What’s Your Ideal Number of Sexual Partners?

April 5, 2017

calculating totalOne topic that comes up regularly here at HUS is the question of sexual history. Specifically, how many sexual partners have you had? Is it something you expect to be asked about? Are you willing to share that information? Do you expect it from someone you’re getting to know?

Once you know “the number,” how do you use it? Do you filter out people who have had too many partners? How many is too many? Or are you turned off by someone who’s had zero or few sexual partners before? Perhaps you feel most compatible with someone who’s had about the same level of sexual experience as you.

How you answer those questions will almost certainly reflect your age (we never asked for sexual history in the 80s) and your attitudes about sex, i.e. your sociosexuality. Young people today have to contend with a different environment, one where STIs are rampant and hookup culture offers casual sex opportunities for those so inclined. There’s a lot of variation among individuals.

Many thanks to longtime reader J 2.0, who sent along research asking 2,180 people what they consider the ideal number of sex partners. The results are surprising – and surprisingly informative.

How many partners is ideal?

What is the ideal # of lifetime sexual partners?7.57.67
How many partners is “too promiscuous?”15.21415
How many partners is “too sexually conservative?”1.92.32
What is your # of sexual partners?76.4N/A

The minimal difference between the responses of men and women is fascinating, suggesting that the sexual double standard has eroded considerably. Men don’t hold women to a chaste standard, or believe they should have fewer partners than men do. Women don’t reward men for sexual experience – in fact, they have a lower threshold for too few partners.

(Note: The research included several European countries, so I’ve broken out the US separately.)

Are you obligated to disclose your number of sexual partners?

% AgreeFemalesMales
You should disclose your # of sexual partners to someone you’re dating.90%88%
Disclose within the first month.31.2%33.8%
Disclose within 1-4 months.36.3%35.3%
Disclose within 5-8 months.13.9%13.2%
Disclose after 9 months.7.7%6.4%

When asked whether sexual history could be a dealbreaker, 30% said they would likely break up with a person who had “too many partners,” while  8% said they’d break up with someone who had “not enough.”

Again, the results are remarkably similar for men and women. I’m surprised that so many people feel that it’s unethical to conceal this information. My own feeling has always been that you’re free to refuse to answer the question, keeping in mind that could be a dealbreaker for the other person. Apparently, that’s more common than I assumed. It’s also surprising that people expect this frank conversation to take place in the first month. Though from a sexual health standpoint, it’s a very good idea to discuss someone’s sexual history before having sex with them.

How honest have you been in disclosing your own sexual history?

When discussing their number of previous sexual partners, people have three options: tell the truth, inflate the number, or deflate the number. We asked respondents which route they have taken when tackling the topic. Hearteningly, the majority of both genders (67.4 percent of women and 58.6 percent of men) reported that they always tell the truth. Another 5.8 percent of women and 10.1 percent of men admitted to both increasing and decreasing the number, presumably depending on the situation.

Our male respondents were more likely than our female survey participants to inflate their number of sexual partners: 17.5 percent of male respondents reported claiming more partners than they’ve had, while only 8.2 percent of women did the same. On the other hand, 18.6 percent of women said they’ve divulged a decreased number of partners compared with only 13.7 percent of men who have done so.

Consistent with other research, men lie more about their number than women do. While it is heartening that 2/3 of people tell the truth, that means you have a 1 in 3 chance of being lied to – perhaps by a lot.

We can also really see the differences in respondents’ sociosexuality. Imagine a woman lying up about her number – and a higher percentage of men lying downward! This suggests that people may tailor their responses based on the attitudes of the person they’re dating. Men hide their promiscuity nearly as often as women do.

From the survey, here are the self-reported rates of ever-diagnosed STIs among respondents:

0-4 partners: 3%

5-9 partners: 8%

10-14 partners: 8%

15+ partners: 13%

Keep in mind that many STIs are not curable, and that many people – especially men – are carriers of HPV and herpes without being aware of it.

As always, my advice is to delay sex until you’re exclusive – and as awkward as it sounds, I’d ask for STI test results first. Or go get tested together. Not all diseases are preventable with condoms, and while not all STIs can even be tested, it’s worth getting as much information as you can.

Are you as surprised as I am? How do these findings match up with your own experience? Do you agree with the responses? Let’s discuss!