Dealing with Sexual Regret
Do any of these situations sound familiar:
You had sex with an ex.
You didn’t go home with someone you always lusted after.
You shared a sexual secret with someone who, it turns out, didn’t deserve your trust.
According to all your friends you took the “wrong” risks and then didn’t take the “right” ones.
It might just be impossible to get through life without some sexual regret. Lots of people say they live without regret, or don’t believe in regret, but feeling disappointment, sadness, about something that happened, and wishing that something you did, or didn’t do, could be done, or undone, is inevitable if your life includes trying to connect intimately with others.
There’s no such thing as a simple sexual person. When it comes to sexuality we are all a bundle of contradictions, problems, neuroses, thrilling highs and deep lows. Try getting two of us together and it can’t always end the way we want it to.
The question is, how do we live with sexual regret? It’s not something we talk about much beyond countless jokes (and one horrible movie) about the “walk of shame” which are really more about sexism and judgment about casual sex than about the regret we feel personally.
Here are five ways of dealing with, working through, and building a sexual life that includes some regrets.
Sexual Regret and Sexual Victimization
Before we get to the tips, we need to clarify that sexual regret isn’t the same thing as feeling hurt or traumatized by sexual violence. That kind of regret is a way of blaming yourself for something that isn’t your fault.
When we are the victim of assault, harassment, or coercion, feeling regret is misguided because it suggests there’s something we could have done.
When someone assaults you in a moment, or spends years slowly wearing you down with coercion, negativity, and violence of any kind, the fault lies with them. Those are behaviors that are unacceptable and, no matter what you do, the perpetrator may continue to act.
So the sexual regret we are talking about in this article is only in the context of consensual sexual relationships. Situations where you may wish things ended differently but you don’t feel you were forced into anything.
Regret Is Like a Sex Tax
It’s easy to replay a sexual moment in our head over and over, cringing at our choice of words, our inability to say the right thing, make the right move, express what we really felt in the moment.
And it’s easy to think that we completely blew it in that one moment. This is particularly true if it’s a brand new sexual situation or relationship.
But time and experience tends to reveal the less dramatic truth; we usually get second, third, and sometimes even fifth chances, especially if we are genuinely trying to make things work and if we are able to communicate that to our partner.
Living with sexual regret doesn’t mean talking yourself out of the feelings you’re having (since that isn’t really possible). Instead dealing with sexual regret may mean reminding yourself that feeling crappy about something you did or didn’t do is part of a full and rich sexual life. it can’t be all good. Regrets, like taxes, may not be fun to have (or pay) but they are necessary if we want good roads and clean drinking water.
Talk About It
It’s a good thing that we seem to be getting more comfortable speaking publicly about sexual violence and rape. But we are still a long way off from being able to talk about sexual regrets. When a consensual sexual encounter goes bad, all it seems like we’re allowed to do is joke about it.
This leaves all of us wondering if we’re the only ones who can’t let go of that terrible mistake we made, or that amazing opportunity we passed up. Keeping silent about the things we regret is one of the ways that regret, and it’s older more established cousin sexual shame holds so much power over us.
Talking honestly about our regrets with people who deserve our trust can go a long way to dissipate the feelings of regret and lighten a burden.
Just because you can’t avoid sexual regret in your lifetime doesn’t mean you can’t avoid it in particular situations. If your sexual regret is mostly about things you’ve done, you might want to think about doing less. Don’t be so quick to have sex. Think about sex more and think about who you have sex with more carefully.
It’s not always about there being bad people to avoid and good people to find. Sometimes it’s about us. Do you have the emotional reserves for the kind of sex you’re having right now? Is it the right time for you to have this sex?
For example, if you are having sex with a lot of new people there will be more unknowns. You don’t know how the sex will go, you don’t know how you’ll feel after, you don’t know what they’ll think about your body or what you’ll think of theirs. All of these responses can be emotionally taxing, and if you’re in place where you don’t have a lot of emotional reserves, you may end up feeling more regret than at a time when you are feeling stronger and ready for risk.
Sexual regret isn’t like math where the same equation will always return the same result. Something you do one day might result in you feeling disappointed but not regretful. But at another time you may feel full of regret over the exact same decision.
You can try and avoid it by being good at knowing your own limits and taking risks accordingly.
Dig Into Regret
Your instinct might be to try and not think about the regret. For some of us that is the right way to deal with it. But there is a wealth of learning in that regret, and if you are able to move in and out of thinking about regret without getting stuck in it, you may want to ask yourself some pointed questions and wait for answers to arise:
- Is the regret you feel about a person, an activity, or something about the situation?
- Have you experienced similar situations in the past that didn’t leave you with regret? If so, what’s different about this one?
- What is is specifically that leaves you with regret?
- How would you finish this sentence: “I’m regretting having sex because I’m the kind of person who…”
There are no right or wrong answers here, but the regret you feel is a window into some of your sexual values and beliefs, and digging deeper may offer insights that can not only help you avoid regret in the future, but know more about your sexual self in the present.
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