It's a rare woman who doesn't look back, aghast, at who she once saw fit to let in (so to speak). It's like reflecting on someone who was you, but also couldn't have been you, MUST have been taken over momentarily by a non-discerning alien creature, because... him? Really?!?
Do men get this same cold wash of retrospective WHAT WAS I THINKING? Apparently not. They're more along the mournful lines of, "WHY WASN'T I A BIGGER STUD?"
The reason? Evolution, of course. Because yet again, stereotypical gender biases have been "confirmed" by psychological science. Here's an outtake from the latest gender/science study to catch everyone's interest:
"The findings show how human emotions such as regret can play an important role in survival and reproduction. They suggest that men are more likely to regret not taking action on a potential liaison, and women are more remorseful for engaging in one-time liaisons."
The study's authors suggest that because women can be lumped with child post-sexual encounter, regret is an evolutionary function, presumably to stop them from sexing men who won't stick around to help raise said child.
Men, on the other hand, are driven to implant their seed here, there and everywhere, so regret plays no evolutionary function. It's just GET IT IN THERE noon and night, whomever she may be, je ne regrette rien.
It's almost too obvious to note, but the major flaw in this study is the bypassing of cultural forces that shape our attitudes to sex. Casual sex is, for women, still cloaked with elements of shame and "permissiveness" (as though the reason couldn't be that they just felt like having sex.) Men, on the other hand, have traditionally been encouraged to notch up partners, and celebrated for their "virility".
Take the so-called "walk of shame": as Jill Filipovic points out, it is 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."
It's no wonder women experience sexual regret. It's like when you eat a biscuit you don't particularly enjoy: it's a waste. You're not supposed to eat too many biscuits. It's "bad". In other words, if society tells us it's inappropriate for women to have too many partners, we feel an intangible sense of annoyance that we wasted one of our (limited) socially acceptable opportunities on a dud.
I'm sure this research was well-executed. The study's authors questioned thousands of participants, and no doubt the noted trends did emerge. But the thing with social phenomena is that it's infinitely complex, so retrospective estimations based solely on "science" can only ever be very tentative talking points. Not declarations of evolutionary discovery. Yes, we may be animals when it comes down to it, but we're animals swimming in powerful, modern-day cultural forces. They're a force to be reckoned with, not ignored.
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You had sex, right? What's there to regret?
According to a vanilla-flavoured article in Slate, this classic man-ism may be as old as man himself. That is to say, in line with the findings of tests carried out with 200 randy American post-teens, there could be an evolutionary reason to argue that, for men at least, "every hole's a goal."
Apparently, some scientists think that your cave-dwelling great-grandaddy was better off spreading his seed around the campfire rather than putting all of his eggs in the one basket (something about that analogy obviously doesn't work). Meanwhile, Mama Flintstone, forced to deal with pesky/dangerous fatness, fatigue, birthing and raising of Pebbles and/or Bam Bam, was wise to look before she leapt into bed.
Ergo, we've evolved to the state where us men are more likely to regret sexual encounters that didn't happen, and our sexy opposites are more likely to regret the sexual encounters that did.
He wishes he had, she wishes she hadn't.
The article then goes on to tell us, ironically, that it's not telling us much: it concedes that we don't actually know enough about the social-behaviours of pre-man men to make any valid assumptions, and surmises that some scientists are boneheads. Slate, like the rest of the world, hasn't been the same since Hitch passed.
Good. Glad I read that. Let me try draw some empirical conclusions of my own, then:
I certainly have a bully in my head that demands I approach and engage women in the hope of sparking some sort of relationship, sexual or otherwise. There's something about the thrill of the unknown, and backing yourself to see if she's receptive. Not being sure that anyone will ever want to sleep with you again is one of the single most exciting things about being single.
It's this bully that calls me a coward for not making a move, not striking up a conversation. It's this bully that regrets an opportunity lost. And, this bully, like everything else about me, is a product of evolution. That's fine.
But, the idea that I'm more likely to regret not having taken home a lady than I am to regret having bedded the wrong one is something I can't identify with.
Why? Probably because I'm not a student at a university in Austin, Texas.
I mean, college students? Seriously? This is literally the first time they've been released into the wild, where women, alcohol and staying out as late as you like are not only allowed, they're borderline social requisite. They're giddy with opportunity and expectation.
I don't want to harp on about the notches in my bedpost, but frankly, I think that since being a student myself, I've figured out that debauchery isn't as great as I first thought. Worse, I've had to deal with the consequences of those actions.
Put it this way: I'm not as scared of that bully as I used to be. I understand, like all bullies, he's mostly insecure, irrational, and often a complete waste of my time.