In a new study, scientists say they’ve found that men and women tend to have different “sexual regrets.”
A research team led by scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles surveyed nearly 25,000 people, asking them if they’d ever regretted a variety of sexual experiences like having a one-night stand or having unsafe sex. The results appeared in a paper published in the October issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
"Prior sex researchers have focused primarily on the emotion of sexual attraction in sexual decisions," coauthor and University of Texas at Austin evolutionary psychologist David Buss said in a statement. "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."
The first experiment surveyed 200 heterosexual college students (78 men, 122 women) about their regrets in life and romance. A second experiment offered a checklist of regrets to 395 heterosexual people (156 men, 239 women) recruited through Craigslist. A third experiment surveyed more than 24,000 people recruited through an online banner ad, and included gay, lesbian and bisexual participants as well as straight men and women.
Among the population surveyed, the top three regrets for men tended to focus on missed opportunities. 27 percent of men surveyed regretted being too shy to make a move on a potential sex partner; the two other most common regrets were not being sexually adventurous enough when young (23 precent) or single (19 percent).
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Women’s sexual regrets seemed to spring from a different source. The top regret was losing one’s virginity to the wrong person (24 percent), cheating on a partner (23 percent) or moving too fast sexually (20 percent). Women were also more likely (17 percent) than men (10 percent) to regret having sex with an unattractive partner. And while both genders reported similar rates of casual sexual encounters, women tended to report more frequent and intense regrets afterwards.
Regrets, Buss and colleagues think, aren’t necessarily bad. If one truly regrets not going after the girl or shacking up with a stranger, than perhaps a person might modify their behavior moving forward, to avoid future regrets. The researchers (being evolutionary psychologists) also speculate that evolutionary pressures may have shaped our modern sexual behavior -- thrills and lows alike.
"For men throughout evolutionary history, every missed opportunity to have sex with a new partner is potentially a missed reproductive opportunity — a costly loss from an evolutionary perspective,” coauthor and UCLA psychologist Martie Haselton said in a statement. "But for women, reproduction required much more investment in each offspring, including nine months of pregnancy and potentially two additional years of breastfeeding.”
But many scientists are skeptical of potential overreach when it comes to evolutionary psychology claims, which tend to over-generalize human behavior both in the present and in the past. The interaction between partners, and parents and offspring, could have been much more communal in the Paleolithic, as seen in modern hunter-gatherer tribes.
“Among the Hadza of Africa, for example, the men hunt, but they share the bounty of that hunting widely, politically, strategically,” science writer Natalie Angier wrote in a spirited critique of evolutionary psychology for the New York Times in 1999. “They don't deliver it straight to the mouths of their progeny. Women rely on their senior female kin to help feed their children. The women and their children in a gathering-hunting society clearly benefit from the meat that hunters bring back to the group. But they benefit as a group, not as a collection of nuclear family units.”
So: modern women may worry over one-night stands in this day and age, but don’t necessarily assume their cavewoman ancestors did.
SOURCE: Galperin et al. “Sexual Regret: Evidence for Evolved Sex Differences.” Archives of Sexual Behavior October 2013.