Dollars and Sex

How economics influences sex and love

Too Many Lovers, Too Little Love

Will taking a lover today make it harder to be happy with a spouse tomorrow?

When you start a new relationship, do you care if your new love has slept with 1, 10, 100 people in the past? If the answer to that question is “yes”, then how about this: When deciding today whether or not to have a casual sexual relationship, do you weigh the benefits of that relationship against the costs in terms how it might affect any future, committed, relationships?

In theory at least, driving up your bedfellow-count while you are single could reduce the quality of relationship you have when you eventually settle into a more serious, long-term, relationship.

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When searching for partner with whom to have a serious relationship, the size of your market is restricted by the availability of people who are looking for someone just like you; you only get to choose a partner from the pool of people who wants someone who is your age / attractiveness / occupation / sexual orientation et cetra.

Just like you, everyone else has an idea of what they are looking for in a partner and, unfortunately, your market is somewhat limited because you (personally) will fail to meet the criterion set by most other single people.

This is just the unfortunate reality of life on the singles’ market.

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Some of the personal qualities that take us off other singles “must have” lists are things we can do nothing about (like where we were born or our ethnicity), some are things we wouldn’t change even if we could (like our political or religious views) and some are things we might be willing to change if doing so was worth the increase in the size of our market (like quitting smoking or losing weight).

Sexual history is an interesting personal quality in that it is both a choice and, once done, is beyond our control. We don’t write about it in our online dating profiles, but it is a quality that many people care about when looking for a husband or wife. It is a quality that has the power to influence the size of our individual marriage markets and, as a result, the probability that we will eventually find long-lasting love.

Let me illustrate this market size effect with an example. Ask Men recently conducted their 2013 Great Male Survey. If we presume that those survey results reflect the views of all men (which is unlikely, but this is just an example) then a woman’s number of past sexual partners would limit her market as follows:

  • A woman who has had more than 100 past sexual partners would only have access to the 25% of men who do not care about her sexual history.
  • A woman with between 20 and 100 past partners would have access to the further 8% of men who only care about her sexual history once her number of sexual partners exceeds 100.
  • A woman with between 10 to 20 past partners would have access to a further 19% of men who only care about her sexual history once her number of sexual partners exceeds 20.
  • A woman with between 1 and 10 past partners would have access to a further 39% of men who only care about her sexual history once her number of sexual partners exceeds 10.
  • And, a woman with no past sexual partners would have access to the final 9% who that she has had more than one sexual partner.

So by choosing to have, say, 33 past sexual partners a woman potentially would have eliminated 66% of men on the market for a committed relationship.

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I don’t have any data that directly measures how a man’s sexual history might limit his marriage market, but I think it would be a mistake to assume that women do not care about a potential love interest’s sexual history – especially if she concerned about his ability to be a faithful partner in the long-run.

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The problem with making decisions that lead to smaller markets is that smaller markets often lead to lower quality relationships; there is some recent evidence that the number of past sexual partners a married person reports is negatively correlated with their self-reported happiness in their marriage.

This study published by researchers at Brigham Young University suggests that each additional past sexual partner reduces the quality of their married sex life, the level of communication with their spouse and the stability of their relationship.

I have some serious reservations about the quality of the research that produced these results, by the way, and no one should take this evidence at face value. But the results are consistent, at least, with the theory that people who have had many sexual partners have found love on a more limited marriage market than those who have had few sexual partners in the past.

Having said all this, I wouldn’t spend too much time worrying about how my past sexual decisions have affected the size of my, personal, marriage market.  But that’s because I have no interest in dating a man who thinks that my sexual history defines who I am; my market is already limited to the (approximately) one in four men who aren’t bothered by how many partners their girlfriend has slept with in the past.

That’s because to me, just like my political views, it’s not any area of my life I would be willing to change just to conform to the demands of the market.

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Big thanks to Vicki Larson who posted the Brigham Young article on her twitterfeed @OMGchronicles

Marina Adshade, Ph.D., teaches at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia.

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