Europeans are more relaxed about casual sex than Americans. At least, that's the popular narrative, supported by anecdotes galore and more than a few sexual behavior surveys. But a new study, published in Evolutionary Psychology, suggests that retrospective assessments of casual sex (i.e., how we feel after we do it) are more similar on opposite sides of the Atlantic than we, and even sex researchers, might assume. Psychologists asked Norwegian college students how much they regretted both having casual sex and passing up opportunities for it, and they responded a lot like Americans have in past studies: Women regretted no-strings-attached hook-ups more than men did, and men were more likely to regret the sexual encounters they didn't pursue.
The study was an attempt to test out competing theories about differences in sexual regret between men and women. Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that sexual regret functions as a psychological mechanism to protect people from making sexual choices that compromise their evolutionary goals. Women ultimately want to reel in non-philandering partners who are going to stick around for a while. Casual sex won't help them do that, so they regret it — because uncomfortable, lingering feelings of regret will theoretically dissaude them from repeating their mistake. Men, on the other hand, secure their genetic legacy by spreading their seed. So they feel good about hooking up with strangers, and regret leaving the bar alone. (This is all according to some evolutionary psychologists, of course.)
These male/female differences in sexual regret have largely held up in American research. If the evolutionary standpoint is correct, the same gender differences should show up in other cultures, too. (These sexual regret studies, like a lot of behavior science, only involve heterosexual participants.)
By contrast, a theory called social role theory (which is easier to get behind in 2017) says that male/female differences in sexual regret should dissipate in more egalitarian, sexually liberal societies, such as Norway. Like other Scandinavian countries, Norway ranks high for gender equality, according to a 2016 Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum. The US ranks at #45. And that was pre-Trump.
So, for the current study, researchers recruited 263 Norwegian university students, all of whom were straight and had at least one one night stand under their belt, to see how their perspectives on casual sex compared to Americans'. Participants assessed their most recent foray into casual sex (and the last casual-sex opportunity they passed up), rating their levels of regret over having/not having sex. Additionally, they answered questions about sexual gratification and post-sex paranoia (over STIs, pregnancy and earning a bad reputation), and filled out questionnaires to determine their sociosexuality scores, meaning how much they enjoy new, different sexual experiences.
The results echoed sexual regret findings from the US: More women (34 percent) than men (20 percent) regretted their most recent one night stand, whereas men were far more likely than women — 29 percent vs. 4 percent — to regret not having casual sex the last time they had the chance. In fact, 80 percent of women were happy they'd said no to a one night stand.
Compared to men, women worried more about the negative consequences of casual sex, and got much less physical gratification from it, but researchers didn't find any singular factor that predicted male/female sexual regret differences. Basically, the evolutionary line of thought bore out, as it had in the US.