“He’s your boyfriend; of course you have sex with him, right?”
In college, I felt guilty for wishing my answer to that question were no. At the time, I felt confused. I didn’t want to participate in what was clearly the dominant script in modern relationships (even though I did). According to that script, he and I were bonding, or authoring our “sexual narrative” when we had sex, but it mostly felt like irresponsibility to me. Researchers call my experience “sex regret”—a hot topic today, describing the fallout of sexual encounters that failed to satisfy at least one party yet aren’t sexual assault.
I wish I’d had the courage back then to say what I really thought, which was that I hated it. And I’m not the only woman who has felt this way.
According to 2016 research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, which studied 263 Norwegian students, only 30 percent of the women reported being “glad” about their most recent casual sexual encounter. In addition, nearly 80 percent of the women were glad about refusing a casual sexual encounter.
I can’t help but wish I had refused some of my own sexual experiences. I grieve for the 17-year-old girl who hooked up and thought giving my body would buy the love I was looking for. I learned the hard way that hooking up caused me much more psychological pain than pleasure. (Not to mention a lack of physical pleasure; only 11 percent of women orgasm while hooking up with a new partner.)
As I got older, it dawned on me that hookups were not bringing me happiness, so when I settled into a serious relationship with a boyfriend in college, I hoped my days of sex regret were over. But they persisted—even worsened. Though I loved him, I hated the risks of sex. I hated the pit of fear in my stomach every month until my period came. Sure, we were using birth control, and the risks of pregnancy were numerically low. But even the negligible risk associated with hormonal birth control compounds over time—according to the data, women who use contraception correctly and consistently still account for 5 percent of unintended pregnancies. For both partners, but especially for women, the risks of sex can be mentally and emotionally taxing.
What if I just conceived a child with this guy? What if I just threw a wrench in all my life plans? I honestly don’t know what strained me more—worrying about the risks of sex or worrying that my boyfriend might not think I was “sexy” if I shared with him my unease.
Some parts I did enjoy. I enjoyed his expression of desire for me and the power I felt when I could make him want me. I also enjoyed the sensation of safety I felt when he held me in his arms and the sparks I felt when we touched. On the whole, however, my encounters with him made me feel more stressed and confused than satisfied.
I now know that my sex regret makes sense in the context of a woman’s biological hardwiring. When women have sex, pleasure hormones such as oxytocin make us feel emotionally attached to our partner—nature’s way of ensuring sexual partners stay together to take care of kids. So, having sex with my then boyfriend was triggering all these involuntary feelings of attachment and bonding while also inducing anxiety that I could get pregnant with someone whom, ultimately, I wasn’t ready to raise a child with.
I still struggle at times when I think about my past decisions, but I’m glad I’ve had the chance to really think about what was happening back then and why I felt so conflicted. I did it because I felt like that was my duty to him. I remember thinking, “Why do I have to choose between loving him and being true to myself?” I later learned that I didn’t have to choose between them. I could have said no.
A woman saying no to sex in a relationship, or regretting sex, isn’t always welcome in today’s world. I remember once sharing my story online, and the reactions were full of insults, slut shaming, and misogynistic slurs. One comment in particular asserted, “If the woman suddenly decides to wait ’til marriage with a guy after giving it up to other guys before him, it’s a bad joke. Her value has already been diminished.” Though such trollish comments are absurd, they can also be emotionally devastating. And, unfortunately, they reflect a tendency in our culture to idealize sex as always positive, and mostly according to male preconceptions.
That’s why I believe it’s important for women to be more open about our sexual experiences. Hiding the dark sides—such as the way I hid my regret and confusion from my boyfriend—only worsens the pain of being misunderstood. It also perpetuates the myths of fun and harmless sex that lead women to experience sex regret in the first place. This is important, as not only are women who engage in uncommitted sex more likely to intensely regret it, but both men and women who engage in uncommitted sex also suffer lower self-esteem than those who abstain.
Sex regret may be a controversial topic in a culture that loves sex as much as ours. But it is real, and I believe it reflects a more accurate version of human sexuality—one in which women want to be less confused and more in tune with all the complexities that make us uniquely women.
Photo Credit: Tyler McRobert