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Promiscuity: The true numbers of sex partners

In Sex Surveys we trust? 

How can the average male have three times more sex partners than the average female? – A look into some misconceptions about female promiscuity.

The aim of this essay is - by looking at statistics and the latest findings in scientific research - to reject the old-fashioned view that sexual promiscuity is mainly a man’s thing, and to replace that view with a newer, more realistic one.

We will see that there existed, for a long time, a great psychological misconception about female promiscuity being inferior to male promiscuity. However, that misconception cannot prevail in face of the bulk of evidence cited below. 

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First we need a proper definition of ‘sexual promiscuity’. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2008), the definition of promiscuity is the “miscellaneous mingling or selection of persons (or things)”, and by ‘miscellaneous’ it is meant “consisting of diverse or various things or subjects”. By sexual promiscuity, therefore, one generally refers to a person who randomly selects various partners for sexual activities. In wikipedia (2008), it reads, simply: “having casual sexual partners at will”.  

Since Darwin informed the scientific world of the biological function of sexual selection in order to keep the fittest of us alive by producing offspring that carries our genes, social psychologists in particular have come up with non-biologist forms of explaining human sexual behavior in terms of social behavior, such as parental investment, etc.. The idea is that humans, in contrast to mere instinct driven members of the animal world, despite being biological mammals, nevertheless constructed intelligent social strategies and patterns of survival that go beyond animistic ones.

Presentation 

“Overall, women (in the US) report an average of six sex partners in their lifetimes;  men, 20.“ —POLL: America Sex Survey 2004, abcnews.com 

“Men (worldwide) have had more sexual partners than women – 12.4 compared to 7.2.” —2004 global sex survey results, durex.com

“The French Ministry of Health found in a nationwide survey, that on average men had 11,6 sex partners, while women had 4,4.” —shortnews.de 

“Twenty-one percent of men say they’ve cheated, as have 11 percent of women.” —POLL: America Sex Survey 2004, abcnews.com

“[…] found in his studies that 50% of males and 26% of females had extramarital sex.” —kinseyinstitute.org 

Assumption 

In any country, among most groups - if an equal number of males and females were asked about the number of sex-partners, there will be an average imbalance of 3:1 in favor of the males. 

The intuitive answer:

It is possible because men are more sexual prominent than women. 

The common-sense answer:

This is impossible because for every sexual encounter, exactly one male and one female are required, so the ratio must be 1:1. 

Some common sense explanations:

Men round up, women round down. (definition of ‘sex partner’) 

Men brag; women lie. (social expectations) 

Men naturally are more promiscuous than women. (biological factors) 

More men are homosexual. More women are prostitutes. (results are not representative)

The question:

Is it possible or not possible for the male’s average to be 3 times higher than the female’s average? 

If it is possible, give an example about how this can work. 

If it is not possible, give an explanation why it is not possible. 

A possible answer 

It is possible. However, it is counter-intuitive because, naturally, men think they as a group have more sexual prowess and hence more partners than women, which is logically implausible, because each time a man has sexual intercourse with a woman that equals to a woman who has sexual intercourse with a man, so the male-female ratio must be exactly 1:1.

3:1 is a more acceptable result for men, while a simple 1:1 result is indeed a very irritating result for male audiences. Many men fantasize about their many sex partners or brag about them, but hardly would they allow their girlfriends or wives to think or do the same. The mere thought of a woman being as sexual active as many men deeply irritates if not scares most males. The mere thought of a woman “giving it all away” anytime with anyone is considered a whore, bitch, slut, prostitute etc.:

“The hordes of smart, assertive, and confident young women may feel a bit overwhelming to many guys. They don’t know how to handle the independent girls, the smart ones, the ones who don’t want to be tied down by guys because they want their careers first.” (Kimmel, 2008, p. 255) 

A sexual very active young man is the pride of his parents and the envy of his mates. A sexual very active young woman, on the contrary, is more often than not labeled a ‘ho’ or whore, just as a career-type male is regarded as ‘the real guy’, while a career-type female becomes de-feminized in the eyes of her male colleagues. 

Not surprisingly, most media reports, be it newspapers, TV, surveys etc., we read that a) men have more sex partners than women; or b) husbands are more likely to cheat on their wives than vice versa. Men boast about their sexual encounters. They are praised for having many sexual partners. With women, it seems the opposite. The more coy, shy, passive, and the fewer sexual partners they admit to, the higher their market-value for a marriage. But again, isn’t this a paradox? The male-female ratio for promiscuity must be 1:1, why do we still think that ‘male rules among females’?

In cognitive psychology, it is well established that people tend to see only what they want to see. In the case of any sex-survey, there are three major ways to look at the ‘average’. The ‘average’ is not what most people think it is. In fact, there are many averages, the most common are: the mean, the median, and the mode.

Mean, Median, and Mode

The mean is: take all the times a woman has sex, and all the times a man has sex, and divide it by 2, the ratio is exactly 1:1 for men and women. But that is uninteresting in a survey, because we all know it must be the case, so no real new information. Also, note that 1 is probably not even on the list (the mean is a fictional number), because we said that men have on average 9, when women have on average 3.  

The median is: the middle value in the list of numbers. That would mean that a single male had 3 females, while 50% to the left and 50% to the right of the male list have more or less than him. But with women it seems unlikely that exactly 50% have 2, 1 or 0 partners, while 50% have more. 

We are looking for the mode here: The mode is the number that occurs most often! It could be that among ten men, eight have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 women, but two had 9, so the latter two form the average for the mode. The mode is 9, even though most men in that survey didn’t have that many sex partners. Makes sense, right? Now, here comes the surprising part: It is true that many men have on average more sexual partners than many women, like in France, 12:4. There were more males that had 12 females -the mode- than any other males that had other numbers of females. Also, there were more females that had 4 males -the mode- than any other females that had other numbers.

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Most Sex Survey apply the mode for sensational purpose

What does that mean? It means that, although many more men on average have more sexual partners than many women have, but at the other end there is a small fraction of women giving themselves away to a lot a lot a lot of men. But these ‘over-active’ women do not show in the official statistics. Yet, if sexual promiscuity were to become the winning criteria, those few ‘over-active’ women should win the trophies. They would make the ration even: 1-1. They were just chucked from the statistics.

On the same line of thought, although many men have more sexual partners than many women, yet those many men have sex with the same few women. Do you still remember that gorgeous girl from your high-school class who dated half of the guys? Those guys, many years later, may brag about their great sexual experience with gorgeous, promiscuous women, but the truth is, there are only very few gorgeous, promiscuous women so chances are those many guys dated the same few gorgeous promiscuous woman. Her mode is off the charts, but so rare that it won’t show in the average at all.

Preliminary Results

Sex surveys don’t lie, it is rather that they are designed to say what all men want to hear in a male-dominated society – that they are “The man”. They produce surveys that demonstrate that in our modern societies, yes, the average male has three times more female sex partners than the average female has male sex partners. What they don’t want to see in print is that those average males did not have sex with the average females. In fact, those average males have a lot of sex with all the same few non-average women who do not show up in the statistics but are virtually responsible for the biggest share in female sex activity. 

There might be a socio-biological explanation for this. The average man who wants to have random sexual intercourse nevertheless has to invest time and effort into persuading a woman to have intercourse with him. 

A woman, on the other hand, just has to give her consent. That’s it. In evolution, at least according to early Darwinism, it was believed that humans, unlike most species of the animal kingdom, were inherently ‘monogamous’. It would follow that for a woman in order to find the best fathering qualities for her offspring, she would have to look out for quality, not quantity, therefore passing on the less likely candidates, while the man, in competition with all other males, should and indeed must always act upon female invitation, that is, he often cannot bother enough for quality but has to pursue quantity (Birkhead, 2000, p. 195). This traditional Darwinian idea about human monogamy has been seriously challenged ever since, summarized in a new biological term: ‘sperm competition’. Here is an abstract from Bateman’s work on the Drosophila: 

“As we have seen, a basic assumption throughout much of the brief history of sperm competition has been that males have lots to gain from copulating with multiple partners, but here is little or no benefit for females behaving similarly. […] However, until recently it was not widely appreciated that some experiments did show that females benefited from copulating with several males.” (Bateman, 1948) 

High promiscuity in some women is rather normal

Most primates, according to anthropologists, are promiscuous, too (Birkhead, 2000). This was always believed to be true for male primates, yet recent studies of the evolution of sperm and the relative size of testicles to body weight (an indicator of how quantitatively competitive the male sperm has to be) has revealed that not only most female primates but the average human female too does anything but stand by her man if she can get away with it (Henderson, 2004).  

Those primitive instincts still exist in modern times: many men think about sex all the time, but cannot get it so easily. On the other hand, a woman who gives her body away very easily will get as many sexual partners as she want, when she wants it.

In times of individualism, freedom of choice, gender equality, contraception and anti-baby pills, the very act of having sex cannot longer - as Darwin and Freud did - be regarded in terms of the evolutionary value system of procreation (Schaefer, 1974; Deutsch, 1991), but instead must be seen as an activity or service than can be offered, bought, exchanged under the protection of one’s right on privacy. 

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Conclusion 

So, for all the nice guys: Accept the reality that a sexy woman may have had many more sex partners than you will ever have, although, of course, she may never tell you that upfront. 

For all the nice girls: If a man brags about how many sex partners he has had, think about it this way: he probably only had sex with those few promiscuous women who easily “give themselves away” to a lot of other men as well. For such a woman, you boyfriend probably meant nothing more than a number. 

References: 

BBC News, (2008-12-17), Korean adultery actress sentenced, www.bbc.co.uk 

Bateman, A. J. (1948), Intra-sexual selection in Drosophila, Heredity, 2, pp. 349-368 

Bateson, Patrick (1983), Mate Choice, Cambridge University Press, London 

Birkhead, Tim (2000), promiscuity – An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 

Clements, M. (1994), Sex in America today: A new national survey reveals how our attitudes are changing, Parade Magazine, pp. 4-6 

Coleman, Andrew M. (2008), Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, Oxford University Press, New York 

Deutsch, Helen (1991), Psychoanalysis of The Sexual Functions of Women, H. Karnac Books Ltd., London 

Durex, 2004 global sex survey results, www.durex.com 

Friday, Nancy (1996), The Power of Beauty, Harper Collins, New York 

Henderson, Mark (2004), How promiscuous women made men the shape they are, The Times Online, 2004-11-08, www.thetimes.co.uk 

Kimmel, Michael (2008), Guyland – The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 

Kinsey, Alfred (1948), Data from Alfred Kinsey’s studies, The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, www.kinseyinstitute.org 

Laumann, E. O. et. al (1994), The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 

Merriam-Webster Thesaurus and Dictionary Online, www.merriam-webster.com 

Millet, Catherine (2001), The Sexual Life of Catherine M., Grove Press, New York 

POLL, America Sex Survey 2004, www.abcnews.com 

Schaefer, R. (1974), Problems in Freud’s psychology of women, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 22; pp. 459-485 

Shortnews, www.shortnews.de 

Wiedermann, M. W. (1997), Extramarital sex: Prevalence and correlates in a national survey, Journal of Sex Research No. 34, pp. 167-174 

Wikipedia Online Dictionary, www. wikipedia.com 

Note: all online sources last accessed: 2008-12-23 

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Further reading 

The promiscuity heroine

The idea that women like sex, hooking-up, one-night stands, and different sex partners as much as most men do is now celebrated in film and TV like Sex and the City, Desperate housewivesMamma Mia and supported by scientific evidence (Henderson, 2004). It has become an art, just like the novel written by Christine Millet (2001). Prostitution, the oldest business in the world, is now legal in many developed countries like Germany and the Netherlands, and hookers are occasionally presented as some sort of bad-girl heroines in movies like Pretty WomenSin CityCloser, or even Mamma Mia, the Musical.

“Younger women are especially quick to accept the new Bitch/Killer as a recognizable heroine to put in films, books, television, and cartoon strips. This is progress. It is healthy to show women as equally guilty of badness as men.” (Friday, 1993, p. 242) 

Yet, reckless sexual female promiscuity is the terror of any man’s sense of security and self-assurance. Among feminists, it is argued that trial and error with different kind of men (without the risk of becoming pregnant, of course) enhances the probability for any female of finding the perfect partner, just as it does for the male. Nevertheless, how this new age of celebrated male or female promiscuity which is hailed as the latest trend in consumerist behavior is related to the poor reproduction performances and thus tragedies of mass-childlessness in most sexual liberated countries is yet unknown territory. 

One internet-user in a web-forum wrote: “I find it incredible that a woman could actually enjoy sex with guys that don’t even respect her, let alone care for her!” Or this: “The clubs are full of guys desperately looking for a slut and when they are lucky enough to find one they want to reenact porn scenes and tell their buddies afterwards what a dirty whore she was!” The common notion among most men is that the mere idea of a woman actively pursuing a no-strings-attached one-night stand or her confession hat she really enjoys dirty, recklessly promiscuous sex, strikes terror and fear, and finally initiates the rage and luster for ‘retaliation’ or ‘revenge’ in the heart of most men. Female sexual promiscuity is perceived, by most men, as violence against men’s own sense of ‘entitlement’ of access and control to that female’s body (Kimmel, 2008, p. 240). It parades the insecurity of masculinity. That might be the ultimate reason why our society prefers to publish totally biased 3:1 ratio sex surveys. Men need to think they are ‘the top guys’ and in control.