Average Number Of Sexual Partners For Women & Men: What's Normal?
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
We're all curious about how many sexual partners other people have had, especially when it comes to the people we're dating. Here's a roundup of all the data and research on the average number of sexual partners for women and men, how many partners is considered too many, and what you can tell about someone based on how many people they've slept with.
The average number of sexual partners.
It varies a lot. There's a lot of research on lifetime sexual partners, and any given study will give you slightly different numbers. But in general, anywhere between 4 and 8 partners is considered an average number of sexual partners for adult men and women.
If you want to get into the nitty-gritty details, here's some of the recent research:
- According to 2011 to 2015 CDC data, women between ages 25 and 44 had a median of 4.2 sexual partners, while men in that age group had a median of 6.1 sexual partners. (These are medians, not averages. These medians are based on number of lifetime sexual partners among sexually experienced men and women, meaning they don't take into account people who have had zero sexual partners.)
- A 2015 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found millennials have an average of 8 sexual partners.
- A 2017 survey of 2,180 people from the U.S. and Europe from U.K. health service Superdrug Online Doctor found women had a lifetime average of 7 sexual partners. Men had an average of 8 sexual partners.
- Just to throw a curveball here: A 2018 survey from NectarSleep found men reported having an average of 26 sexual partners before "settling down"; for women, the average was 19 sexual partners.
- 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 sexual partners.
Average number of sex partners by age.
A 2014 study of CDC data from 2006 to 2010 found these numbers:
- Ages 15-19: 72% of women and 71% of men had had 0-1 partners, and 17% of women and 17% of men had had 2-4 partners.
- Ages 20-24: Among women, 35% had had 0-1 partner, 29% had had 2-4 partners, 23% had had 5-9 partners, and 13% had had 10+ partners. Among men, 32% had had 0-1 partner, 25% had had 2-4 partners, 20% had had 5-9 partners, and 22% had had 10+ partners.
- Ages 25-29: Among women, 25% had 0-1 partner, 31% had had 2-4 partners, 24% had had 5-9 partners, and 21% had had 10+ partners. Among men, 17% had had 0-1 partners, 26% had had 2-4 partners, 25% had had 5-9 partners, and 33% had had 10+ partners.
- Ages 30-34: Among women, 22% had 0-1 partner, 31% had had 2-4 partners, 25% had had 5-9 partners, and 22% had had 10+ partners. Among men, 17% had had 0-1 partners, 21% had had 2-4 partners, 20% had had 5-9 partners, and 42% had had 10+ partners.
- Ages 35-39: Among women, 23% had had 0-1 partner, 30% had had 2-4 partners, 28% had had 5-9 partners, and 19% had had 10+ partners. Among men, 16% had had 0-1 partner, 22% 2-4 partners, 20% had had 5-9 partners, and 42% had had 10+ partners.
- Ages 40-44: Among women, 22% had had 0-1 partner, 31% had had 2-4 partners, 30% had had 5-9 partners, 30% had had 5-9 partners and 19% had had 10+ partners. Among men, 14% had had 0-1 partner, 23% had had 2-4 partners, 24% had had 5-9 partners, and 39% had had 10+ partners.
How many sexual partners is a lot?
There's no specific number of sexual partners that is universally considered a lot or too many partners. Everyone has their own personal opinion on what the ideal number of sexual partners is based on their own individual preferences, values, priorities, cultural backgrounds, and experiences. What's a high number of partners to one person may be considered average or even low to another person.
Here are a few insights from the research:
- A 2004 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research said the ideal number of sexual partners for maximizing happiness is one a year. (That is, people who had just one sexual partner a year tended to be happier than people who had more than one per year.)
- The 2014 study on CDC data mentioned above in the section on age is very telling. In general, there's a lot of variety in the number of sexual partners people have as adults. Having just one partner in your lifetime is generally as common as having 10 or more lifetime partners.
- In a 2018 survey of over 2,000 people, European digital health service Dr. Ed found three partners to be the ideal. Men in their 20s saw 7 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.
- In the 2017 Superdrug survey, men put the limit at 14 sexual partners maximum, and women drew the line at 15. Moreover, men saw fewer than 3 partners as too low. Women thought less than 2 sexual partners was too low.
- A 2018 study from the Institute for Family Studies found couples in which both spouses had only ever slept with each other were slightly more likely to be satisfied with their marriages. That said, 52% of couples where spouses had 6 to 10 partners (apparently the least happy group) still reported being "very happy" with their marriages.
Relationship Communication 101
Unfortunately, people still judge one another based on the number of sexual partners they've had. 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. Some studies show people are less willing to date somebody as their number of sexual partners increases and view people as less intelligent, kind, honest, or trustworthy as that number goes up.
That's not a good thing—it means our culture has an even longer way to go before an attitude of sexual acceptance and celebration truly becomes the norm.
Women who sleep with a lot of men.
A lot of people are specifically curious to know how many men the average woman has slept with and what counts as a high number of partners for women. Although we might not realize it or intend it this way, our instinct to judge women who sleep with a lot of men is rooted in sexism. While men are praised by their peers for having sex with a lot of people, women are shamed for it. Psychologists refer to this sexist phenomenon as a sexual double standard.
Some 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. One study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found women, in particular, view more promiscuous women as "less competent, emotionally stable, warm, and dominant." Another 2019 study found people assessing peers' "values, likability, success, and intelligence" viewed sexually experienced women more negatively than sexually experienced men.
These perceptions are not based in reality, of course. Sleeping with a lot of people doesn't make women any less competent, stable, or confident. Plenty of women enjoy having sex with a lot of people and are also smart, mature, kind, committed, and confident. If you find yourself judging a woman negatively based on her sexual history, it's important to take a pause and recognize that your judgments may be unfairly gendered. It can be helpful to spend some time reflecting on your feelings about sex and gender more broadly. You're, of course, allowed to have your own values, but it's important not to view other people negatively just because they have a different set of values from yours.
What you know about someone based on how many people they've slept with.
Yes, 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 of sexual partners could potentially shed some light on 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 us whether you're a kind, ethical, intelligent, loyal, or empathetic person or basically any other meaningful quality about you. There are 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 get intimate with strangers on the regular, and some of the biggest jerks you'll ever meet have never had sex in their lives. The number of partners really doesn't tell you much.
Should couples tell each other their numbers?
If it's on your mind, it's usually a good idea to talk about it. Keeping secrets from your partner or feeling like you're avoiding something can create distance and tension in the relationship.
All that said, it seems people are pretty weird about talking to their partners about their number. The 2018 Dr. Ed survey found some 29% of people said you should never have to tell your number to your partner, whereas 54% 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 also speaks to a weird hush-hush around the subject.
In fact, 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 the Dr. Ed 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.
Evaluating your partner's number.
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? Are you upset with your partner for not sharing your values? Are you simply following along with abstract social norms without really questioning them?
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. And we know that people who have lots of sexual partners before marriage still go on to have perfectly happy, healthy relationships. After all, sex in long-term relationships is very different from single sex.
At the end of the day, the number of people you've slept with doesn't say much about you.
As much as people seem to fret about their number of sexual partners, there's not a lot of consensus about 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 too few.
The truth is, 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 casual sex. A number alone can't tell you which of these people you're dealing with.