In study after study, men report having more sexual partners than women. While a study might find men reporting an average of seven (hetero-) sexual partners, women will report an average of five. A UK study found that men reported, on average, 12.7 heterosexual partners over a lifetime and women 6.5. There is a problem with this, though: it doesn’t add up; the numbers are mathematically impossible.
Let’s say, for example, that 9 men are about to have sex with 9 women in such a way that 20 different sexual partnerships will have been made. (The number of times the couple in each partnership have sex with each other is irrelevant.)
If you’d like to play with the figures yourself, put twenty coins on one side of a table, for the men, and twenty on the other, for the women. Each coin represents one half of a sexual partnership – and each coin in the men’s camp must therefore be matched by a coin in the women’s, and vice versa, because you can’t have half of a sexual partnership without there being the other half.
Now arrange the men’s and women’s coins in 9 different columns each, so 18 in total, each column representing a person and each coin in that column representing a sexual partner that person has. No matter how you switch the coins about, you should always have 20 on the men’s side and 20 on the women’s. You may also choose to have empty columns, with no sex for the people they represent. (And, incidentally, there is a maximum here of nine coins per column, since there are only nine other people for any one person to have heterosexual sex with.)
You might say, for example, that of the men: four have one sexual partner, four have three and one has four. And of the women, eight have two and one has four.
In that arrangement, because four of the men have only one sexual partner, there is indeed more of a bulge in the figures, with five of the men having more sexual partners than eight of the women.
The mean average number of partners for both men and women is, though, exactly the same – i.e. 20/9 or 2 2/9. It is impossible for this not to be the case, no matter how the distribution is varied.
All of which begs the question: what’s going on here?
Why, to put it bluntly, are people lying about the number of sexual partners they’ve had? Either men are over-reporting, claiming more sexual partners than they have actually had, or women are under-reporting, claiming fewer, or, perhaps more likely, it’s a combination of both of these.
Perhaps both men and women are encouraged to reinvent their figures by the myths in part perpetuated by such surveys, which report on the different averages for men and women without then saying that their findings are impossible. In other words, men feel they must over-report in order to seem manly, while women feel they must minimize their experience if they are not to seem ‘slutty’ or some other such soubriquet, whether in their own eyes or those of a researcher.
Perhaps men and women see the ‘sex that counts’ as being different, with women on average tending to dismiss more of their more casual partnerships. Or perhaps, it is only some men and some women who feel they don’t match their own expectations who are keeping quiet or under or over-reporting.
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