You’ve been dating the requisite period of time, just starting to get comfortable together—guard finally down—when suddenly she pops the question: How many people have you been with? A bunch of thoughts immediately come to mind: is she genuinely interested? Is she trying to catch me out? Is she just making conversation? Or could my answer determine whether or not she spends the next week posting passive-agressive Instagram indirects (directly) at me.
Despite the reluctance many men feel when deciding how many of their exploits to share with a more conservative partner, they have no such qualms when talking to their mates, or indeed, scientists. A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research has shown why men are more prone to exaggerate the number of sexual partners they’ve had than women.
Scientists from the University of Glasgow analysed the responses of over 15,000 men and women in the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3). Their study aimed to better understand why men always report more opposite-sex partners on average than women, even though the average number reported by men and women should be about the same. In the survey men reported an average of 14.14 lifetime partners while women reported only 7.12.
“body count” is such a weird way to say “number of sexual partners” honestly the first time someone asked me about it I thought they were asking me if i’d ever killed anyone
— ellie (@holy_schnitt) 27 July 2018
The first reason for this discrepancy was that there were a number of men who skewed the average, reporting unusually high numbers (up to 110) of partners. There were significantly less women like this. As reported by Science Daily, “Excluding these men and women reduced the overall average, closing the gender gap.”
The gap was made smaller still when the researchers realised men were more likely than women to estimate rather than count their lifetime partners. For example, “Among those reporting 5-9 partners, 24% of men estimated compared with 15% of women” (Science Daily).
The final explanation comes down to culture. As the women surveyed were generally more conservative in their sexual attitudes than men, it follows that they were likely to round down, where as men were more likely to round up. These attitudes were tested by asking questions like: are one-night stands wrong? (9% of guys said yes, compared to 18% of women) and: are extramarital relations always wrong?
According to the study’s main author, Dr Mitchell, this is an important area to investigate because, “Accurate reporting of sexual partners is crucial for many reasons, including assessing individual risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and estimating the rate of STI/HIV transmission.”
“Most existing studies of reporting bias are limited to students or high-risk populations, or are conducted as ‘laboratory’ settings, so they don’t show how members of the public respond in a ‘real-life’ survey. To our knowledge, our study is the first attempt to look at all the key types of explanation for the gender discrepancy within the same large and representative sample.”
As most existing studies on the topic have been limited to students or high-risk populations (or have been conducted in ‘laboratory’ settings without involving ‘real-life’ surveys) this one is a good sign for progress, as it marks, “The first attempt to look at all the key types of explanation for the gender discrepancy within the same large and representative sample” (Science Daily).