Sex Question Friday: How Many Sexual Partners Have Most People Had?

Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who wanted to know:

“How many sex partners do men and women usually say they’ve had?”

Great question! Let’s take a look at a couple of nationally representative U.S. surveys for the answer. Specifically, let’s compare the National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS), which sampled over 3,000 persons aged 18 to 59 during the 1990s [1], and the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), which surveyed over 13,000 individuals aged 15 to 44 between 2006 and 2008 [2]. Different surveys ask about sexual partners in different ways and use different samples, so it is useful to consider a few sets of results.

Let’s begin with the NHSLS. These findings reveal that most U.S. adults are sexually active. In fact, 97% of men and women surveyed reported having had at least one sexual partner during their lives. The vast majority of male participants (67%) reported having 10 or fewer total partners, and the vast majority of female participants (70%) reported having 4 or fewer partners. For a more detailed look at the results, check out the table below.

NHSLS: Lifetime Number of Sex Partners

Data Source: National Health and Social Life Survey

Data Source: National Health and Social Life Survey

Next, let’s take a look at the more recent NSFG. Here, we see a very similar pattern of results. However, it is important to note that participants’ ages differed across these two studies (15 to 44 in the NSFG vs. 18 to 59 in the NHSLS), and the researchers used slightly different response options when asking about number of partners. Although these two sets of findings aren’t completely comparable, they paint a pretty similar picture. Again, the vast majority of participants were sexually active (more than 90% of men and women), and most men (57.3%) and women (74.55) reported fewer than 6 lifetime total partners. See the table below for more detailed results.

NSFG: Lifetime Number of Sex Partners

Data Source: National Survey of Family Growth

Data Source: National Survey of Family Growth

One thing that stands out in both sets of findings is a consistent sex difference: women are more likely to report having had only one partner, whereas men are more likely to report having had 10 or more partners. Why is this the case? One possibility is that perhaps men and women define “sex” or “sexual partner” in very different ways and are therefore counting very different things. An alternative possibility is that men feel social pressure to over-report and women feel pressure to underreport—in other words, social pressure may lead people to be less than truthful. As some support for this idea, research has found that when men and women are asked about their sexual histories while hooked up to a supposed lie-detector device, the difference between the sexes becomes much smaller [3].

In short, although the statistics above may represent the best available information we have on number of sexual partners, the reality is that the difference between the sexes may not be quite as big as it first appears.

For previous editions of Sex Question Friday, click here. To send in a question for a future edition, click here.

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[1] Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J., Michael, R., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Chandra, A., Mosher, W. D., & Copen, C. (2011). Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual identity in the United States: Data from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth. National Health Statistics Reports, 36, 1-36.

[3] Alexander, M.G., & Fisher, T.D. (2003). Truth and consequences: Using the bogus pipeline to examine sex differences in self-reported sexuality. Journal of Sex Research, 40, 27-35.

Image Source: iStockphoto.com

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