Women are more likely to regret casual sexual encounters than men. Is that because women are evolutionarily predisposed to feel shame after sex? A team of UCLA evolutionary psychologists says yes. I say no:
As cultural norms change, so do sexual behaviors and our responses to them. A recent UK survey found that more women than ever before have had same-sex sexual experiences – four times as many women as two decades ago. And while the vast majority of respondents had sex before marriage, majorities nonetheless said sex before marriage was wrong. That disconnect between a cultural ideal – that sex is best within the confines of marriage – and the biological and social reality – that human beings physically desire sex and that we have had sex outside of the confines of marriage for all of human history – is perhaps a better explanation of any attendant negative emotions attached to premarital sex than an evolutionary guessing game.
The UK survey also found that women bear the brunt of negative sexual experiences, whether that’s sexual assault, sexually transmitted infections or unintended pregnancy. Women will of course feel less positive about sexual experiences that are tainted by assault or fear. And women will of course feel less positive about sexual experiences in a culture that attaches negative attributes to sexually active women.
That so many women are making sexual choices shrouded in shame and regret is a public health problem that policy-makers have an obligation to take on, not just a moral issue suited to public debate and Sunday sermons. Shame and fear are bad positions from which to make healthy, affirming choices – if women believe that one-time sexual encounters are often regretful, there’s little incentive to prepare for them or to negotiate one’s needs within them.
Why bring condoms along on a night out if you believe having casual sex is wrong? Easier to just allow yourself a hormonal or drunken lapse. Why support abortion rights if everyone agrees unintended pregnancy is a deserved consequence of regrettable sex, rather than a relatively common but relatively preventable aspect of the human experience? If men believe that women who have casual sex aren’t worthy of respect and that drunk women are sexually available, it’s easier for everyone else to look the other way or blame women for their own victimization when sexually assaulted.
Women are also much less likely than men to orgasm during casual sex. This is partly biological since more women report having trouble orgasming generally than men, but is also partly cultural and social. It’s not that women need to have commitment to orgasm as much as it’s that we culturally center sex around the male experience: starting with an erection and ending with ejaculation. A female orgasm also often takes more direction and communication, which women may not feel comfortable asserting in a one-time hook-up. Men, too, may simple be sexually selfish in short-term situations, buying the dominant cultural narrative that sex is something women give to men and is fundamentally about male pleasure.
Sexual regret isn’t about sex itself. It’s about all the ideas we attach to sex, and particularly to sexual women.
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