The only shameful thing about sex is justifying outdated views with ‘science’
The “walk of shame” is a Sunday morning ritual on college campuses (and sometimes beyond) across the United States: young women, hair matted and still in last night’s skirt and heels, trudge home post-hook-up. It’s a uniquely female ritual, and the term itself evokes a singularly female image.
While men also have to go home after sex, often disheveled and exhausted, there’s no shame attached to their commute. In a culture that imbues sexual activity in women with shame and judgment while applauding sexual prolificacy in men, it will surprise no one that women are more likely than men to report regretting sexual encounters. But according to a new study, it’s not cultural views of female sexuality that saddle women with regret; it’s evolution.
The research team found that college-age women are more likely to regret a one-time sexual encounter, whereas men are more likely to regret not taking a sexual opportunity. Women’s biggest sexual regrets are losing their virginity to the wrong partner, cheating on a partner or moving too fast sexually. Men, on the other hand, regretted not making a move on a potential partner, and a lack of sexual adventurousness in their younger or single days. Similar patterns held among gay men and lesbians – women were more likely to regret sexual activity, while men were more likely to regret chances not taken.
Martie Haselton, a UCLA social psychology professor on the research team, said:
One thing that is fascinating about these emotional reactions in the present is that they might be far removed from the reproductive consequences of the ancestral past. For example, we have reliable methods of contraception. But that doesn’t seem to have erased the sex differences in women’s and men’s responses, which might have a deep evolutionary history.
Or a deep cultural one. While evolutionary biology traffics in real, science-backed facts, evolutionary psychology is largely a project of backward-looking guesswork, and often an attempt to chalk up complex social phenomenon to evolution. That’s wildly appealing, because people love having their biases confirmed, and because alleged scientific confirmation of an “evolutionary” reason for social inequity handily gives us an out for having to deal with injustice. If women have actually emotionally evolved to feel sexual shame absent social context, then what’s the point of pushing back on a social context that sexually shames women?
In reality, our emotional and psychological responses to interactions with other human beings are shaped by culture and socialization at least as much as biology. But as sexual mores continue to shift – perhaps more rapidly than many folks are comfortable with – it’s comforting to believe that some evolutionary fact underlies our unease. Human sexual expression has long been widely variable, and social institutions have struggled to reign it in through a variety of mechanisms (outlawing same-sex relationships or premarital sex; valorizing female chastity and reproduction within marriage) for a variety of reasons (economic stability based on a nuclear family model; continuance of male social, political and economic dominance).
We are complicated animals, and even as we study our own motivations and feelings, we are operating within a set of cultural assumptions and values that – being thickly swaddled in them – we cannot fully see. Which helps psychologists who fancy themselves evolution experts to conclude that their own personal preferences, or the current norms of their culture, are universal and explicable by evolution alone.
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 simply 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. We’d be much better off squaring our sexual ideals with reality rather than pushing a set of social mores that not only put our physical and mental health at risk, but mean too many of us are having bad sex and regretting what should be one of the most fundamentally pleasurable activities.
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