Have you ever been on a date and wondered about the romantic history of the person sitting opposite you? Maybe you’ve been in a situation in which someone has disclosed their romantic history to you and you’ve felt excited—or appalled—by it. A new study confirms that the number of people a potential partner has slept with can either turn you off or on.

People really are the net result of their past: What they have been through emotionally, physically, mentally, and romantically sculpts who they are today. Like it or not, your romantic history is important, especially in the eyes of potential partners. New research published in The Journal of Sex Research suggests that while people are willing to engage in a relationship with someone who has had two or three sexual partners, when their number is higher (or less) than that, an individual begins losing appeal. (At the extreme end, someone who has admitted to having more than 60 sexual partners is virtually off limits.)

Interestingly, people with no previous sexual experience at all aren’t especially desirable either. This is consistent with the idea of mate copying (also known as mate-choice copying), which basically suggests that someone is more attractive if we know that other people find them attractive.

It should be noted that although the ideal number of previous partners was two to three, most participants in this study actually had far more. There was a fairly significant gender difference, with women claiming around six ex-partners and men around eight. In general, there seems to be a pervasive tendency for women to report having fewer opposite-sex partners than men do. This can be due to social double-standards—it’s far more socially acceptable for men to report a high number of sexual partners, disagreement about what constitutes sex, or people just not being truthful.

The optimal number of past partners being only two or three might seem a bit low to some people. But it should be kept in mind that this study involved a young university sample; the average age was about 21, and most participants were under 25. The authors did compare those participants who were under 21 with those who were older and found a notable difference in how many previous partners was preferred by each group. (The older group preferred more.) In general, of course, there is a fairly strong association between how old someone is and how many relationships they have been in.

There is a fair bit of evidence to suggest that both men and women "prefer" a partner who has already been chosen (as a partner) to one who hasn’t. (This is true among non-humans, too.)

In addition, most people intuitively realize that someone with a lot of previous partners may not make the best new partner. To start, someone with a slew of exes probably has a fair bit of baggage, and this alone is enough to turn some people off. Second, if a person has been with many people, they may be more likely to have contracted a sexually transmitted disease. Finally, someone with a high number of previous partners may not be someone who is going to hang around long—for whatever reason, they can’t seem to (or don’t want to) hold down a long-term relationship, even though they seem to engage in many short-term relationships. In general, a tendency for promiscuity is perceived as undesirable in a mate.

These findings aren’t all that surprising. A study I was a part of some years ago found more or less the same thing: Romantic desirability peaks when the person in question has had around two or three previous partners, with more or fewer being less desirable.

Someone in their early 20s (or even their late teens) who hasn’t had any sexual experience is somewhat of a statistical aberration. By that age, there is an assumption that most people have had some kind of romantic experience. Someone who hasn’t may not be able to attract members of the opposite sex, or maybe they just don’t want to. Whatever the reason, the literature is pretty consistent in suggesting that they are less desirable than someone with a moderate amount of experience.

The message seems to be: Don’t sleep around too much—or if you do, keep it to yourself.

About the Author

Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson, BSc, BPsych, is a psychologist and zoologist currently undertaking doctoral studies at James Cook University examining mate choice. 

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