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If Only... Gender Differences in Sexual Regret

Women regret sex without relationships. Men regret relationships without sex.

Sex is an inexhaustible source of good feelings such as pleasure, awe, and elation. But sex is also, equally, a potential source of negative emotions such as regret.

In general, the feeling of regret is enabled and shaped by three related factors:

First, regret depends on the availability of choice, the existence of options. We are more prone to regret a purchase if we’re given the option to return and exchange it than if the sale is final.

Second, a sense of regret depends on perceived control. Most of us regret missing a flight by one minute more than missing it by two hours, even though the result in both cases is the same. This is because the one-minute miss lets us feel as if making the flight was within our reach, under our control.

Third, regret is contingent on our imagination, our mind’s ability to conjure up different possible events than those that actually happened to us. Olympic athletes who won the silver medal feel more regret than those who won the bronze, in part because they can easily imagine themselves winning gold. Bronze medal winners feel less regret, as they can more easily imagine themselves in fourth place, with no medals at all.

Studies suggest that our regrets are most often relegated to three life pursuits: education ("Why did I not study more, why did I not study another area?"), career ("why did I go in direction x and not in direction y?"), and romantic relationships ("Why did I marry this guy, I should have married that other one."). In most areas there are no significant differences between the sexes in rates of regret (although women on the whole appear to have more romantic regrets than men). But the area of sex, especially casual sex, may be a different story.

Researchers Andrew Galperin and Martie Haselton of the University of California Los Angeles last year published (with several colleagues) an article on sexual regret, presenting the results of three conceptually related studies involving more than twenty-four thousand participants in all. In study 1, college students evaluated hypothetical scenarios in which someone regretted taking advantage or failing to take advantage of an opportunity for casual sex. Participants rated how much regret they thought they would feel in each scenario. In study 2, participants recruited online were given a list of common sexual regrets and asked to indicate which ones they have personally experienced. The third study replicated the second one with a larger, more diverse sample that included gay, lesbian, and bisexual participants.

The sexual regrets presented to participants belonged mainly in one of two categories: ‘action’ regrets (I decided to sleep with him\her) or 'inaction' regrets (I decided not to sleep with him\her). The researchers compared patterns of regret among women and men and found a number of significant differences:

In general, women were more likely than men to regret sexual ‘action’ (“I decided to have a one night stand with a guy,” etc.). Men showed an opposite pattern, regretting primarily sexual ‘inaction’ (“I didn’t ask her to have sex with me,” etc.).

The three biggest regrets of women were, in descending order: losing their virginity with the wrong partner, cheating on a partner, and letting relationships progress to sex too quickly. The three most common male regrets were: being too shy to indicate sexual attraction to someone, not being (sexually) adventurous enough in their youth, and not being adventurous enough during their single days.

While casual sex rates were similar overall among participants (56%), women reported more numerous and more intense ‘action’ regrets about it.

Overall, women were more likely to regret engaging in sex that did not lead to committed relationships whereas men felt more regrets about engaging in a relationship that did not lead to sex.

Surprisingly, one of the common regrets among women related to having sex with a non-attractive partner. A partner’s physical attractiveness is commonly thought of as a male preoccupation, but apparently when it comes to casual sex, women tend to raise the attractiveness bar for agreement ("I’ll have a one night stand with someone, but only if he looks like George Clooney"), while men tend to lower it: ("It’s just a one-nighter, who cares if she looks like George Clooney").

Interestingly, lesbian and bisexual women reported a regret pattern more similar to men than to heterosexual women. One possible reason is that women engaging in sex with women are not worried about an unwanted pregnancy. Such encounters are hence less risky, easier to justify, and less prone to regret. In addition, the researchers conjecture, perhaps casual sex between women tends to be more satisfying than heterosexual casual sex.

The authors explain their overall results in light of evolutionary theory. According to this theory, emotions such as regret play an important role in directing our movement in the world. For example, regretting past behavior may help us change our future behavior. Also, the very idea that we might regret some act (e.g. drunken sex with a stranger) can cause us to act preemptively to avoid the aggravation (drink less, leave the party early, etc.).

From an evolutionary perspective, emotions serve as road signs to help direct us toward our primary biological goals: survival and reproduction. The theory predicts that emotional patterns of males and females may differ in line with the different survival and reproductive strategies optimal for each sex.

In humans, as in other mammals, sex and reproduction demand higher risk and investment from females than from males. To bring a child carrying her genes into the world, a woman needs nine months, vastly increased caloric intake, and a lot of help from the environment. A man needs twenty seconds of concentration. It thus makes sense for women to be sexually cautious and selective, while men, having little to lose, will benefit from a more “wasteful” and carefree sexual approach.

Women, according to this logic, have been evolutionarily programmed to regret (and thus stay away from) taking unnecessary risks ("Why did I sleep with this bum?"). Men, however, are programmed to regret missed fertilization opportunities ("Why didn’t I try to sleep with her?”). The findings of Galperin, Haselton and colleagues support these predictions.

Still, it should be noted in this context that the theory of evolution provides an historical, distal explanation of the processes that lead to the formation of group differences in various traits and behavior tendencies. Evolutionary theory, however, does not account for individual differences in behavior here and now. The results of the studies described above may well accurately depict male-female differences in general patterns of sexual regret. However life is experienced in the concrete.

As individuals, our conduct in the world is nuanced and subject to various contemporary influences over and beyond the whisperings of biological evolution.

The immediate situation, for example, affects our behavior strongly. Men in general may tend to regret a failure to pursue casual flings, but a particular man, say a married sitting US president, may actually come to regret pursuing a particular woman, say an intern, at a particular place, like, say, the Oval Office.

Additionally, our behavior tendencies are greatly affected by society’s norms and conventions. It would be interesting to see data on the patterns of regret in people from cultures outside of the US. Their results may well differ from ours. Time is also a component. Research has suggested that, over all, action is regretted more in the short term while in the long term, inaction regrets predominate.

Moreover, the studies described here were based on participants' self-reports about events that happened to them in the past and events that might happen in the future. Answers based on past memories or future predictions do not always reflect what we actually felt in the past as it was happening or what we will actually feel if and when things will happen in the future. The experiencing self, as Daniel Kahneman points out in his stellar book Thinking Fast and Slow, is very different than the remembering self.

Still, the results of these studies (and others) indicate that regrets, regarding sex and other issues, while they differ in nature between men and women, are very common. This raises the question: what to do about regret?

At first glance it seems as if we would do well to get rid of regret, discard it from our lives, or vow to live without it. We can easily imagine that living without regrets would be a good life. And pop psychology is filled with platitudinal notions about “life without regret.”

But in reality life without regrets may not be possible. We all have some options and choices in our lives (hence the possibility of error). We all have some perceived control over aspects of our lives (hence the possibility of feeling responsibility for errors). We all can imagine how things might have turned out differently than they did (and hence the ability to compare the path we chose with another potential path that we did not). Thus we all are bound to experience regret. And in a way this is good. We should remember that ‘bad’ feelings feel bad, but are not bad for us. The pain you feel after stepping on a rusty nail feels bad, but it alerts you to the trouble and its location and helps motivate ameliorative action. Without the pain’s useful signal, you’d still be walking around with a nail in your foot, which would be bad for you.

Regret, as mentioned, can serve an important role in directing our movement in the world. Those who do not have the ability to feel regret will end up harming themselves and others (a lack of ability to feel regret is a characteristic feature of psychopathy).

Attempts to completely rid our lives of regret are futile, misguided and unnecessary. The risk for our mental health is not posed by regret itself ("I feel bad about what I did") but by our propensity to translate it into comprehensive judgments of self worth ("I'm a bad person") and a habit of self-flagellation ("If I was not such a stupid, weak, blind and lousy person, I would not make mistakes and suffer regret. I probably deserve it").

Regret, in the end, is a sure mark of humanity, not an inherent symptom of any disease. You regret first and foremost because you're a human being, not because you're inferior or defective in some fundamental way. Those who insist on a life without regret, or alternatively hate themselves for their regrets instead of accepting and learning from them, deny the very fact of their full humanity. Denial of such a fact (and of facts in general) tends to disempower us, and it dilutes the experience of living.

The good life, sexual and otherwise, is marked not by the absence of regrets but by their proper management.

Maybe, as Arthur Miller said, all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.