Gender, Sex Ed

How Much Sexual Experience Are You Comfortable With Your Partner Having?

December 16, 2016 by Justin Lehmiller

The amount of sexual experience you have (or don’t have) could potentially affect how willing other people are to date or have sex with you, according to a new study published in the Journal of Sex Research. However, what makes for a desirable sexual history depends upon many things, including whether you are male or female and, further, whether we’re talking about desirability for a short-term sexual relationship vs. a long-term romantic relationship.

In this study, researchers in Wales surveyed 188 heterosexual adults (some recruited from a college campus and others through Facebook) regarding their willingness to become sexually or romantically involved with hypothetical persons of the opposite sex. These people varied in the number of sexual partners they had, ranging from 0 to 60+.

Participants also completed a questionnaire about their sociosexual orientation, which captures their degree of comfort with casual sex in general. Someone who scores higher on this scale has an easier time separating sex from emotion, meaning they don’t feel like they need to be close to someone in order to have sex.

So what did they find? Generally speaking, people were less willing to get involved with someone who had zero partners than someone who had between 1-6. In other words, there was a virgin penalty. Those with 7-8 partners were rated about the same as virgins; however, beyond 8, the numbers dropped below virgins and kept dropping as partner count increased.

However, it’s important to note that people rated folks who had 0-14 partners above the mid-point of the scale, indicating that they were more willing than unwilling to get involved with them. It was only when they got to 15 or more partners that ratings dropped below the mid-point and people started expressing some reluctance to get involved.

The pattern was similar when looking at willingness to get involved in short- and long-term relationships separately: having a small number of partners provided an attractiveness boost over having none, but at a certain point, more partners translated to less desirability. However, people had looser standards for short- compared to long-term relationships—in other words, the number of partners people thought was acceptable was higher if they were looking for a one-night stand, but lower if they were looking for a long-term relationship.

Men’s and women’s ratings were pretty similar when they were looking for a long-term partner; however, when rating short-term mates, men were accepting of a larger number of partners compared to women.

Finally, people who scored higher on the sociosexual orientation scale—that is, people who were more comfortable with casual sex—were more willing to get involved with people who had larger numbers of partners across the board. They also applied a heavier virgin penalty.

While these results are certainly interesting, it’s important to note that they focused only on young adults (the average age of the participants was 22). It’s very likely that people’s views on this matter change as they age. For example, older adults may be more accepting of a larger number of partners than younger adults. Also, only heterosexual persons were surveyed. Sexual minorities might have very different views on this matter, too.

Also, one important critique of this study’s methods is the way the authors chose to ask about number of partners. There were 16 different questions about this, which were: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5-6, 7-8, 9-11, 12-14, 15-18, 19-22, 23-30, 31-40, 41-50, 51-60, and 60+. As you can see, the way they grouped these numbers together was very inconsistent–some were standalone numbers, while others included ranges of 2, 3, 8, or 10 numbers. It’s not clear what the reasoning behind this was. The authors also didn’t specify why 60 was chosen as the highest number, nor did they acknowledge that in making 60 the largest number, they established what we psychologists refer to as an “anchor.” In other words, this implies to participants that 60 is an extremely large number. It also orients participants to think that one of the options in the middle (9-11 or 12-14) is the average.

I suspect that this is why ratings dropped into the “unwilling” range when participants got past the questions in the middle—it’s because the researchers were subtly implying to participants that 15+ partners was above average and, therefore, unusually high. I would hypothesize that the point at which responses start to drop into the unwilling range would be higher than 15 if the anchor were 100+ or 1,000+ partners instead.

Despite these limitations, I think the overall pattern of results they found is likely to replicate in future work, particularly the differences in short- vs. long-term relationships, as well as the gender and sociosexual orientation differences. However, I would be cautious about drawing too many conclusions regarding the specific number of sex partners that people think is acceptable because the way the questions were asked may have altered participants’ views of average.

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To learn more about this research, see: Stewart-Williams, S., Butler, C. A., & Thomas, A. G. (2016). Sexual History and Present Attractiveness: People Want a Mate With a Bit of a Past, But Not Too Much. The Journal of Sex Research.

Image Source: 123RF/Kaspars Grinvalds

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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