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The Perils of Keeping Count

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Perhaps one of the most common questions any sexpert gets is “how many is too many” when it comes to one’s number of sexual partners. People are curious about what’s average, as well as what number can be considered the tipping point when it comes to the labels society throws on people it deems promiscuous. So what is the scoop?

The normative behavior these days is to be sexually active (at least some of the time) and to have multiple sex partners over the course of a lifetime. In general, people are having more sexual partners now than they ever have before because they’re hitting puberty earlier and marrying later. They’re spending a much longer period of time being sexually active, but unmarried.

The numbers being reported vary greatly, and really come down to who is being asked, who is telling the truth and how “sexual partner” is being defined. For example, does oral sex count? According to the CDC, the median number of female sexual partners that men ages 25-44 have had in their lifetime is 6.1, with 21.6% having had 15 or more partners. For women ages 25-44, the lifetime median is 3.6, while 9% have had 15 or more sex partners. 

As you can see, men generally report having had more past partners compared to women, which means that either women are not being completely honest in their sexual experience when surveyed, and/or that men are exaggerating their experience or paying for commercial sex more than we’d care to acknowledge. 

On a related note, men are also more likely than women to report initiating sexual activity within intimate relationships and to rate sexual intercourse as the most important aspect of sexual interactions (compared to foreplay and afterplay). Women, compared to men, are more likely to refuse sexual invitations, at least from strangers, and are more likely to report desiring sex within a committed rather than casual relationship.

While for some people, the number of partners you’ve had might be a big deal, people on the whole don’t consider a potential partner’s level of sexual experience to be as important as many other 

characteristics. They feel that traits, like dependable character, 
physical attractiveness, and ambition, are more important. Included in this view is one’s
lack of previous sexual experience – people consider inexperience fairly unimportant relative to these other traits. Yet, it must be noted that people do have different opinions on sexual experience when it comes to dating versus marriage potential. 

Survey says: When rating a potential marital partner, both men and women give a higher desirability rating to a partner practicing chastity than to one with either moderate or extensive sexual experience. However, when rating potential dating partners, moderately and highly experienced people are perceived to be more desirable than inexperienced persons. This gets even more interesting when you consider that there’s a bit of a difference between the sexes on this one. Females consider a male most desirable as a date when he engages in moderate sexual activity, whereas men view women as most desirable as a date when she engages in a high level of sexual activity. 

People who engage in intercourse within a committed relationship are viewed as significantly more desirable for both dating and marriage than people described as engaging in intercourse in an uncommitted relationship. While both men and women view promiscuity as undesirable in a long-term partner, women perceive this characteristic more undesirable in short-term partners than men do.

Both sexes also prefer a “sexually available,” short-term partner more than they prefer a marriage partner with that characteristic. Overall, moderate sexual experience in a dating partner is perceived as more desirable than extensive sexual experience. At any rate, what is considered “moderate,” “extensive,” etc. is all relative. You never know what is “too many” to somebody, and maybe you shouldn’t care.

You are the person you are thanks to your experiences (or lack thereof). There should be no apologies, excuses or shame in that. You are, after all, a sexual being. 

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