A new study suggests that when women initiate one-night stands on their own, they're less likely to regret them the next morning.

Amanda MacMillan
March 09, 2018

Casual sex is a tricky thing when it comes to health and well-being. Sex can, of course, be a fun and healthy part of a mature adult relationship—yes, even a casual one—but you also have to keep not just your physical health (ahem, using protection!) in mind, but your emotional health too.

Last year, researchers from Norway brought us the not-too-surprising news that women are more likely than men to regret one-night stands after they’re over. Now, the same scientists have partnered with U.S. researchers and gone a step further, surveying adults in both countries to find out exactly what factors contribute to that regret. Their latest results are published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

The new findings aren’t terribly shocking either: It turns out that women are less likely to regret short-term sexual experiences when they’re the ones initiating the encounter. That wasn’t true for men in the study: Guys tended to be equally happy with casual sex regardless of whether they got the ball rolling or if a woman took the lead.

The survey asked heterosexual college students (929 in Norway and 524 in the United States) about their most recent casual-sex encounter. About half of the men surveyed said they were glad they'd engaged in that experience, compared to about a third of the women. On the other hand, more women—41% of Norwegians and 50% of Americans—said they regretted having casual sex, compared to 26% and 35% of Norwegian and American men, respectively.

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The study also found that people experienced less regret if they felt their partner was skilled enough to satisfy them sexually—in other words, if the sex was good. But once again, that effect was stronger in women than in men.

The researchers say this difference between genders is likely due to biological factors: Women face greater repercussions when it comes to sex—namely, nine months of pregnancy—so it makes sense that they would care more about the quality of each encounter. And from an evolutionary perspective, they point out, a male who’s skilled at sex may also be more likely to pass on high-quality, healthy genes to his offspring.

The finding that women who initiate sex are less likely to regret it later makes sense on several levels, say the authors. First, women who initiate sex are likely to have a “healthy sexual psychology, being maximally comfortable with their own sexuality,” said co-author David Buss, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, in a press release.

“Second, women who initiate have maximum choice of precisely who they want to have sex with,” Buss added. “Consequently, they have less reason to feel regret, since they've made their own choice."

Of course, sometimes emotional reactions to sexual experiences are related to bigger issues, the authors point out, like consent. The study found that women and men who felt coerced into sex were more likely to regret it later. Both genders were also more likely to regret a sexual encounter if they looked back at it with disgust—if they found the sex to be unhygienic, wrong, or immoral, for example.

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More Norwegians reported having recent casual sex than Americans, but emotional trends following those encounters were similar in both groups. The study did have some limitations, however: Most participants in the study were in their late teens and early 20s, so the findings may not apply to older adults at different stages of their lives. In addition, the survey was only able to show associations between regret and various factors—not a cause-and-effect relationship.

Overall, the findings suggest that having control over their own decisions “buffered” women from experiencing regret after sex, said co-author and UT Austin PhD student Joy Wyckoff, in the press release. “These results are another reminder of the importance of women's ability to make autonomous decisions regarding their sexual behaviors.”