Disgust and Regret after Casual Sex
Regret and counterfactual thinking have a great impact on several domains of a human’s existence, including emotional well-being, decision making, behavior regulation and mental health. This has made the mentioned topics widely studied across different demographics and cultures over the past decades. Regret refers to, the often negative response springing from counterfactual musings, especially those that go upwards and are centered on personal actions. Regret as a response to actions, has been hypothesized to be an evolved adaption designed to curtail the probability of repeating errors made in the past.
At the bedrock of some people’s most intense regrets lie decisions concerning romance or sexual relations. In recent years sexual regret has gained renowned attention as a conspicuous domain within the topics of evolution and gender difference. This is partially due to sexual regret seeming to be perceived differently by women and men, a major exception to regret in general, where the sexes do not evidently differ in their experiences: Men are prone to show less regret over casual sex than women, and greater regret over inaction towards a sexual encounter relative to women.
Sexual strategies theory
This may be illuminated by evolutionary logic present in Trivers’ parental investment theory which postulates an asymmetrical gap between the sexes’ obligatory parental investment. Buss and Schmitt’s sexual strategies theory based on Trivers’ ideas, consequently pose that gender differences will exist within the domain of sexual regret because of the higher parental investment associated with pregnancy and producing offspring for women. Being aware of the consequences and implications following pregnancy may, therefore, suggest that women are more cautious towards casual sex, and thus experience greater regret when they do pursue romantic possibilities. By contrast, men will according to the same theories regret passing on sexual opportunities that could lead to greater individual reproductive success. Thus the mentioned differences in sexual regret pose as a product of evolved gender differences.
Previous research have provided robust empirical support congruent with explanations building on an evolutionary foundation. But as Galperin et al. points out no study has compared the regret reactions of men and women in identical events.
The feeling of disgust have in recent research proved to be one of the strongest predictors for regret after casual sex. The definition of disgust has changed since the word first appeared in the late 16th century, but is in Tybur, Lieberman & Griskevicius’ study described as an emotion triggered in response to different acts or substances. The wide-ranging situations of which disgust can emerge from, has had researchers question how the function of disgust can be correctly characterized. In the aforementioned study, the researchers investigated how an evolutionary perspective suggests that the function of disgust is to solve 3 adaptive problems related to sexuality, pathogen avoidance and morality. In exploring these domains, the researchers proposed the experience of disgust to be a proximate psychological predictor for sexual regret.
Research conducted by Kennair et al. found greater disgust sensitivity among women within the sexual domain. In the study they indentified the risk of contracting an STI, feeling regret towards the immorality of the one-night-stand or finding the sex itself repulsive, as predictors for regret which encompasses all domains of regret in the model of Tybur et al. The authors proposed that differences, both individual and gender-wise, may therefore be affected by disgust after a one-night-stand. A recent study building on these findings found disgust to be one of the strongest predictors for regret after casual sex.
Al-Shawaf, Lewis, and Buss applied the model proposed by Tybur et al. and reported similar findings, with women having greater responses of disgust than men especially within the domain of sexual regret. The findings were interpreted as evidence for sexual disgust being a cognitive adaptation that serves to prevent individuals from adopting a short-term mating strategy.
Although sexual disgust and negative emotions such as shame and guilt have shown to be predictors for sexual regret, the known effects intoxication, feeling vulnerable and an impaired judgment have on sexual regret are modest/insufficient. That being said, a study conducted by Oswalt, Cameron & Koob on college-age students, showed that 32% of the 348 respondents reported regretting a sexual encounter due to alcohol influencing their decision-making. The results showed no significant gender differences. Supplementary research show strong positive correlations between drinking large amounts of alcohol and engaging in short-term sexual relations. Research conducted by Vincke suggests that drinking large quantities of alcohol could function as a short-term mating strategy, due to binge drinkers being more sexually unrestricted compared to non-binge drinkers. This is an interesting finding when taking into account that the above-mentioned research shows that students regret sexual encounters that took place while being intoxicated.
Alcohol myopia theory
With Vincke’s ideas in mind, Steele & Josephs’ alcohol myopia theory should also be taken into account. Alcohol is often believed to function as a social lubricant and have an effect on an individual’s behavior, but the research on the topic is inconsistent. The alcohol myopia theory proposes that due to the pharmacological effects intoxication has on the processing of information, alcohol disinhibits behaviors that are usually suppressed. Consuming alcohol induces an individual to attend only to highly salient cues while also taking longer to process them compared to sober individuals, hence accounting for dispositional and situational differences. Further, Steele & Josephs propose that when intoxicated the social behavior of an individual is predicted/affected by whether the cues are provoking – instigating behavior, or inhibitory –constraining behavior. According to alcohol myopia theory, individuals will be prone to act instigating due to alcohol’s suppressing effect on inhibitory cues. This is due to the idea that inhibiting an impulse requires substantially more effort, than acting on it. Accordingly, alcohol will affect the probability of intercourse in situations where both strong instigating and inhibiting cues are controlling the behavior, according to Steele & Josephs.
Where Vincke proposes that young adults actively use alcohol to enhance their mating possibilities/chances, Steele & Josephs emphasizes the disinhibition of usually suppressed behavior as a product of the indiscernible effect alcohol has on the cues and information processing that help guide our behavior while sober.
Feeling vulnerable/Impaired judgment In line with alcohol myopia theory, studies show that men who seek short-term mates find women who show cues indicating that she can be either easily seduced or deceived into having casual sex, attractive. Being intoxicated, flirtatious and immature are cues associated with sexual exploitability. Interestingly, the cues found to be attractive in a short-term mate, are not considered attractive in someone one would consider as a potential long-term mate. Feeling vulnerable in or after situations where one might be coerced, coaxed or pressured into having sex or lacking ability to consent to sex due to an impaired judgment may add substantial levels of regret on the individual. Feeling pressured or obligated are both commonly reported reasons for engaging in sex and are linked to a sociosexual orientation – an individual’s overall orientation towards casual sexual relations. Furthermore, women who experience a lack of ability to consent to sexual intercourse have shown to correlate with regret and low initiative to engage in casual sex.
Accordingly, engaging in sexual relations while under the influence of alcohol, feeling vulnerable or having an impaired judgment could have a significant effect on the experience of regret and disgust.
Rationale for study
The present study examines heterosexual men and women, who attend higher education at a public university in Norway, and what effect what effect an impaired judgment, feeling vulnerable and intoxication have on disgust and regret after casual sex, through different hypotheses.
Research on the predictors for sexual regret and disgust presented above provide an uneven foundation for the present study, especially within the domains of feeling vulnerable and having an impaired judgment. Vincke also points out that which mate qualities that are being signaled by drinking high amounts of alcohol remain unclear.
Based on previous research showing particular gender differences within the domain of sexual regret, this study will accordingly examine gender differences in the proposed predictors. That being said, some of the mentioned studies also show that both men and women attend risk-taking behavior such as binge drinking in their search for a short-term mating partner.