- Researchers asked participants how many recent and lifetime partners they had had.
- They found that people's sexual past is linked to their attractiveness.
- The study showed that not enough or too much experience might reduce romantic desirability.
What's past is past, right? Maybe. When starting a new relationship, people might question how much to reveal about their sexual history. Whether they've had numerous past consensual sexual partners or have little to no sexual experience, the topic can feel ripe with the possibility of judgment. What will a new partner think of you, based on your "number"?
People vary in their number of prior sexual partners.
To understand how people might interpret a new partner's number of prior sexual encounters, it's worth considering how many partners people usually have. In other words, what's the norm?
Let's start by looking at the last year. Research using a nationally-representative sample from the U.S. asked participants how many partners they had in the last 12 months (Ueda et al., 2020). Of 18-24 year-olds, about 20 percent of men and 15 percent of women said "more than three." Most women (about 60 percent) and most men (about 30 percent) indicated one partner or no partners (women, about 20 percent; men, about 28 percent). With age, the proportion of people reporting only one partner increased for men and women. Yet, some men and some women reported more than three partners in the last year across all age groups.
What about the number of lifetime partners? This is tied to age: as you might expect, middle-aged samples report more partners than young adult samples. A recent study analyzed data from two national surveys accounting for over 20,000 U.S. participants. They found that the median number of lifetime partners for women is between 4.2 partners (reported by 20-24-year-olds) and 5.2 partners (reported by 40-44-year-olds; Lewis et al., 2022). This number was higher for men, ranging from 4.6 partners, among 20-24-year-olds, to 9.1 partners, among 40-44-year-olds (Lewis et al., 2022).
Medians provide an anchor but only represent a 50th percentile mark, meaning that 50 percent of respondents had fewer partners, and 50 percent had more partners. This variation is important. Whereas about 15 percent of sexually-active younger women reported one prior partner, nearly 25 percent indicated having had over 10 partners, which rose to 31.7 percent among middle-aged women (whereas having one partner dropped to about 15 percent). Among younger men, about 15 percent reported one partner, and nearly 30 percent reported more than 10 partners, a number that rose by 50 percent among middle-aged men (Lewis et al., 2022).
What's the takeaway? Variability and interpreting individuals' "number" within their developmental and social context is key when it comes to sexual experience.
People's sexual past is linked to their attractiveness.
Despite the importance of context to understanding people's sexual pasts, learning only of a potential partner's "number" might trigger reactions, according to recent research. In an experiment sampling about 200 people from the UK, researchers discovered that people's romantic interest is linked to a potential partner's sexual past (Stewart-Williams et al., 2017). They hypothetically asked participants how willing they would be to get involved with a person with a specific number of previous partners, both for a long-term relationship (e.g., long-time dating, marriage) and a short-term one (e.g., one-night affair). Each participant indicated a willingness to partner with someone who varied considerably by sexual history, from 0 partners to 60-plus.
What they learned tells us a bit about how Western culture might view individuals based on their sexual experience. The sweet spot? People with zero partners were appealing, but contrary to the idea that chastity is most valued, they were not judged as the most appealing partners. Rather, people indicated they were most willing to be in a relationship with individuals with one to six prior partners (Stewart-Williams et al., 2017). At around nine to eleven partners, the appeal begins to drop off sharply, with people increasingly less willing to be in a relationship with individuals with more partners.
Men were generally more willing to engage in a short-term relationship with partners of low or high numbers of past partners. Still, their willingness followed the slope of women's responses, peaking at a low number and diminishing with higher numbers. Interestingly, beyond two partners, men and women did not differ in their willingness when it came to long-term relationships.
Not enough or too much experience might reduce romantic desirability.
Why did people prefer partners with some sexual experience to none? It's possible (though it was not tested here) that individuals make negative personality or social skill inferences about people with no sexual past in cultures that have fairly positive views of pre-marital sex, making such behavior normative. In other words, participants might have asked, why haven't these people had any partners? Could there be something unappealing about them? The information that a person had a small handful of prior partners might serve as a relationship-decision heuristic: if they had appealed to others, they might appeal to me. This is consistent with the idea of mate copying when one woman uses another's hard work vetting a particular guy as information that he's worth having a relationship with.
At the same time, people did not indicate a strong willingness to engage in relationships with people with 20-plus partners. Why? More past partners make people more at risk for sexually-transmitted diseases, certainly, but perhaps also on participants' minds was the possibility that a history of jumping from partner to partner likely indicates a minimal desire for a committed, loyal relationship. These two potential inferences (not measured in this study) could help explain the lack of appeal of highly promiscuous partners.
Critically, this study used simple hypothetical questions to query a group of people about their romantic willingness. It's a starting point, but its artificiality leaves considerable room for new questions: how does it work in real life when potentially starting something new? What information counters initial willingness tied to a possible partner's sexual past?
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Lewis, R. M., Leichliter, J. S., Chesson, H. W., & Markowitz, L. E. (2022). Sexual Behavior Among US Adults: New Sex Partners and Number of Lifetime Sex Partners, NHANES 2013–2016 and NSFG 2011–2015. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 1-11.
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. The Journal of Sex Research, 54(9), 1097-1105.
Ueda, P., Mercer, C. H., Ghaznavi, C., & Herbenick, D. (2020). Trends in frequency of sexual activity and number of sexual partners among adults aged 18 to 44 years in the US, 2000-2018. JAMA Network Open, 3(6), e203833-e203833.