Have you had sex and then regretted it or felt rejected? You aren’t alone, and nothing’s wrong with you, either.
Sex can be fun, liberating and utterly wonderful. But not always. Sometimes it feels like something is missing after sex. Sometimes we think that it shouldn’t have happened or should have been different.
Women want closeness after sex more often than men. On the other hand, men more commonly want to get away, new research confirms.
The sexes also experience regrets in varying degrees and about different aspects of the sexual encounter.
“Women have regrets after sex more often than men,” says master’s student Heitor Barcellos Ferreira Fernandes from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. He came up with the idea for the new study that examines negative feelings after sex.
The research confirms what people may have already believed but didn’t know for sure, and it opens up an obvious follow-up question.
“There’s nothing new about some people having negative feelings after sex. But why? How can something that starts out good result in such negative emotions?” asks Professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair at NTNU’s Department of Psychology.
The short version is that although women and men are both interested in sex for its own sake, they are also—quite naturally—looking for different things in a sexual relationship.
Negative emotions are not abnormal
We’re most often talking about one-night stands.
“Part of respondents in the study were in long-term relationships, even though most respondents reported these negative emotions after short-term relationships,” says Fernandes.
Sex can be a mutual source for everything from joy to frustration. But sex is also one of nature’s ways to test out potential long-term partners, especially for women. For men, from an evolutionary standpoint sex is perhaps primarily an opportunity for mating.
“Some psychiatrists want to pathologize negative emotions after sex,” says Professor Kennair.
But the researchers aren’t going along with that idea. On the contrary, negative feelings after sex may be exactly the right response.
“Some people may be surprised that both men and women often have negative feelings after sex,” says Fernandes.
These feelings stem from a conflict between what we wish for in a sexual encounter and what we actually get from it.
Evolution made us this way. Negative feelings after sex don’t mean that anything is wrong with you.
Three categories of negative emotions
Researchers from Brazil, Norway and North America collaborated to investigate the topic. They received responses from four groups that formed the basis of the surveys, one from each region and a fourth group, chosen from Anglo-Americans who responded online. Sources from the US and Canada were merged into one, as the researchers found no difference between their responses.
The maximum age was set at 30 years. People’s sexual habits tend to change around that age, when many are in long-term relationships and the end of women’s reproductive age is drawing closer.
“We assumed that there were two or three main types of negative emotions after sex,” says Kennair.
LACK OF PROXIMITY: One type of negative feeling is when you want a stronger connection afterwards, where you feel rejected or want more closeness.
LACK OF DISTANCE:The second type of negative feeling is the opposite, where you want to leave afterwards and experience your sexual partner as clingy.
REPUTATION: A third form of negative emotion is where you feel regret because you worry about your reputation.
The third form of negative emotion is similar between men and women. Both men and women think about their reputation. A bad reputation can make you less attractive to other partners who may be a better fit for you in the long run than the person you just shared a bed or restaurant toilet with.
The main differences between the sexes can be found among those who want to leave and those who want the other to stay.
Men want to leave
“The sexual act itself can reinforce the ties between the parties if the right hormones are triggered. But for the partner who gains the most from moving on to other potential short-term partners, it more often triggers a feeling of distance instead,” Kennair says.
So in a relationship between two people of different genders, most women and men are looking for completely different things. The partner who gains the most from seeking out new short-term sexual relationships is usually the man.
Most men want more sexual partners than most women do, because they derive a benefit from sexual variation. Previous Norwegian and international research shows that men are also generally more open to one-night stands than women are.
In this context, we have to look at sex as a way in which we, consciously or unconsciously, are testing out a potential partner that we can later have a child with. Even when a sexual relationship does not result in a child, biology still drives our sexual psychology.
Seen historically and evolutionarily, men are less invested in their offspring than women are, and they are looking for quantity over quality to a greater extent. (See Parental investment fact box.)
With this background, researchers expected to find more men who wanted greater distance for a fleeting sexual experience – and they found it.
“Men on average wanted to leave to a greater degree than be intimate after sex in all the geographical regions,” says Kennair.
The researchers also incidentally found that men more frequently pity their sexual partner afterwards.
Women want the man to stay
Biologically, women want security, a man who can help her raise the children- and it’s not necessarily on a conscious level.
“Women gain from having quality rather than quantity. They want the man to stay to a greater extent. This preference applies on a group level, and obviously not to everyone,” says Kennair
In this case, the researchers expected to find that women want more closeness after sex than men, and that they are more likely to feel rejected after a short-term relationship. This was confirmed, too.
Women more commonly feel rejected after a one-night stand that that doesn’t develop into anything more. They would rather have their sexual partner join them for breakfast the next morning- and often for the next several breakfasts, too.
This corresponds to previous research by evolutionary psychologists Anne Campbell at Durham University in the UK and Martie Haselton at UCLA, showing that women generally feel more connected to a man the day after sex. Men generally feel less tied to the woman after sex than before. He also tends to see her as less attractive once the sexual act is over.
Norwegian women have the fewest negative feelings about men staying
An interesting exception is Norwegian women. They stand out from the women in North America and Brazil by having fewer and weaker feelings about connecting to their partner after a brief sexual relationship. Presumably this is a cultural adaptation.
“We can speculate that this is due to a greater level of sexual equality and sexual liberation in Norway. Sex for the sake of sex is more accepted here,” Kennair theorizes, but he says that more research is needed on this.
But even if this may be an effect of a more egalitarian culture, Norway still has gender differences. Norwegian men still want far less closeness with their partner after sex than Norwegian women.
Lurking in the background
Before anyone starts pointing out the obvious: the difference between what women and men want in a relationship is not something that most people go around thinking about, and certainly not when they are out one night and seeking happiness and a potential sexual partner on the dance floor or in a secluded corner of the pub.
But it lurks in the background anyway, regardless of sexual liberalization and access to effective contraceptives that reduce the risk of having children with an unwanted partner.
“Evolution doesn’t work this fast. You don’t change the neural pathways behind what we’re predisposed to feel,” says Fernandes.
Evolution has not been able to respond to new contraceptives. The fact that people feel something specific after intercourse does not in any way mean that they know about the evolutionary relationships that underlie their feelings.
The fundamentals don’t change within a few generations. For several hundred thousand years before us, women’s and men’s differing strategies provided an evolutionary advantage.
People who behaved like that were generally better at spreading their genes. Your ancestors did it right. You too.