In an article recently published in the journal Personal Relationships, Dean M. Busby and his colleagues explored the question of whether “sowing wild oats” is a good or a bad thing. The authors point out that the expression originally had a negative connotation, referring to young people idly wiling away their time. More recently, however, the expression has taken on a more positive connotation, with the implication that young people need “to get promiscuous and impulsive behaviors out of their system before ‘settling down’ into adult responsibilities and relationships.”
In line with these two historical interpretations, the authors suggest two opposing psychological theories about the effects of premarital promiscuity. On one view, sexual experience is useful, because earlier experiences give the members of a couple a frame of reference to judge their compatibility with one another (to test whether they have “sexual chemistry”). On another view, long-term relationships are better if the members of the couple are more sexually restrained. Restrained people are, on this view, more likely to base their commitments on a careful assessment of their ability to get along with one another, rather than being misled by hormonal distortions that accompany sex. Those restrained people might also be less likely to be hooked on the thrill of initial sexual encounters, and more likely to see sexual intercourse as a marker of long-term commitment.
To get some evidence on these different alternatives, the researchers collected data on 2,659 people who had answered a number of questions about their age, religiosity, and education, as well as the length of their current relationship, and how satisfying and stable that relationship was. The authors correlated these various factors with the critical question: “With how many people have you had sexual relations (including your current partner if applicable)?”
As it turned out, having more sexual partners was associated with less stable relationships and less relationship satisfaction.
What does this mean? There are various possible explanations. One is simply that having lots of partners is itself directly harmful to a long-term relationship. Maybe, for example, having short-term relationships can lead someone to overemphasize the pleasures of sex, which are generally higher at the start of a relationship. Or maybe it leads a person to presume that finding a new partner will be easy, so that they’re inclined to bail out once the going gets tough.
But because these findings are correlational, there are numerous other possibilities. Whenever researchers see that two variables covary, they begin to search for possible third variables that might be (independently) causing both. Several candidates that could explain this relationship involve personality. Someone with a lot of sexual experiences is almost certainly different than someone with few partners in several ways: more extraverted, for example, and/or perhaps more attractive to the opposite sex. Those two factors would make it more likely that they will meet other people, and that those other people will flirt with them. They might also be more unconventional, making them more likely to think it’s alright to stray, and perhaps less likely to be ashamed to get a divorce or break up. Or perhaps having lots of partners is linked to less desirable traits. Perhaps people with more partners are those who are relatively less pleasant, less compromising, less forgiving, or more avoidant in their attachment style, hence more difficult to get along with, and more likely to be involved in a split-up. For such people, having multiple partners might be quite unintentional.
A final caveat is this: The negative correlation was statistically reliable, given the large sample size, but rather small in magnitude. The correlation between number of partners and relationship stability, for example, was -.17. What this means is that the stability of your current relationship, and your satisfaction with that relationship, is determined by many other variables, besides whether or not you’ve had a lot of prior partners. Many people of my age and generation have had numerous previous relationships before their current one, and yet have stayed in their current relationship for decades. Whether or not your current relationship will last has less to do with how wild your past was, and more to do with how pleasant, faithful, and accommodating you are in the future.
Douglas Kenrick is author of The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think. and of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.
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Busby, D.M., Willoughby, B.J., & Carroll, J.S. (2013). Sowing wild oats: Valuable experience or a field full of weeds? Personal Relationships, 20, 706-718.
Kelly, E. L., & Conley, J. J. (1987). Personality and compatibility: A prospective analysis of marital stability and marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 27–40.