I used to be pretty obsessed with the number of people I’d slept with—as if being able to count my sex partners on one or two hands was some kind of indication of how good a person I was.
Like many women, I can meticulously recall how many people I’ve had sex with. According to sex researchers, however, that is not generally the case for men. In fact, men actually tend to report far more opposite-sex partners in their life than woman—something’s that long perplexed researchers because those numbers should be about the same. A July 2018 study published in the Journal of Sex Research is one of the first to investigate why such a gender disparity exists.
For their analysis, researchers looked at the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which includes the responses of more than 15,000 men and women aged 16 to 74 years in Britain. Supporting previous research, they found that men reported twice as many partners as women: an average of 14 partners versus seven, respectively.
One explanation for that gap, according to the study, was that men reported “extreme numbers of lifetime partners” more often than women do. In their analysis, researchers found that the highest number of partners reported by a small segment of men was 110; for women, it was only 50. When that percentile was excluded, the gender gap narrows.
Another reason for the disparity, the study’s authors write, was a difference in accounting strategy. Men were more likely than women to guess their sex number rather than actually remember and count each partner. Among those who reported between five to nine partners, about a quarter of men (compared to 15 percent of women) came to that conclusion by estimating. Of those who said they’d slept with 10 or more partners, 63 percent of men (compared to 52 percent of women) also estimated. Researchers also found that women were more likely to count their partners.
The study’s authors offered a third explanation for why men’s sex partner counts tend to far surpass women’s: that is, people’s attitudes around sex and gender stereotypes. Women usually express “significantly more conservative attitudes toward casual sex and nonexclusive sex,” the authors write. Because they were less likely to think one-night stands were acceptable and more likely to think extramarital sex was always wrong, it’s possible some of their numbers were skewed so that they didn’t appear to violate societal expectations.
(A 2003 paper summarized gender roles in sexuality as such: Women are perceived to be more “relationship-oriented,” therefore they are expected to disapprove of “casual sex, masturbation, and use of hard- core or softcore erotica. In contrast, frequent and early recreational sex as well as autoerotic sexual behaviors are more socially approved of and encouraged for men than for women.”)
Kirstin Mitchell is a senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and lead author of the study. She tells Broadly that it’s unclear why men report extreme numbers of partners, but points out that it’s not all men. “I suspect it's for a similar reason that women under-report: wanting to conform to what they perceive as the ideal for a man (or a woman),” she says.
“There’s often the assumption that it’s all about men lying or men exaggerating,” she continues. “It’s actually less easy to detect whether people are underreporting. There are other experiments and research that show that women tend to change their answers if they are exposed to a conversation expressing conservative norms or if they feel they’ve got extra privacy. Then they might report more partners.”
“I think it’s good to be aware that these stereotypes [regarding men’s and women’s sex attitudes] are still there,” Mitchell adds, “and they do affect the way we want to be seen … even in the context of a private survey where no one’s going to see what you write down. But hopefully [attitudes about sex] will continue to relax and people will increasingly feel free to be who they are and not feel like they have to round up or round down [when they report how many people they’ve slept with] depending on their gender.”