Photo of students at a party by Jirka Matousek, Flickr CC

Sexual preferences are more than just sexual orientation. Since individuals attach different meanings to sexual acts, they may experience and look back on the same sexual activities in very different ways. New research expands our understanding of how social factors like gender affect feelings of regret after sexual activity. In one study, Jeremy Uecker and Brandon Martinez focus on whether college students regret their hookups.

Using data from the Online College Social Life Survey (OCSLS), the researchers examine answers from 13,020 heterosexual college students who reported ever regretting a hookup and regretting their most recent hookup. Researchers did not provide a definition of “hookup,” instead allowing participants to respond based on their own understanding of what a hookup is. In their analysis, the authors first test for gender differences in regret in different contexts. Then they use logistic regression to figure out what might explain these gender differences, like attitudes about sex, initiation of sex, enjoyment of sex, and perceived loss of respect from one’s partner and oneself.

Regardless of gender, students do not regret most hookups, especially their most recent hookups. Yet, the majority of students do regret sexual activity that happened in at least one of their hookups. In terms of gender, the amount of men and women who regret hookups are not that different overall. However, there are certain aspects of hookups that women regret more than men — specifically vaginal sex with a first-time partner. Out of the variables the researchers examined to try to explain this gap, three stood out:

  1. Initiation and Agency — Social norms indicate it is more appropriate for men to initiate sexual activity than women, so men tend to be in positions of power more often than women and thus may regret sex less. The authors also note that men appear to use this power to pressure women into having vaginal sex the women may not have wanted in the first place.
  2. Sexual Satisfaction — The authors found large gender differences in sexual satisfaction in hookups involving vaginal sex, especially when the hookup was with a first-time partner. They suggest this may be a result of men lacking partner-specific skills and knowledge that would make the experience sexually enjoyable for women.
  3. Perceptions of Respect — The sexual double standard (the idea that men can and should have sex with many partners but women shouldn’t) contributes to women feeling like their partner lost respect for them because of their sexual behavior.

Sociological research like this study can help us understand how we look back on sexual experiences. Gendered power relations, combined with social norms and beliefs about sex, contribute to who regrets casual sex and in what context. While these social components did lead to more women regretting vaginal sex than men, it is also important to remember that nearly three-quarters of these women did not regret those hookups at all — a finding that flies in the face of sexual double standards that argue women should not or cannot have sex casually.