-course-specific motivations and consequences. Sociological Perspectives, 57, 79-101. doi:10.1177/0731121413517557
(6) Owen, J.J., & Fincham, F. (2011). Young adults’ emotional reactions after hooking up encounters. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 321-330. doi:10.1007/s10508-010-9652-x
(7) Paul, E. L., & Hayes, K. A. (2002). The casualties of `casual' sex: A qualitative exploration of the phenomenology of college students' hookups. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 19, 639-661. doi:10.1177/0265407502195006