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Casual sex: Men wish they’d had more of it, and women wish they’d had less, at least according to recent research. Scientists believe biology and evolution are to blame, but others suggest this rationale ignores the important role culture plays in people’s attitudes toward sexuality.

What’s the Deal?

Three recent studies surveyed more than 24,000 participants’ attitudes about their own sexual history and found that, while women tended to regret having sex (who they lost their virginity to, cheating on a partner, etc.), men regretted missing out on it (being too shy to make a move, not being more sexually adventurous, and so on). In fact, while men and women were found to engage in casual sex in relatively equal numbers, women reported more—and more intense—regrets about hookups.

The researchers concluded their results (and the norms themselves) were mostly rooted in “ancient selection pressures”—or the male instinct to spread his seed vs. the female instinct to avoid pregnancy. But they overlook several additional factors. For one thing, it’s important to note the relative heteronormativity of the research design: Only one of these three studies included participants who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, potentially limiting the generalizability of the findings to straight people only. For another, they give only passing mention to the powerful role cultural stereotypes and stigmas may play in people’s relationships to their own sexuality.

Why It Matters

Missing from the researchers’ conclusions (but hopefully not from further study) is how social norms and sexual double standards for men and women (“slut-shaming,” for example) affect people’s sexual decision-making Sexual double standards: a review and methodological critique of two decades of research. Crawford, M. and Popp, D. Department of Psychology, University of Connecticut. Journal of Sex Research, 2003 Feb;40(1):13-26. Cultural stereotypes may make men feel pressured to seek Casanova status, for instance, and play a role in women feeling conflicted or regretful about the sex they’ve had as well as their ability to enjoy the sex they’re having.

Women are more likely to achieve orgasm in committed relationships than in casual hookups.

Meanwhile, two other studies have found that women are more likely to achieve orgasm in committed relationships than in casual hookups. In this case, the researchers believe men are more attentive sexual partners in relationships and that two people having sex repeatedly makes both better at it, which could lead to better sex and more orgasms for women. Perhaps women regret sex with a committed partner less because they enjoy the sex more.

What all this points to is that, when it comes to our feelings about our sex lives, a whole lot of factors—including but not limited to our biological impulses—are at play. Men may be driven to “spread their seed,” but they’re also influenced by cultural expectations of sexual prowess. Similarly, without investigating how perceptions of female sexual behavior impact women’s feelings about—and therefore enjoyment of—casual sex, it’s impossible to fully understand why women are enjoying sex less and regretting it more.

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