Address correspondence to Elaine M. Eshbaugh, Department of Family Studies, Uni-
versity of Northern Iowa, 241 Latham Hall, Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0332, USA; elaine
The Journal of Social Psychology, 2008, 148(1), 77–89
Copyright © 2008 Heldref Publications
Hookups and Sexual Regret
Among College Women
ELAINE M. ESHBAUGH
University of Northern Iowa
ABSTRACT. Research has suggested that women are prone to sexual regrets of action.
In the present study, the authors examined “hooking up” as a predictor of sexual regret in
152 sexually active college women. Results indicate that two sexual behaviors were par
ticularly predictive of participants’ regret: (a) engaging in sexual intercourse with someone
once and only once and (b) engaging in intercourse with someone known for less than 24
hr. Noncoital hookups (performing and receiving oral sex) were not significantly related
to regret, indicating that college women may be underestimating the health risks associ
ated with oral sex. Although hookups are a common feature of contemporary college life,
the results counter the popular assumption that hookups are inconsequential for college
women. The authors discuss the preventative health implications of their findings.
Keywords: casual sex, college women, hookups, sexual regret
LIFE PRESENTS OPPORTUNITIES. With opportunity comes the possibility
of choosing unwisely. Regret, a negative emotion accompanied by self-blame
(Connolly & Zeelenberg, 2002; Gilovich & Medvec, 1995; Zeelenberg, 1999),
can haunt people in a variety of life domains. Choices that have proven unwise
in the areas of education, career, and romantic relationships (including love, sex,
and dating) account for the majority of adults’ regrets (Roese & Summerville,
2005). Regret about romantic relationships is especially common in younger
adults, who experience more relationship change and turmoil than do older
adults (Jokisaari, 2003). Oswalt, Cameron, and Koob (2005) found that 72% of
the sexually active college students they sampled regretted at least one instance
in which they had engaged in sexual activity. Several studies have demonstrated
a clear gender difference in how people experience sexual regret, with convinc-
ing evidence showing that men are more likely to experience regrets of inaction
(i.e., wishing that they had engaged in a sexual behavior), whereas women are
more likely to experience regrets of action (i.e., wishing they had not engaged in
a sexual behavior; Dickson, Paul, Herbison, & Silva, 1998; Klassen, Williams,
& Levitt, 1989; Oswalt et al.; Roese et al., 2006).
College environments are known for encouraging sexual permissiveness
among young adults (Chng & Moore, 1994; Paul, McManus, & Hayes, 2000),
including acceptance of casual sexual encounters commonly termed hookups.
According to Paul et al. (p. 76), a hookup is “a sexual encounter, usually lasting
only one night, between two people who are strangers or brief acquaintances.”
Hookups may or may not include sexual intercourse. Paul et al. found that 78%
of college students had engaged in a hookup and 30% of college students had
engaged in a hookup involving intercourse. Because a hookup is seldomly a
planned event (Paul & Hayes, 2002), partners rarely build a relationship follow-
ing the encounter.
Despite the prevalence of hooking up, Paul et al. (2000, p. 81) suggested
that some people may report feeling “out of control” during hookups and harbor
regret after such encounters. Paul and Hayes (2002) found that when they asked
participants to list their feelings after a typical hookup, the most frequent response
was “regretful or disappointed” (35%). Other frequent responses were “good or
happy” (27%) and “satisfied” (20%). Female participants were more likely than
men to feel “regretful or disappointed”; they were also more likely to ruminate
about a hookup and feel greater shame and self-doubt following the experience.
In contrast, men were more likely to feel “satisfied.”
Although several researchers have investigated sexual regret among college
students (Dickson et al., 1998; Klassen et al., 1989; Roese et al., 2006), they
have not conducted studies in which they controlled for demographic variables
and sexual behavior while examining the relationship between hooking up
and sexual regret. In the present study, we explored predictors of sexual regret
among sexually active college women who had engaged in sexual intercourse.
Although hooking up is prevalent, women may still feel shame afterward (Paul
& Hayes, 2002), and in the weeks and months following a hookup, this shame
may develop into regret. Our purpose was to examine whether college women
do, in fact, experience sexual regrets of action as a result of hookups involving
sexual intercourse and oral sex.
Zeelenberg (1999) defined regret as a negative emotion that one feels when
remembering the past and imagining that the present would be different if one
had behaved differently. Regrets can result from acting in a certain way (regrets of
action, or regrets of commission) or from failing to act (regrets of inaction, or regrets
of omission; Oswalt et al., 2005). When asked to list past regrets, research partici
pants have more commonly mentioned regrets of inaction (Jokisaari, 2003). Regrets
of inaction last longer than do regrets of action, presumably because such regrets are
78 The Journal of Social Psychology
more subject to imaginative wondering about what might have been. Although, on
average, regrets of action are shorter in duration, they are more emotionally intense
(Gilovich & Medvec, 1995; Gilovich, Medvec, & Chen, 1995).
Researchers have documented the negative impact of regretful emotions on
an individual’s subjective well-being (e.g., Jokisaari, 2003). Their findings also
suggest that both actual or experienced regret—regret that a person actually feels
after a decision (“crying over spilled milk”)—and anticipated regret—regret that
a person expects to experience as a result of a decision—can affect decision mak-
ing (Guthrie, 1999; Zeelenberg, 1999; Zeelenberg & Beattie, 1997). If so, there
may be potential value in regret if it encourages people to make decisions that
minimize or prevent future regret.
Klassen et al. (1989) reported that in their 1970 national survey on sexual
attitudes, they found that 40% of U.S. adults had some regret about having
engaged in premarital sex (a regret of action) and 8% regretted not having
engaged in premarital sex (a regret of inaction). Regret for having sex before
marriage was more common among women. A more recent study of 21-year-
olds in New Zealand (Dickson et al., 1998) indicated similar gender differences.
Sixteen percent of men and 54% of women believed they “should have waited
longer” before having sex for the first time. Only 1% of women—but 11% of
men—reported that they had waited too long.
Sawyer and Smith (1996) asked college students about whether they ever
regretted their first experience of intercourse. Results indicated that (a) 14% of
men and 31% of women regretted it immediately after it occurred and (b) 20%
of men and 38% of women regretted it at a later time. Oswalt et al. (2005) identi
fied four common reasons for sexual regrets of action: (a) Participants’ decisions
were inconsistent with their values (37%); (b) alcohol influenced their decisions
(32%); (c) participants’ partners did not want the same thing the participants did
(28%); and (d) participants did not use condoms (25%). Women were more likely
than men to regret a sexual encounter because they felt pressured into it.
Roese et al. (2006) presented 486 college students with 18 statements of
regret from three domains: (a) sexuality, (b) romance, and (c) friend or family
relationships. Three of the items from the sexuality domain represented regrets
of action (e.g., “Should have tried harder to sleep with [name]”) and three items
represented regrets of inaction (e.g., “Shouldn’t have had sex with [name]”).
Participants indicated if they had experienced each feeling of regret, and, if so,
they then rated its frequency and intensity. Gender differences for sexual regrets
of action were not significant; however, men were much more likely to have
experienced sexual regrets of inaction than were women.
Gender-related differences in the experience of sexual regret may be illumi-
nated, in part, by evolutionary perspectives on mating strategies. Central to evolu-
Eshbaugh & Gute 79
tionary psychology is the argument that gender differences in mating strategies are
tied to gender differences in the parental investment associated with pregnancy and
child rearing (Buss, 2003). Each pregnancy has the potential to seriously tax mul-
tiple resources in a woman’s life. In addition to a 9-month gestation period and the
attendant issues, she bears the primary responsibility for many years of child rear-
ing (Trivers, 1972). A man who impregnates a woman, however, can theoretically
escape many of the same demands upon his resources. In addition to not having to
carry a pregnancy to term, he has the ability to remove himself from the lives of the
mother and child. Potentially, he is free to have intercourse with, and impregnate,
other women. Awareness of the many implications and responsibilities accompany-
ing pregnancy may result in women being much more cautious than are men about
engaging in sexual intercourse with multiple partners (Buss & Schmitt, 1993) and
thus having greater regret when they do engage in casual intercourse.
Social explanations for gender differences may also explain sexual regret
(Herold & Mewhinney, 1993). Researchers (e.g., Herold & Mewhinney, 1993)
have found that norms of acceptable sexual behavior vary by gender, with greater
permissiveness toward sexual behavior for men than women. This double stan-
dard may influence participants’ regret following a sexual encounter. Hooking up
may be associated with a decrease in self-esteem in women because the behavior
violates a social norm (Herold & Mewhinney, 1993). Because of the continued
double standard that rewards young men for having more sexual partners (Craw-
ford & Popp, 2003), it is reasonable to expect a correlation between hooking up
and self-esteem in young men. Nonetheless, Paul et al. (2000) reported that both
men and women who had hooked up had lower self-esteem.
Building on the findings of Dickson et al. (1998), Klassen et al. (1989),
Sawyer and Smith (1996), and Roese et al. (2006), all of whom found that college
women are more prone to sexual regret because of action rather than inaction, in
the present study we explored predictors of sexual regret among sexually active
college women who had engaged in hookups. We defined hooking up as any of
the following four actions: (a) engaging in intercourse with someone once and
only once, (b) engaging in intercourse with someone known for less than 24 hr,
(c) performing oral sex on someone known for less than 24 hr, and (d) receiving
oral sex from someone known for less than 24 hr. Our primary hypothesis was
that once we controlled for other sexual behavior (e.g., age at first intercourse,
number of partners) and demographic factors (e.g., age, religiosity), we would
find that hooking up was related to sexual regret among women.
Participants were 152 female students in a human sexuality course at a mid
sized Midwestern U.S. university who completed a sexual history questionnaire.
80 The Journal of Social Psychology
We originally asked 193 female students to participate, but we excluded 41 of the
completed questionnaires from our analysis because the respondents had not been
sexually active and, therefore, did not provide responses for all relevant variables.
Approximately 97% of participants (n = 148) indicated they were hetero-
sexual, 3 participants reported they were bisexual, and 1 participant did not
respond to the item regarding sexual orientation. More than 96% of participants
were White, and the mean age was 20.1 years (SD = 1.60 years). Approximately
43% of participants identified as Catholic, 27% as other, 26% as Protestant, and
3% as agnostic. When asked about their attitudes toward sexuality, 52.6% identi-
fied themselves as fairly or very liberal, 30.9% as moderate, and 7.9% as fairly
or very conservative; the remaining 8.4% either responded that they were unsure
or did not know, or did not respond.
Participants completed questionnaires during class time about their (a) cre
ativity, (b) personality, (c) sexual attitudes, and (d) sexual behavior. Extra credit
was not awarded for participation. We did not use the measures of creativity and
personality in any of our analyses.
Sexual regret. We asked participants to indicate their level of overall sexual regret
on a scale of 1 (no regrets) to 4 (many regrets
Sexual behaviors. We asked participants questions about their sexual behavior,
including (a) whether they had ever cheated on a partner; (b) age of first penile–
vaginal intercourse; (c) number of intercourse partners in the last year; (d) age of
first oral–genital contact; (e) number of oral sex partners in the last year; and (f)
whether they had ever engaged in anal sex.
Religiosity. Participants rated the current intensity of their religious beliefs on a
scale ranging from 1 (not at all intense) to 3 (very intense). We included the reli
giosity variable in response to Oswalt et al.’s (2005) suggestion that researchers
of sexual regret also study participants’ level of religiosity.
Table 1 displays frequencies for predictor and outcome variables. Twenty-
three percent of participants reported that they had no regrets about their sexual
past; only 2% indicated that they had many regrets. The majority (74%) reported
either few or some regrets. The mean score for sexual regret was 1.95 (
SD = 0.68),
with a skewness of 0.56 (SE = 0.20) and a kurtosis of 0.81 (SE = 0.39).
Eshbaugh & Gute 81
82 The Journal of Social Psychology
TABLE 1. Frequencies for Predictor and Outcome Variables (N = 152)
Feelings about sexual decisions
No regrets 35 23.0
A few regrets 93 61.2
Some regrets 20 13.2
Many regrets 4 2.6
Intensity of religious beliefs
Not at all intense 11 7.2
Moderately intense 75 49.3
Very intense 66 43.4
Cheated on a partner at least once
Yes 57 37.5
No 95 62.5
Age of first intercourse
15 years or under 14 9.2
16–18 years 106 69.7
19–20 years 25 16.4
21 years or older 7 4.6
Number of intercourse partners in the last year
0 15 9.9
1 71 46.7
2 31 20.4
3 9 5.9
4 7 4.6
5 or more 19 12.5
Age of first oral sex
14 years or under 17 11.2
15–16 years 48 31.6
17–18 years 68 44.7
19 years or older 19 12.5
Has had anal sex
Yes 49 32.2
No 103 67.8
Has had intercourse with someone
once and only once
Yes 55 36.2
No 97 63.8
Has had intercourse with someone
known for less than 24 hr
Yes 44 28.9
No 108 71.1
Has performed oral sex on someone
known for less than 24 hr
Yes 19 12.5
No 133 87.5
Has received oral sex from someone
known for less than 24 hr
Yes 14 9.2
No 138 90.8
Table 2 displays zero-order correlations among the study variables. Participants
who indicated strong religious beliefs were less likely to indicate a high level of regret.
Regret was positively related to (a) number of intercourse partners in the last year, (b)
number of oral sex partners in the last year, (c) engaging in intercourse with someone
once and only once, (d) engaging in intercourse with someone known for less than 24
hr, and (e) receiving oral sex from someone known for less than 24 hr (p < .05).
We compared the mean regret scores of participants who had engaged in
each of the four hooking-up behaviors with the mean regret scores of participants
who had not engaged in each respective behavior. The mean regret score for
participants who had engaged in intercourse with someone once and only once
was 2.17 (SD = 0.66, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 2.04–2.31), compared with
1.56 (SD = 0.54, 95% CI = 1.41–1.70) for participants who had not engaged in
that behavior. This difference was significant, F(1, 150) = 34.75, p < .001. The
mean regret score for participants who had engaged in intercourse with someone
known for less than 24 hr was 2.32 (SD = 0.77, 95% CI = 2.08–2.55), compared
with 1.81 (SD = 0.58, 95% CI = 1.69–1.92) for participants who had not engaged
in that behavior. This difference was also significant, F(1, 150) = 19.73, p < .001.
There was also a significant difference in mean regret score, F(1, 150) = 11.07,
p < .001, between participants who had received oral sex from someone known
for less than 24 hr (M = 2.54, SD = 0.88, 95% CI = 2.01–3.07) and participants
who had not engaged in that behavior (M = 1.90, SD = 0.64, 95% CI = 1.79–2.00).
The difference in mean regret scores between the group that had performed oral
sex on someone know for less than 24 hr and the group that had not engaged in
that behavior was not significant, F(1, 150) = .00, p = .96. Both groups had a
mean of 1.95 (SDs = 0.68 and 0.69, respectively).
Test of Hypothesis
To test our hypothesis, we conducted a regression with sexual regret as the
outcome variable (see Table 3). Because high levels of collinearity can be prob
lematic, we computed collinearity statistics. Tolerance for the predictor variables
ranged from .41 to .86. The regression equation accounted for 34% of the vari-
ance in sexual regret, F(12, 134) = 5.67, p < .001. When we controlled for age,
religiosity, and other sexual-behavior variables, we found that two of the hooking-
up variables—engaging in intercourse with someone once and only once and
engaging in intercourse with someone known for less than 24 hr—significantly
predicted sexual regret. Hooking-up variables pertaining to oral–genital contact
were not significant predictors of regret; however, receiving oral sex from some-
one known for less than 24 hr approached significance (p = .06). Two additional
hooking-up behaviors were positively related to regret: (a) having had one’s first
experiences of intercourse and oral sex at an early age and (b) having had many
intercourse partners in the last year. Also, religious participants were more likely
to indicate sexual regret than were nonreligious participants.
Eshbaugh & Gute 83
84 The Journal of Social Psychology
TABLE 2. Zero-Order Correlations Among Study Variables
Variable 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
1. Feelings of sexual regret —
2. Age .01 —
3. Intensity of religious beliefs –.04 .11 —
4. Has cheated on a partner –.15
5. Age of first intercourse –.12 .17
6. Number of intercourse
partners in the last year .31
7. Age of first oral sex –.02 .09 .18
8. Number of oral sex partners
in the last year .16
9. Has had anal sex –.03 .04 .09 .19
.15 –.15 .16 –.12 —
10. Has had intercourse with
someone once and only once .43
11. Has had intercourse with
someone known for less
than 24 hr .34
12. Has performed oral sex on
someone known for less than 24 hr –.00 .22
–.10 .01 .14 –.01 –.06 .07 –.06 .03 .28
13. Has received oral sex from
someone known for less
than 24 hr .26
.03 –.05 –.15 –.06 .08 –.08 .06 –.08 .23
p < .05.
p < .01.
Eshbaugh & Gute 85
TABLE 3. Summary of Regression Analysis of Study Variables as Predictors of Sexual Regret
Variable B SE B
β t(150) p
Constant 1.96 0.38 — 5.11
Age –0.00 0.03 –.01 –0.15 .88
Religiosity 0.20 0.09 .17 2.18 .03
Has cheated on a partner 0.06 0.12 .04 0.45 .65
Age of first intercourse –0.08 0.04 –.18 –2.02 .04
Number of intercourse partners in last yr 0.09 0.04 .25 2.10 .04
Age of first oral sex 0.08 0.03 .21 2.43 .01
Number of oral sex partners in last yr –0.01 0.05 –.03 –0.22 .83
Has had anal sex –0.10 0.11 –.07 –0.92 .36
Has had intercourse with someone
once and only once 0.37 0.12 .26 3.22 .00
Has had intercourse with someone
known for less than 24 hr 0.30 0.13 .20 2.34 .02
Has performed oral sex on someone
known for less than 24 hr –0.21 0.17 –.10 –1.22 .22
Has received oral sex from someone
known for less than 24 hr 0.38 0.20 .16 1.89 .06
Although hookups are thought to be a common feature of current college
environments (Lambert, Kahn, & Apple, 2003; Paul & Hayes, 2002; Paul et al.,
2000), the results of this study refute the idea that hookups are inconsequential to
college women. To the contrary, we found that, when we controlled for other sexual
behavior, hookups emerged as predictive of sexual regret among college women.
Hookups including intercourse were more strongly associated with regret
than were hookups not including intercourse. One possible explanation for this
finding is that these college women do not think oral sex is really sex, a belief
shared by a majority of undergraduate students (Gute, Eshbaugh, & Wiersma, in
press; Remez, 2000; Sanders & Reinisch, 1999). Oral sex hookups may provide
undergraduate women with a way to strike a compromise between two opposing
social forces: (a) a college campus that is conducive to hookups and (b) a larger
society that disapproves of casual intercourse (Paul et al., 2000). However, if
college women are not experiencing the same magnitude of regret from hookups
involving oral sex as they are from hookups involving intercourse, it may be
because they are underestimating the health risks associated with oral sex (Gute
et al., in press; Remez, 2000).
Importance and Implications of the Present Study
Why is the study of college students’ regret, particularly sexual regret,
important? Because women’s lifestyle choices in contemporary Western culture
are more plentiful than in the past—when choices of marital partners were more
limited, career options narrower, and sexual behaviors more prescribed (see
Gilovich & Medvec, 1995)—young women today have more opportunities for
regret. College and university environments support a wide range of normative
choices, including hooking up. Some of the decisions undergraduate women
make will inevitably produce regrettable decisions; therefore, college campuses
provide an important venue for studying sexual regret.
Regret may have implications for health and happiness. In a study of per-
sonal goals and regrets, Jokisaari (2003) asked Finnish adults to list their regrets
and appraise the consequences of each one they identified. Jokisaari found that,
controlling for age and negative affect, perceived consequences of regrets were
related to lower self-rated life satisfaction. Increased physical ailments (e.g.,
headaches, chest pains, colds, digestive problems) were also linked to perceived
consequences of regrets. Even regrets that participants listed from many years
earlier were predictive of well-being and health. These findings suggest that the
impact of doing something regrettable extends well beyond figuratively “kicking
oneself” for a bad decision.
Results from the present study have preventative health implications.
Research (e.g., Zeelenberg & Beattie, 1997) suggests that individuals take
86 The Journal of Social Psychology
anticipated emotions, including regret, into account when making decisions.
Anticipated regret plays a role in sexual choices such as condom use among ado-
lescents (Bakker, Buunk, & Manstead, 1997; Richard, Van der Plight, & De Vries,
1995) and among drug users (Van Empelen, Kok, Jansen, & Hoebe, 2001). The
present findings about which decisions college women find most regrettable—
(a) having their first experience of intercourse or oral sex at an early age, (b) hav-
ing many sexual partners in the last year, (c) having intercourse with someone
once and only once, and (d) having intercourse with someone known for less
than 24 hr—provide sexual health educators with a basis for discussing the role
of anticipated regret in programs that address the risks of sexually transmitted
infections and pregnancy. A possible strategy for preventing risky sexual behavior
is to increase awareness among college students that these behaviors can lead to
negative feelings despite the casual feelings seemingly displayed by peers and
depicted in popular culture.
The present research has several limitations. First, we included in our analy
sis only women who had engaged in sexual intercourse, because many items on
the questionnaire did not apply to the experiences of women who had not had
intercourse. However, it is likely that some of the excluded women had engaged
in noncoital hookups and, therefore, may still have experienced sexual regret.
Second, because men were not included in the sample, we were unable to exam-
ine the possibility of a gender-based double standard. Although, to our knowledge,
no researchers have explored sexual regret among college men who have engaged in
hookups, some studies on sexual regret (e.g., Dickson et al., 1998; Klassen et al., 1989;
Oswalt et al., 2005; Roese et al., 2006) lead us to hypothesize that gender would mod-
erate the relationship between hookups and sexual regret. Further research is needed
to disentangle the relationships among gender, hooking up, and sexual regret.
Social norms on college campuses appear to accept and support hooking up
(Paul & Hayes, 2002; Paul et al., 2000). In the present study, we found that 36%
of sexually active women have had intercourse with someone once and only once
and 29% of sexually active women have had intercourse with someone they had
known for less than 24 hr. Despite the significant percentage of women engaging in
hookups, these behaviors are linked to sexual regret for women. Our findings show
why colleges and universities need to help make women fully aware of the implica
tions of conforming to the social norms of the college environment. Discussions
about the relationship between hooking up and sexual regret could play a helpful
role in these conversations. Our results demonstrate that even though hooking up is
popular on college campuses, women are not necessarily doing it without regret.
Eshbaugh & Gute 87
Elaine M. Eshbaugh is an assistant professor of family studies at the University of
Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Her main research interests are sexuality among emergent
adults and teen parenthood. Gary Gute is an assistant professor of family studies at the
University of Northern Iowa. His main research interests are sexuality among undergradu
ate students, family influence on creativity, and psychological complexity.
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Received February 27, 2007
Accepted May 23, 2007
Eshbaugh & Gute 89