If you’ve read any sex surveys pretty much anywhere ever in your life, you’ve learned a curious truth: Heterosexual men, on average, have more sexual partners than heterosexual women do. Sometimes it’s two or four times or more, with one study finding men have an average of seven partners to women’s four, and another showing that men had roughly 13 partners on average to women’s 7. Mathematicians protest that this is logically impossible — it takes two people to have sex, after all, so the median number of partners should be the same for men and women.
So what’s with the funny math?
Turns out there are a lot of reasons the numbers can get skewed, and they don’t all involve lying.
Of course, lying is still typically the most frequently cited reason for skewed results. Men tend to inflate their numbers, researchers say, whereas women lowball. The reasons are fairly obvious if we go by broad cultural stereotypes about promiscuity and gender: Men are supposed to go out there and get all they can while they can; women are supposed to seem discerning about who they let get up in there. Women are supposed to guard their virginity for love; men are supposed to get it over with as soon as possible or risk eternal humiliation. It follows then, that women would feel pressured to still seem pure, while men would feel pressured to seem experienced.
American Pie 2 gave us a solid bullshit detection formula for deciphering how many sex partners men and women really have, though. It’s called the rule of three — men should multiply the number of partners a woman claims to have had by three to get an accurate number; women should divide the number of partners a man claims to have had by three to get the real answer.
While that’s got to be an exaggeration, the takeaway here is that men round up; women round down.
That said, there’s some evidence maybe men and women aren’t lying but counting the number of people they’ve slept with differently, according to Bradley University psychology professor David Schmitt. “When asked about one’s number of past sex partners, women tend to recall each and every past partner individually (Bill, Ted, Tony, Tim…), whereas men tend to ‘guesstimate’ using large round numbers (around 10),” Schmitt writes at Psychology Today.
The key point here, though, is that both methods are flawed. Researchers say the “raw count” women use results in deflated numbers. “They tend to say, ‘I just know,’ and if you ask them to explain how they know, they say, ‘Well, there was John, Tom, etc.,’” psychologist Norman Brown, who studies flaws in self-reported sex surveys, told Live Science. On the other hand, the rough approximation men use leads to inflated numbers. “Men are twice as likely to use rough approximation to answer the question,” Brown told them. “And rough approximation is a strategy known to produce over-estimation.”
The older you get—and maybe the more people you’ve slept with—the less likely you are to remember exactly how many times you got it on. Some people, at some point, literally just stop counting, as evidenced by this quote from Christine, 35, who told the New York Daily News exactly that about her sex life in 2008.
“I stopped counting at 56,” said Christine, 35, a locations director from Bayside who lives in SoHo. “There are so many opportunities to meet men here — bars, restaurants, clubs, walking down the street, the deli. Men are everywhere.”
The Prostitute Effect
If men are more likely to pay for sex here or abroad than women — research Schmitt cites found that 15 percent of American men do, compared to fewer than 1 percent of American women (again, assuming they are telling the truth) — men may count those extra experiences in their tally.
However, other experts argue this can’t adequately account for the difference. “Invoking women who are outside the survey population cannot begin to explain a difference of 75 percent in the number of partners, as occurred in the study saying men had seven partners and women four,” University of California, Berkeley, mathematics professor David Gale, told The New York Times.
What Counts as Sex
Perhaps most interesting of all the reasons these studies might skew higher for men is that, eager to keep that number up, men may toss in nearly anything remotely sexual as a sex act in their tally. According to Schmitt over at Psychology Today, men count more sexual interactions as sex than women do. “Because men consider more sexual behaviors to count as sex than women (e.g., oral sex, intimate massages), this might lead men to report, on average, higher numbers of past sex partners than women do,” he writes.
This is very confusing. Is sex (between heterosexuals) not exclusively penis-in-vagina? A blowjob is certainly a sexual act but it’s not intercourse, though it’s not out of the realm of possibility to include it as part of a tally. But going down on a woman could be sex if you’re a lesbian — one lesbian on a forum asking what constitutes sex said she considers oral and fingering sex between women, but only third base or foreplay between men and women.
It should be noted again that these studies concern only heterosexuals. Yet lesbian and gay responses to this question are illuminating. “There is no ‘official’ sex act for gay men either,” Ianthe writes on the forum. “There are gay men who are not interested in anal, and their sex lives are just as valid as anyone’s. It’s actually a stereotype that all gay men have/prefer anal sex.”
“When below the waist gets involved,” an anonymous commenter adds.
Men who report blowjobs as sex may not actually be inflating either; they might just be old-fashioned. A study of college students in 2007 in a human sexuality course at a large university found that only 20 percent of them considered oral-genital contact to count as sex. But in 1991, 40 percent of students in a similar survey said they did consider it sex. Because the 1997 group of students were adolescents during the Bill Clinton sex scandal, when he famously insisted he “did not have sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky — just received a blowjob, among other things, but did not give her oral sex — researchers call it the Clinton-Lewinsky effect.
Far less up for debate, though, is the concept that “intimate massages” count as sex. Of course, intimate massages might seem extra sensual because they are a sexual service, one that gives you a boner. Sexual, yes—after all, it’s a porn category, which may explain the inclusion in men’s lists—but not sex. Sex arguably does require some kind of intimate touching, and intimate massage is indeed intimate touching. But unless it comes with a happy ending (which even many men agree counts as cheating), most of us don’t think it makes the cut for sex.
And who’s counting anyway? (Men.)
Schmitt concludes that we still should view those self-reported surveys skeptically when it comes to sex (or drug use, or criminal behavior, for that matter). “In my view, there should be no trusting when it comes to people’s responses to questions about sex,” he writes. “Scientists aren’t supposed to trust, they’re supposed to skeptically and rigorously verify.”
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still conduct the surveys to get a sense of what weirdo, bad-counting, sometimes-liars we all are. If nothing else, they show we’re still playing to stereotypes that portray men as scoring big and women as chaste.
What seems to be changing is that we’re less and less concerned about how many people we’ve slept with anyway. A 2015 study of nearly 6,000 singles aged 18 to 70 found that more than 56 percent of men and 48 percent of women didn’t want to know their partner’s sexual history. Some 22 percent said they’d never share that number even if asked, and another 30 percent said they wouldn’t reveal it until the relationship was exclusive.
It’s not clear why this is. Maybe it’s just that, in an age where dating apps make casual hookups easier than ever, we’re all racking up bigger numbers we’d rather not disclose. Or maybe the reverse is true — the fact that we’re not getting laid in an era of unprecedented access to tail is too embarrassing to admit.
Either way, it seems we just don’t want to have to lie anymore.