Sex Degrees of Separation: How Many Indirect Sexual Partners Have You Had?

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“Every time you sleep with someone, it’s like you’re having sex with all of their previous partners.” We’ve all heard something like this before, right? The basic idea is that for every direct sexual partner you have, you also accumulate some number of indirect partners (i.e., people who are intimately linked to the person you actually had sex with). So just how many indirect sexual partners have you had?  You may be surprised to find out.

A British pharmacy has developed a calculator called Sex Degrees of Separation that approximates the number of indirect partners you have accumulated based upon the total number of direct partners you’ve ever had and the age of each of those partners. Using actual sexual history data provided by thousands of British adults, the way the calculator works is that it computes the number of people each of your direct partners has likely been intimate with, as well as their partners’ partners for five “generations” out (creating “six degrees of sex,” if you will). You are then provided with the total number of persons with whom you have likely had indirect sexual contact.

How many people are we connected to on average? According to the developers of the calculator, the average British adult has had 7.65 direct partners in their lifetime, but a whopping 2.8million indirect partners [1]. You can calculate your indirect total here.

So is the calculator accurate? Not necessarily. And if you live outside the U.K., the data that went into making the calculator may not apply as well to you. However, the basic idea behind the calculator is sound because we are indeed exposed to indirect partners almost every time we have sex, and that has consequences for our sexual health. So, even though the calculator is, at best, an approximation, it is worthwhile for highlighting the fact that your partners’ sexual history has more implications for you than you might think because you're probably being exposed to more than you bargained for each time you have sex. Each new partner you have increases your risk for coming into contact with a sexually transmitted infection, especially if you do not take safety precautions. Safe sex certainly mitigates risks for contracting many infections (e.g., HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea); however, remember that some STIs, including herpes and HPV, have the potential to be transmitted even when using condoms.

So whenever you hear the question, “What’s your number?”, keep in mind that the number of partners someone has actually slept with is not necessarily the full story and that safe sex is never a bad idea.  

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[1] The Telegraph (2009). Brits have ‘indirect sex’ with 2.8 million people. Retrieved here.

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