College Men and Women Express Different Sexual Regrets. Could Cave People Be to Blame?

What Women Really Think
Nov. 27 2013 10:31 AM

College Men and Women Express Different Sexual Regrets. Could Cave People Be to Blame?

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In a new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, a team of evolutionary psychologists queried 200 American college students on their greatest romantic and sexual regrets. They found that the female students were more likely to express regret over sexual actions they’d taken—like “losing their virginity” to the “wrong partner”—while male students were more likely to feel remorse over actions they did not take—like being “too shy to indicate sexual attraction to someone.”

You might expect that this study could reveal interesting differences in how male and female college students express anxiety around early sexual relationships. It could lend insight into the gendered pressures that the campus sexual culture exerts on men and women. It could offer clues to college health providers on how to guide students toward healthier and happier sexual relationships. But no. This is evolutionary psychology. Whatever modern attitudes these teens are scribbling out for class credit don't just apply to the dorm room—they are also evidence of deeply ingrained sex differences that have been carved into our brains since the Stone Age. As the study’s authors put it, the results show that the “psychology of sexual regret” was shaped by “sex differences in selection pressures operating over deep time.”

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Let’s take a look at how evolutionary forces molded the psyches of the horny modern undergraduate, according to the study’s authors. Twenty percent of the college women surveyed said they regretted a relationship that progressed “too fast” sexually, compared to 10 percent of the men surveyed. Why? Because back when our ancestral foremother was dragging random dudes back to the cave, just one ill-considered hook-up could set her up for 40 weeks of pregnancy (not to mention a significant lactation period) that required a ramped-up caloric intake (I'm paraphrasing here). Betting on the wrong hunter could leave mother and child vulnerable at a time when resources were particularly scarce, the authors argue. So that’s why the girl down the hall won’t put out on the first date. (Maybe if you buy her dinner first?). Meanwhile, 14 percent of the college men surveyed said they regretted “missed sexual opportunities by staying in a bad relationship,” compared to 9 percent of women. What could account for this (fairly insignificant) disparity? When our ancestral forefather committed to just one woman, he tied up his “resources” and prevented himself from “securing additional mating opportunities” with additional fertile women. So if your sophomore boyfriend seemed resentful when you two broke up, it was probably because all those nights watching Netflix together prevented him from knocking up your entire graduating class. As for the 9 percent of women who also expressed regret at their "missed sexual opportunities"—who knows? Maybe they're just less evolved.

The study’s authors refer to their evolutionary explanations for modern attitudes as “logical,” but the reasoning employed here is primitive, at best. As Amanda Schaffer laid out in Slate in 2005, scientists actually “know very little about the specific adaptive problems faced by our distant forebears.” Schaffer notes that we don’t even know “the number of species in the genus Homo”—much less the lifestyle choices those species faced, and how their brains processed those decisions. So evo-psychologists look to “modern-day hunter-gatherers as proxies” for Stone Age psyches, then rely on a lot of guesswork to crudely construct the gender dynamics of our ancestral homes. Scientists in the field make projections about our deep ancestors that are colored by their understanding of contemporary human beings; then, they use those projections to “explain” why differences between modern men and women have been set in stone for millennia, and are unlikely to budge any time soon.

So what's the point in "proving" that among a tiny sample of college students, a handful of men and women feel a different sort of deep regret about sexual scenarios that we can vaguely compare to our fantasies about the gender roles of our prehistoric ancestors? A study of the sex lives of 200 college students can’t actually tell us anything about how our early ancestors shacked up, and vice versa. It could, however, speak to the masturbatory tendencies of some scientists.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. Email her at amanda.hess@slate.com, or follow her on Twitter.