How Many Sexual Partners Is 'Normal,' Really?
Kelly Gonsalves is the sex and relationships editor at mindbodygreen. Her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
Do people still judge each other based on the number of sexual partners they've had? Sadly, yes.
To be fair, how many people a person has slept with or how regularly they enjoy casual sex can tell you a lot about them. A person's number indicates not just their level of sexual experience but also things like their personality (more sexually adventurous people naturally tend to be more extroverted), how social they are (they tend to have more friends), their interest in alcohol (they tend to drink more), and what their views and values are as they relate to sex (they tend to be more sex-positive and liberal).
What can a person's number not tell you? Anything about the quality of their character. Your sexual history can't tell me whether you're a kind, ethical, intelligent, loyal, or empathetic person or basically any other meaningful quality about you. There's certainly some promiscuous people out there who aren't particularly kind toward themselves or others; at the same time, some of the gentlest, most emotionally mature souls I've ever encountered get intimate with strangers on the regular, and some of the biggest jerks I've had the misfortune of meeting have never had sex in their lives. The number of partners really doesn't tell you much.
And yet, the research suggests people still care quite a bit about this number—and are still pretty quick to lay down judgments if a person's number (or their own) is too high or too low.
People keep lying about their numbers.
Research shows that people tend to lie about how many people they've had sex with. Men are more likely to exaggerate and inflate their number, whereas women tend to underreport it. (Although one European study found nearly a quarter of both men and women will undersell how many people they've been with by 10 or more partners.)
These findings speak to not only what kind of expectations society still has for people's sexual experience (often based on their gender) but also how deeply those expectations affect people—to the point that they feel the need to lie about their life experiences. Being unable to genuinely represent yourself to other people can be stressful, isolating, and emotionally stifling, especially if shame is what's at the heart of your reluctance to be authentic.
People are pretty weird about talking to their partners about their number.
The aforementioned European study, in which digital health service Dr. Ed surveyed over 2,000 people, also found a lot of apprehension over the idea of talking to your partner about your number. Some 29 percent of people said you should never have to tell your number to your partner, whereas 54 percent of people said you must tell your number to your partner. That's a lot of absolutes.
And interestingly, a quarter of people said they've never been asked about it by a partner before—which, frankly, also speaks to a weird hush-hush around the subject.
People do still judge women who've slept with a lot of people.
Although it might seem like society has come a long way as far as destigmatizing sexuality, the reality is that the classic double standards still linger: While men are praised by their peers for having sex with a lot of people, women are shamed for it. Research shows people view women who've slept with a ton of people as less confident than they do women who've slept with fewer partners, and women in particular will judge more promiscuous women as "less competent, emotionally stable, warm, and dominant." A study this year itself found people assessing peers' "values, likability, success, and intelligence" viewed sexually experienced women more negatively than sexually experienced men.
Additionally, some studies also show people are less willing to date anybody, man or woman, as their number of sexual partners increases and view both men and women as less intelligent, kind, honest, or trustworthy as that number goes up. That's not a good thing—it just means our culture has an even longer way to go before an attitude of sexual acceptance and celebration truly becomes the norm.
By the way, no one seems to agree on an "ideal" number.
A widely covered study last year found couples in which both spouses had only ever slept with each other were slightly more likely to be satisfied with their marriages. (Although 52 percent of couples where spouses had six to 10 partners, apparently the least happy group, reported being "very happy" with their marriages.)
A 2004 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research said the ideal number of sexual partners for maximizing happiness is one a year.
The Dr. Ed study found three partners to be the ideal. Men in their 20s saw seven or more partners being "too high" for a woman; women in their 20s gave a little more wiggle room, labeling 10 or more partners as too high.
But in another study from U.K. health service Superdrug, men put the limit at 14 sexual partners maximum, and women drew the line at 15. Moreover, men saw less than three partners as too low. For women, less than two was too low. Men had an average of eight partners in their lifetime while women had seven. Other scientific research concurs: A 2015 paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior pegged eight as millennials' average number.
And yet, a 2018 study found men reported having an average of 26 sexual partners before "settling down"; for women, the average was 19.
You'll notice, by the way, that most of these studies focus specifically on presumably cis men and women without bothering to collect much data on non-heterosexual and non-cis people. Most data on LGBTQ sex deals with how many partners people have had the previous year, but a 2016 Match survey of over 1,000 LGBTQ people found gay men have an average of 30 life partners, whereas for lesbians the average is 12.
Many of these studies are also not specific about how they define "sex," and it's not clear if participants weighed all sexual acts equally. For example, one paper pointed out that many self-identified men don't count oral sex as sex, but for a pair of people with vaginas, oral sex is a central act in the sexual playbook.
At the end of the day, your number really doesn't mean much.
Clearly, as much as people seem to fret about their number of sexual partners, there's not a lot of ultra-precise data nor a lot of consensus about what the ideal is nor what's "normal" for the average person. What one person sees as an appropriate number of partners might be what another person sees as way too many and what yet another person sees as way too few.
Allow me to posit a radical idea: There is no ideal number of sexual partners. As long as a person is happy and satisfied with their sexual experiences—whether they happen quite frequently or they're few and far between—then they're already at their own ideal. Some people love the thrill, excitement, and novelty of getting intimate with a variety of people; some people are only interested in that kind of intimacy with someone they love. Some people aren't interested in commitment and thus tend to steer toward casual relationships; some very committed people still love making their way around town. A number alone can't tell you which of these people you're dealing with.
When it comes to evaluating your partner's number, it might help to take a moment to consider why you feel the way you feel about the idea of them sleeping with more or fewer people. If your response to their number (as told to you or imagined) is a negative one, consider what emotions are behind your viewpoint: Is it rooted in insecurity, shame, or jealousy, as is often the case? Blind adherence to abstract social norms that don't really matter today? Take some time to sit with those feelings, or discuss them with your partner if you feel comfortable with it. At the end of the day, a person's sexual past doesn't have much to do with how they'll treat you in the present.
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