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In the Age of Swiping, is There Still a ‘Right’ Number of Sexual Partners?

In the Age of Swiping, is There Still a ‘Right’ Number of Sexual Partners?: Silver Screen Collection / Contributor

Silver Screen Collection / Contributor

When I was a teenager, I remember struggling with what seemed to be the most confusing part of being new to the dating game; that is, what to say when a guy asked how many other guys I had been with. This was before dating apps. Back then, the socially acceptable answer of past partners was three—no more, no less. Surprisingly, a new study in the Journal of Sex Research shows us that not much has changed, despite the purported rise of hookup culture in America.

The study involved 188 heterosexual participants aged 18 to 35, roughly half of whom were male, recruited through ads on UK social media and from Swansea University in Wales. The researchers were curious about how someone’s sexual history affects their attractiveness; basically, does your number of past sexual partners make someone more or less interested in you?

The findings showed that when it comes to long-term relationships, men and women were more willing to get involved with someone who had two past partners and less interested in getting involved if the person had more—or fewer.

Two doesn’t seem like very many in the grand scheme of things. As the study’s authors note, over the course of a lifetime, most of us will encounter our fair share of “first loves, unrequited loves, old flames [and] drunken mistakes.” (For yours truly, definitely more of some of the above than others.)

The researchers concluded this unexpectedly low number was due to the fact the average age of the study participants was 21 years old, meaning most participants had likely only been sexually active for a few years. Inevitably, what seems like a high number when you’re in your early twenties becomes a more typical estimate as you get older.

Women were also more reluctant than men to get involved with someone with fewer than two past lovers, and the possible reasons are twofold. The first is something called “mate-choice copying.” Women tend to find guys who get attention from other women more attractive, because this signals a man’s value as a mate.

The second is that men are more willing to get involved with less experienced partners, because from an evolutionary perspective, this would be associated with a lower risk of being cuckolded. (Nowadays, though, cuckolding has evolved into a phenomenon some guys are into.)

As for short-term relationships, the acceptable number of past partners was higher, and more so for men. For guys, the cut-off was nine to 11 partners; for women, it was five or six. People with high sociosexual orientation (or interest in casual sex) were more interested in people with three or more past partners, and less interested in people with fewer than that.

So what should you say when someone asks? The authors note that in real life, we usually get to know someone before finding out their number. The lack of this context in the study might have led people to put more weight on this single piece of information than normal.

It also appears the sexual double standard—in which male promiscuity tends to be more socially acceptable than the female variety—is not as prominent as it used to be, at least not in this sample of liberal, college-educated millennials living in western culture.

But what I found most interesting is the fact that the average number of actual past partners people in the study had—around eight for men and six for women—was higher than what the opposite sex had decided was ideal for long-term commitment. In reality, hardly anybody has the right number of past sex partners. So next time you’re asked to do the math, answer truthfully. Not taking into account age gaps, chances are you’ll have more in common with the person who’s asking than you think.


Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist, specializing in the fMRI of hypersexuality and paraphilias (or unusual sexual interests) at York University in Toronto. She has written for Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, The Globe and Mail, New York Magazine and many other outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.


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