Ask any group of 20-somethings about sexual experiences they regret, and you can expect a whole wild host of answers — that one time with the dude in the Ed Hardy T-shirt, your friend's girlfriend (shit), the guy from that club in Barcelona who was a horrific dancer/total douche (but you were in Europe, dammit), trying anal for the first time sans lube, not telling your significant other about that kink you have for a year and a half because you were too embarrassed, and losing your virginity in your cousin's basement to a Fall Out Boy song.
In a perfect world, no one would cringe at incidents like these, which reflect their informed and consensual sexual decision-making, but here we are.
A new study from the University of Texas at Austin, which examines the subject of sexual regret, found that while everyone seems to have them, men and women think about their sexual pasts quite differently. For men, the biggest regrets included failing to make a move on a prospective sexual partner and not being more sexually adventurous when young and while single. Women's main regrets were losing their virginity to the wrong person, cheating on a partner, and moving too fast sexually.
According to the researchers, these differences are evolutionary — men are more likely to regret not having "sown their wild oats," while women are more likely to regret having casual sex due to its alleged reproductive and emotional repercussions. The authors posit that the results show that the "psychology of sexual regret" was shaped by "sex differences in selection pressures operating over deep time."
While I can't say that I'm a biology expert, this line of reasoning seems absolutely ludicrous to me. I'm pretty sure that our cultural conditioning, laden as it is with sexual gendered expectations, has an equal (if not bigger) role in how we conceive of sex and think about our sexual histories. At Slate, Amanda Hess points out that evolutionary psychologists often rely on guesswork to determine the gendered dynamics of our ancestors, making retrospective assumptions which are colored by our contemporary understandings of human beings.
Rather than using a study of a few thousand college kids to prove that the sexual differences between modern men and women aren't going to change, I think it's more pertinent to examine what the same study says about our contemporary ideas of sexuality.
Last month, I wrote about how even though women are becoming equal partners in the so-called "hook up culture," women are still judged very differently for being openly sexual.
"To me, this study is further proof of the damaging effects of our sexual double standards. Women are told that the more sexual they are, the more they are devalued. For men, the opposite is true."
It makes sense for women to regret their sexual experiences more than men do. Women who claim their sexuality or behave in ways that don't conform with patriarchal expectations of womanhood are condemned and slut-shamed.
We see this construction perpetuated in pop culture all the time — through the music videos and movies we watch, the music we listen to, and the billboards we pass on the highway. Take, for instance, the 2010 teen comedy Easy A, a film loosely based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. The movie took on slut-shaming in a California high school, proving that when it comes to girls and sex, we haven't progressed that far since Hester Prynne's day.
The film's main character, Olive, pretends to have sex with unpopular boys to help them fight back against bullying. While the guys she pretends to bed are suddenly seen as "the man" by their peers, she's ostracized as a tramp.
Even as she deals with the difficulties of being labeled a slut, Olive feels power in her newfound identity as a "sexual" woman. Easy A is a glimpse into the reality of being a young woman in a world that both fetishizes and demonizes female sexuality, where you are told to be both innocent and sexual, even though those things are deemed mutually exclusive.
Despite the major findings of the UT study, the researchers note that there are women whose sexual regrets include not feeling more sexually liberated in their 20s, just as there are men who wish they had committed to a meaningful relationship over having sex with strangers.
The trouble is that our culture teaches that there are only narrowly defined ways to perform our genders and act as sexual agents, and ties these behaviors into our individual moral worth. It's clear that when it comes to conversations about sex, women continue to lose out, despite our social and economic advances.
When it comes to the double-edged sword that is female sexuality, my all-time favorite '80s movie, the Breakfast Club, may have put it best.