by Tracy Moore
When it comes to sex, one adage holds true: Doing it is a lot different than talking about it, and people have wildly different ideas about how to discuss sex, particularly when it comes to sexual history. Should you tell someone how many people you’ve slept with? What does your number mean, anyway? It’s different if you’re a man! One survey found that 22 percent of people never reveal how many people they’ve slept with, with another 30 percent waiting until a relationship was exclusive to dish.
All this anxiety about when or if to reveal the number hinges on the fact that, high or low, we don’t know how a new partner will react. Though common sense tells us somewhere between virgin and gigolo is probably fine, once you put it out there, there’s no taking it back. That said, a new study suggests there’s a just-right number of previous partners — and claims that, at least in the case of a potential long-term relationship, the ideal number is three. That’s right. Three. But before you feel too embarrassed about your number, the average age in the study was 21.
In the paper, published this month in the Journal of Sex Research, researchers Steve Stewart-Williams, Caroline Butler and Andrew G. Thomas looked at how sexual history affects attractiveness. The study was based on survey results from 188 adults; its findings contradict the results of a survey published last year that showed the ideal number as a little over seven.
But contrary to the previously reported study that the ideal average number of sex partners is around seven, they found that men and women both preferred their partners have less than half that number. What gives? We spoke to Stewart-Williams by email and asked him to parse the results for us.
In research like this, I always first wonder how reliable any self-reported performance like sex can be. Won’t men overstate past partners and women will understate? Are you able to account for such things?
There’s a fair amount of research looking at how accurate self-report methods really are. The short answer is that they’re not completely reliable — no method is. But as a general rule, people’s responses on anonymous surveys tend to be quite accurate and tend to correlate quite well with more objective measures.
What does this study tell us about young men’s attitude toward sex today? Women’s?
Our main finding was that most people — men and women — are reluctant to get involved with someone with a very high number of past sexual partners. They’re much more willing to get involved with someone with a more modest number: between zero and 10. Within the zero-to-10 range, we found that people generally preferred someone with a handful of past partners to someone who had no partners at all. In other words, they prefer someone with a bit of a past but not too much (which is the title of our paper).
The pattern was surprisingly similar for both sexes. When we asked about long-term relationships, there were basically no sex differences in how willing people were to get involved with a person with a given number of past sexual partners. For flings and casual relationships, on the other hand, there was a small sex difference: Men were more willing than women to get involved, regardless of how many past partners the person had had. But even for casual relationships, both sexes tended to prefer someone with a handful of partners, rather than a lot of handfuls. The study was done in the U.K., by the way, and it’s very likely we’d get different results in other cultures…