Lucia F. O'Sullivan Ph.D.

At First Blush

How Many Sexual Partners Is “Too Many” Sexual Partners?

Judging others much?

Posted Sep 11, 2018

We are well-advised to be cautious when revealing the number of sexual partners we have had to a prospective partner. Too many? Too few? Do we count mistakes, even good mistakes? 

Women tend to under-report their numbers (counting only those with whom they engaged in the full repertoire of sexual activity) and men tend to over-report (counting all sexual encounters, no matter what activities were involved or how short the encounters might have been).

Researchers have found a consistent negative bias against individuals with “higher” numbers of partners—we tend to view these people as poor choices for long-term partners or friends, although occasionally acceptable for a casual, short-term fling. 

Highly experienced men typically are rated as negatively as highly experienced women, even though we generally expect that women will fare worse than will men in the judgment game. This convergence in our distaste for both highly experienced men and women is found time and again, no matter how researchers assess such attitudes (Conley et al., 2013; Vrangalova et al., 2014).

A recent study examined people’s willingness to consider someone as a potential mate (Stewart-Williams, Butler, & Thomas, 2017).  A prospective mate’s number of past sexual partners had a large effect on individuals' rated willingness to get involved with them.  A curvilinear relationship was found: average willingness ratings initially rose as partner number increased, but then fell dramatically. That is, no past partners or just 1 or 2 were rated more negatively than those depicted as having a few partners, but it was downhill from there.

Both men and women expressed equal reluctance to get involved with someone who they judged as having an extensive sexual past.  

This study involved young adults primarily in their early 20s, so it is wise to keep that in mind. Young people currently have far more conservative sexual histories (later start, fewer partners, less frequent sex, etc.) than their parents (or even their parents’ parents—yes) at comparable ages, so that might influence their view that the “optimal” number of past sexual partners was 2-3.

Unless an individual is early in their partnered sexual life, having no past partners is stigmatized too. A large nationally representative U.S. sample of single adults found that participants were generally unlikely to consider establishing a relationship with a "virgin." Sexually inexperienced individuals were rated less attractive than were those with some experience (Gesselman et al., 2016).

In fact, those who were themselves sexually inexperienced themselves were especially reluctant to connect with someone inexperienced! Sexual inexperience in adolescence and young adulthood is not necessarily perceived negatively, but once one leaves that life phase without having gained some sexual partnered experience, there is a risk of being perceived as non-normative.

And you know how we tend to judge non-conformers. Sigh.

Take away: There is a clear preference for partners with not too much, but not too little, sexual experience.

References

Conley, T. D., Ziegler, A., & Moors, A. C. (2013). Backlash from the bedroom: Stigma mediates gender differences in acceptance of casual sex offers. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37, 392-407.

Gesselman, A. N., Webster, G. D., & Garcia, J. R. (2017). Has virginity lost its virtue: Relationship stigma associated with being a sexually inexperienced adult. Journal of Sex Research, 54, 202-213.

Stewart-Williams, S., Butler, C. A., & Thomas, A. G. (2017). Sexual history and present attractiveness: People want a mate with a bit of a past, but not too much. Journal of Sex Research, 54, 1097-1105.

Vrangalova, Z., Bukberg, R. E., & Rieger, G. (2014). Birds of a feather? Not when it comes to sexual permissiveness. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31, 93-113.