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Sexual Partners – Who’s Exaggerating?

August 12, 2007

A piece by Gina Kolata in today’s New York Times caught my eye by posing a question I hadn’t considered – how is it logically possible for men to consistently report much higher numbers of heterosexual sex partners than women? As the reporter explains:

One survey, recently reported by the federal government, concluded that men had a median of seven female sex partners. Women had a median of four male sex partners. Another study, by British researchers, stated that men had 12.7 heterosexual partners in their lifetimes and women had 6.5.

But there is just one problem, mathematicians say. It is logically impossible for heterosexual men to have more partners on average than heterosexual women. Those survey results cannot be correct.

You might immediately think that a large number of men are having sex with the same few women, thus the number of actual women having multiple sex partners would remain low. In other words, some women would serve as hubs of sexual activity, and this indeed is suggested by one CDC employee, who provides a prostitute hypothesis for the discrepancy:

One is that men are going outside the population to find partners, to prostitutes, for example, who are not part of the survey, or are having sex when they travel to other countries.

Other researchers insist that the prostitute hypothesis could not possibly account for the size of the discrepancy in reported number of sexual partners. If women were serving as hubs of sexual activity, those women’s numbers of sexual partners would rise, affecting the average if they existed in great enough numbers, and there don’t seem to be enough “hubs” to make the difference.

As one interviewee explains,

By way of dramatization, we change the context slightly and will prove what will be called the High School Prom Theorem. We suppose that on the day after the prom, each girl is asked to give the number of boys she danced with. These numbers are then added up giving a number G. The same information is then obtained from the boys, giving a number B. Theorem: G=B Proof: Both G and B are equal to C, the number of couples who danced together at the prom. Q.E.D.”

Which model seems more realistic? Does the “proof” hold up under scrutiny? And are men exaggerating, women underestimating, or both?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2007 10:51 am

    Kolata and her experts missed some interesting research that attempted to answer the question about the discrepency in self-reports. There is one clever study suggesting an explanation — at least among college students. The commonly found discrepancy exists between college males and females until participants believe they are hooked up to a “lie-detector” during questioning. Then, the numbers even out. The women’s number rise when they believe they’re being polygraphed. At least among college students, women may under-report, while contrary to the expectation that men exagerate, the men in the fake lie-detector study did not appear to over-report. Should it come as any surprise that people aren’t always completely frank in self-reports?

  2. August 13, 2007 11:00 am

    Dr X,
    Thanks for your comment. It’s definitely not a surprise that people wouldn’t be 100% honest in self-reports, and I think there are some social expectations here that are influencing the accuracy of the answers. Thank you for providing that link – I hadn’t seen that one previously.

  3. Jake Kellirs permalink
    August 13, 2007 7:09 pm

    I think these results need to be carefully understood.

    If you are looking at heterosexual partners, and the men or women are not traveling outside the country (and having sex there!) Then of course the averages have to match.

    However, when talking about medians, i.e. the number of partners that have the females or males, 4 and 7 respectively, then it makes total sense that they could be quite different.

    Why I don’t know, but there are alot of very plausible answers.

    For example, if some women tend to have a just a few partners or are still virgins at the time they are asked, and a few have numerous partners, that would drive the median way down vs men. Average still the same.

    Most heterosexual prostitutes are female (I think?) They are likely to have a lot of male partners per prostitute. That would drive the female median down significantly.

    Further, if the average number of partners for male and females were not equal, then you should just blame men for exaggerating. I believe however, the articles printed are often using average when they mean median. We need accurate reporting of these issues.

    Hope this helps and doesn’t offend!

  4. August 13, 2007 7:21 pm

    No offense, taken, Jake! The linked NYTimes article does address the median, but I think when people *think* about the topic, they probably think of the mean. I can definitely see how a few outliers would affect the figures, although the researchers didn’t seem to think there were enough outliers (via prostitutes/travel) to cause this affect. Always something to keep in mind, though. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Rick permalink
    July 26, 2008 12:27 am

    As permiscuous as women think men are, there are limits for even the most philandering of men.
    Most ,probably 80%, of men fall close to the estimated average, 12. Find one guy (not a pornstar) that has had 30 different women and you’ll find that he’s in an EXTREMELY small club. There’s not much deviation.
    Women on the other hand occupy both the lowest and highest levels of the spectrum. Quite a few female bloggers and artcile testimonials report some astounding figures like 56. Even some young chick, 24, said almost 20.
    You know what the truth is? While any kind of sex for a guy is atleast good, women have “bad sex” (which I think is primarily psychological – men have control so they always enjoy it) and search for “great sex”. However, either one will do once they start getting old (which explains why women peak sexually in their 30s).

  6. Truth permalink
    January 12, 2010 6:28 pm

    I think the numbers are about just means that there are a number of women doing a lot of different guys while the rest are being good girls. I don’t think this is anything new.

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