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Can Renouncing Promiscuity Help You Find Monogamous Love?

New research on how men and women judge each other's sexual history.

Many people (women in particular) intentionally limit their number of sexual partners because they worry it could hurt their chances of finding long-term monogamous love once they are ready to settle down. They worry that a high “number” will be a challenge for their future spouses, even if they have put their promiscuous days behind them and seek a commitment to complete monogamy.

From past research, we know that most people of both sexes prefer their partners to be on the non-promiscuous end of the spectrum. But is that because they fear that promiscuous individuals are simply not interested in long-term relationships and/or not really capable of monogamy—and therefore more likely to cheat? Or is it because of the social stigma attached to dating or marrying a promiscuous person, past or present? Finally, do these views differ between men and women?

A new study addresses these questions by looking at what happens to someone’s desirability as a long-term partner if they used to be promiscuous but are now committed to monogamy.

For this study, which just appeared in Sexuality & Culture, psychologist Daniel Jones of the University of Texas at El Paso recruited 180 adults (53% women; 58% white; 70% in some type of serious relationship/marriage; and a mean age of 32) from “Mechanical Turk,” a diverse online pool of research participants facilitated by Amazon who complete surveys for a couple of dollars.

Jones's team presented participants with descriptions of three potential romantic targets, ostensibly taken from real online personals ads, telling them to assume that the target was of the gender and age they would be interested in dating. The profiles contained randomized information about the target (e.g., hobbies, interests, sense of humor, style, education), but differed systematically in their past and current sexual history.

The nonpromiscuous target had had sex with two people, and described himself/herself as follows:

“I am looking for someone I can have a serious relationship with. I have never been interested in just having sex with someone. I need feelings and commitment behind it."

The reformed promiscuous target had had sex with approximately 40 people, but was no longer into that. Their description read:

“I used to have a lot of casual relationships and sex in the past, but that is behind me now. I haven’t had sex with anyone for over a year and only do committed serious relationships now. I am looking for someone who wants the same thing.”

The still promiscuous target had had sex with approximately 50 people and described himself/herself in this way:

“I enjoy all kinds of relationships. I am really open. I am willing to have some casual relationships, and I am open to a more long-term relationship. I enjoy meeting and dating all kinds of people and having all kinds of relationships.”

After reviewing the bios, participants answered this simple question: ‘‘If you were single and you could choose one person, who would be most desirable for a long-term committed relationship?"

Zhana Vrangalova, based on Jones, Sexuality & Culture, 2016
Source: Zhana Vrangalova, based on Jones, Sexuality & Culture, 2016

As you can see from the graph above, very few people of both sexes (6%) chose the "still promiscuous" target as their ideal long-term partner. This is not surprising, given that most people are looking for monogamous relationships. Moreover, most men (80%) and women (62%) chose the "never promiscuous" target as their ideal, suggesting that most people of both sexes prefer not only someone monogamous, but also someone with a limited sexual history and little interest in casual sex, past or present.

But a nontrivial minority of people—14% of men and 32% of women—chose the "reformed promiscuous" target. Choosing this target over the "still promiscuous" one suggests that these participants—like the majority—value monogamy in their long-term relationships. But choosing this target over the "never promiscuous" one suggests that for this group—unlike the majority—there is also something about an extensive sexual past that is of value, perhaps sexual openness, sexual skill, or an adventurous spirit.

Whatever the presumed benefits of a partner's extensive sexual past may be, women obviously valued them more than men—twice as much, in fact. This suggests that the reason men and women generally prefer less experienced partners may be different. Given the realities of the “mating market,” a highly sexually promiscuous man is perhaps seen likely to be not only sexually skilled and adventurous, but also highly attractive, socially admired, and possibly also wealthy. For women, such a man might be deemed a catch, and the primary reason she wouldn’t want him for a long-term partner might be the concern that he wouldn't want to settle down into monogamy or would be incapable of staying faithful. Having the reassurance that he is indeed committed to monogamy—by learning that he’d been celibate for a year while waiting to meet "the one"—allowed fully 1 in 3 female participants to view his past as an asset.

For men, the math is a bit different. While promiscuous women may possess many of the same potentially desirable qualities as promiscuous men might, they do not necessarily need to, the societal assumption being that they can land as many as 50 partners even without conventionally traditionally attractive, charming, socially respected, or wealthy. There is a further (and inaccurate) stereotype that, unlike for men, promiscuity is “unnatural” for women, and so promiscuous woman must have some mental-health issue driving her promiscuity—such as low self-esteem, depression, bipolar disorder, or a history of sexual abuse.

Further, female promiscuity (past or present) is more socially stigmatized than male promiscuity, potentially threatening a man’s own reputation should he marry such a partner. Finally, the risk of the formerly promiscuous woman going back to her old ways may be more evolutionarily costly for the man than a similar breach of trust would be for a woman, if it leads him to invest his time and resources in someone else’s genetic offspring.

All in all, the potential negatives of marrying a promiscuous woman—even if she’s no longer promiscuous—would appear to far outweigh the potential positives for participants.

Stereotypes, reputational concerns, and reproductive realities explain why a high “number” is riskier for women than for men who want a long-term relationship—which is the vast majority of people, including most highly promiscuous individuals. The sexual double standard is still with us. And yet, there are at least two pieces of good news for men and women with high numbers.

First, if you eventually do want monogamy, there are about 15% of men and 30% of women who would not only tolerate, but actually prefer a partner who’s had a lot of sexual experience, as long as they can be assured that you won’t be unfaithful to them. And these are only ideal choices in a hypothetical scenario: In real life, other qualities a person has might compensate for an apparently less-than-ideal high number. In other words, there’s a pretty good chance that some (many?) of those 60-80% who would ideally prefer a less promiscuous partner would nonetheless happily date or marry a more promiscuous one if other things work out (as portrayed in movies like Trainwreck).

Second, if you want long-term love but you also like your casual sex, you can have your cake and eat it too. You may not be most people’s cup of tea, but there is a nontrivial percentage of people for whom you are exactly what they are looking for. There are people who want to date and marry you not despite your promiscuity, but because of it. (Six percent may not sound like a lot of people, but it actually is. Consider: About six percent of Americans identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.) So if casual sex is something you love and don't want to give up, make sure you look for love among this six percent. As one of my favorite sex educators, Reid Mihalko, says: "Date your own species."

[This study comes with all the usual caveats as most studies in sex research—a relatively small and nonrepresentative sample, potential biases due to self-reporting, a hypothetical scenario that may play out very differently in real life, etc. So take the findings with the usual grain of salt.]

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Jones, D. N. (2016). The ‘Chasing Amy’ bias in past sexual experiences: Men can change, women cannot. Sexuality & Culture, 20, 24-37. doi:10.1007/s12119-015-9307-0