Men claim they have more sexual partners than women. But is it true?

A study of over 15,000 men and women reveals interesting data regarding what we claim.

Of all the strange twists and turns the national media has taken in recent years, an emphasis on the mainstreaming of “locker room talk”—the domain of undersexed and overconfident teenage boys—is certainly one of the odder pivots. Yet here we are, living in a time when the merits concerning the exploitation of women are being debated on the public stage.

The #metoo movement aside, such locker room talk is reflective of the culture at large, according to a new study published in The Journal of Sex Research. In a mathematically-correct world, the number of opposite-sex partners claimed by both genders would be equal. Yet that’s not at all how it turns out.

The study includes responses by over 15,000 men and women between the ages of 16-74. Men claimed a lifetime average of 14.14 partners, while women say they’ve slept with 7.12 men. Even if women were slightly understating their sexual activity, that men would inflate their numbers is not really that surprising. But why?

Stereotypes only have power when a certain amount of truth is expressed. That men would overreport is expected. What’s most interesting about this study is understanding why this is the case.

The researchers offer three explanations for the disparity:

  • Sex workers might be underrepresented. If men include the number of women they paid to have sex with, and those workers are not included in the survey, that would wildly skew the numbers. Overall, 10.8 percent of men and .1 percent of women claim to have paid for sex. 
  • Bad memories. When we estimate, we tend to skew numbers higher. Men might also include “nonpenetrative” sexual encounters in their tally, while women are less likely to do so. For example, men more often reported oral sex as a sexual encounter, while women did not. 
  • Gender norms and expectations play an essential role. Social disapproval is still a powerful motivator in both directions: men overreport while women underreport to save face, even if that face is being expressed in a survey in which the data is not publicly released. 

The researchers believe that all three of these reasons play a role in the accounting discrepancy, though they do not wager a guess as to which is the primary factor.

Women responded more conservatively than men as well. At the top 99th percentile, men claimed 110 partners while women stated 50. Men were also more likely to estimate than women. Nine percent of men conclude that one-night stands are “not wrong at all,” while that number is 18 percent for women. Women were also more likely than men to believe having sex with a married partner is “always wrong” by eight percentage points, 65 versus 57.

Lead researcher Dr. Kristin Mitchell, from the University of Glasgow, said that more accurate reporting could help assess individual risk for sexual diseases.

Most existing studies of reporting bias are limited to students or high-risk populations, or are conducted as 'laboratory' settings, so they don't show how members of the public respond in a 'real-life' survey. To our knowledge, our study is the first attempt to look at all the key types of explanation for the gender discrepancy within the same large and representative sample.

Mitchell and colleagues also report that the gap has closed in recent years, which they view as a positive. Perhaps, little by little, locker room banter is quieting down, even if at the moment it doesn’t appear to be the case.


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