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Sex and regret differs in men and women

columns Updated: Nov 30, 2013 23:19 IST
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Even the rare men who do not claim sexual assault was consensual or that the woman enjoyed it, almost never think of it as “wrong”. The only regret, even in their comparatively more virtuous minds, is being accused, caught or ridiculed.

New research from the US shows that even when casual sex — and we’re talking consensual here — and regret go hand in hand, the nature of regret varies widely with gender. Men are more likely to regret not seizing the opportunity for a meaningless quickie, while women are more remorseful about a one-night stand, say psychologists at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Texas at Austin in the current issue of the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

In short, women regret having casual sex and men regret not having enough. Since the findings are self explanatory, I’m going to quote chunks from the report.

The three most common regrets for women, in descending order, were: losing their virginity to the wrong partner (24%), cheating on a present or past partner (23 %) and moving too fast sexually (20%).

For men, the top three regrets were, in descending order: being too shy to make a move on a prospective sexual partner (27%), not being more sexually adventurous when young (23%) and not being more sexually adventurous during their single days (19%).

The US study found that the findings held true for gay men and lesbians, and bisexual men and women. While rates of actually engaging in casual sex were similar overall among participants (56%), women reported more frequent and more intense regret.

More women (17%) than men (10%) included “having sex with a physically unattractive partner” as a top regret, a finding that should be quoted widely to counter ridiculous statements like, “But why would he do it when women threw themselves at him? She is not even attractive.”

Clearly, the moral from former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s age of un-innocence fable has been quickly forgotten. Strauss-Kahn resigned from the IMF in May 2011, after being arrested by NY police over allegations of sexual assault by a maid at his New York hotel. He continued to insist his behaviour was “inappropriate” but did not involve violence, constraint or aggression. Now he works as an economic advisor to the Serbian government. For free. But going back to consensual casual sex, evolutionary pressures probably best explain the stark contrast in remorse between men and women when it comes to casual sex, write UCLA researchers. “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, professor of psychology and communication studies at UCLA, in whose lab the research was done. “But for women, reproduction required much more investment in each offspring, including nine months of pregnancy and potentially two additional years of nursing and care. The consequences of casual sex were much higher for ancestral women than for ancestral men, and this is likely to have shaped emotional reactions to sexual liaisons even today.”

What’s odd is that the many changes in the lives of a lot of women —financial independence, choosing to be single, using contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancy, among others — do not seem to have erased the evolutionary gender-bias in response. This could be because other factors — social norms, such as a sexual double standards — may also be at work, but again study authors say these norms themselves have roots in traditional selection pressures shaping women’s and men’s minds. “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.

The findings have been collated from three studies, in which more than 24,000 participants were quizzed about their sexual regrets. In the first study, people were asked to evaluate hypothetical scenarios in which someone regretted taking advantage of or failed to take advantage of an opportunity to have sex. They were then asked to rate the character’s remorse on a five-point scale.

In the second study, participants were given a list of common sexual regrets and were asked which ones they had personally experienced. The last study replicated the second with a larger sample of gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

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