The research on number of sex partners is messy. It’s dirty. Not only do people not keep good tabs on who they’ve gotten frisky with, but it turns out that the way men and women count also leaves some to be desired.
For women, in an effort to keep the numbers down, they like to trim a bit off the top literotica. “Well, I didn’t have an orgasm, don’t count him” or “We had sex in the back of the car, so that doesn’t count, he’s not on the list” or “He wasn’t a boyfriend, I’m not counting him.”
Men aren’t too hot at the math either. On average, men like their number to be big. That means they count everything. Hand job. Blow job. Count it up! And when we ask men to judge how accurate their recalled numbers are? Turns out that men who admit that their recall is crap are more likely to have higher numbers of sex partners (average of 7 partners) compared to the men who say they are confident in their recall-ability (average of 2 partners).
Now, sure, men who have slept with more partners simply may not remember exactly how many partners they have had. So at least they are being honest in admitting they aren’t entirely certain of their number. But there’s something more going on here.
Because we also know that people who have higher numbers of sex partners (and no, I can’t tell you what “high” is defined as because no one wants to go out on a limb and actually say that x number is a high number of sex partners) are more likely to report a number that ends in a 0 or a 5. Convenient. “Hmmm… I can’t remember. I’ll just round up to a nice number that ends in 0 or 5. Yup, that looks good to me.”
Ok, so recall is neither women’s nor men’s strong suit.
Another issue with this literature? Researchers don’t specify casual versus committed sex partners. So my one night stands are worth the same as a boyfriend of 5 years? I’m not saying that casual sex partners should be counted twice, but what about the guy who only ever had sex with his 9 official ‘girlfriends?’ Is that the same as the person who had 9 one night stands? Not really. Especially if we are going to use number of sex partners as an indicator of how sexually permissive someone is.
But here’s the kicker. I love the kicker!
One of my most favourite sex research studies involves the bogus pipeline. The bogus pipeline is code for ‘fake lie detector.’ In this study, men and women both came into the study and filled out a questionnaire, including number of consensual sex partners.
But… then they were put into 1 of 3 different conditions.
In one condition, they went to a room, filled out the questionnaire in private, sealed it in an envelope, and dropped it into a box. In another, male participants sat in a room while a female researcher intently watched them fill out the questionnaire or if they were female, they sat in a room while a male researcher intently watched them. And in the third condition, participants were hooked up to the ‘lie detector’ test and asked how many people they had slept with. I guess these students missed the class where the prof told them that lie detectors can’t detect sh*t.