How Many Sexual Partners Is Normal, Really?

Ask yourself first: why do you even care?

Octavia Morrison
Nov 9, 2019 · 9 min read
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Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Because of my previous conditioning and terrible relationship choices, even if I am a slow learner, I learnt my lessons. In theory I am fully aware of the nature of the most typical red flags, I recognise them earlier than the rest, and I run quickly in the other direction whenever a tip of a red flag enters my sight.

I had my fair share of abuse because I ignored signs that were screaming at me, because I couldn’t stop coming up with excuses for them and because I made terrible mistakes in character judgment, in general.

One of the red flags when I turn around and disappear from sight in a split second is if someone is overly curious about my past relationships and asks me about my number of sex partners.

I learnt it the hard way — as always.

In my relationships I never gave too much thought to the number of sexual partners of my partner. I never cared, I never thought it could be or should be important. At first I was apprehensive that they would be a lot more experienced than me and I didn’t want to face this kind of comparison. But later I just stopped caring entirely as it never told me anything about them as a person, or them as a sexual partner.

Chemistry and personality trumps everything.

I was already in my thirties when I was first asked about my past lovers. It had never came up before, so I chalked it up to his curiosity. And because I have believed that a relationship is built on trust and honesty, I trusted him and I answered honestly. I told him a number in the lower single digits and what I had feared happened, he ridiculed me. It was confusing enough, but I wasn’t ashamed or proud of it, so I let it go.

I never cared to ask back. But he felt the urge to tell me. I didn’t care. I cared about him and our present, not his past.

I had no idea then that he would be using my relatively low number against me, even when his number was ten times mine. I never imagined that he would get abusive later and he would pull out my number to verbally hurt me at every abuse cycle. I never imagined that this number would become the source of daily terror and slut-shaming. I never imagined that the number he ridiculed me for would make him call me a whore, a slut, a bitch, a worthless skank and damaged goods.

He was a true believer of the master key and lock theory.

According to the Urban dictionary:

The lock and key theory was dreamt up in Liverpool, England by an un-named genius. It states that a guy is like a key, and a girl is like a lock. A key that opens many locks is a master key, yet a lock that is opened by many keys is a shitty lock.

I didn’t think I was slutty to sleep with more than one man. But what I thought had nothing to do with reality — this is generally true for abuse, it’s completely detaches you from your reality.

Ever since, I know that there is no official right answer to this question.

And because of its subjective nature, the question in itself is raising a red flag for me, and my only answer is asking back with a smile, ‘why do you even care to know?’ — before I take a hike without looking back.

If you google the topic you will find a lot of opinions, discussions, forums and studies dissecting the subject — and it seems to be more important than it deserves to be. You can find figures providing insufficient information. You can find forums overflowing with slut-shaming. You can find feminist articles bragging about ultra high numbers.

Everything and the opposite of it can be found online. And it’s not too helpful, especially if you look for information to support your already cemented opinion.

The science of averages

There are studies on the average number of partners, by year, by generation, by location, by sex, by sexual orientation. Statistics collected from different sources, showing us trends about society. It is showing us how the attitude towards sexuality has changed, how it differs correlating to other factors, such as geographical location, education or religion. If you are thrilled by numbers and charts, I suggest deep diving into this topic, because it’s extremely interesting.

It tells us everything about society and generations and trends. It shows the bigger picture and by the nature of statistics it generalises groups of individuals, called panels.

You know what it doesn’t tell us? Anything about the quality of and individual — like you or me.

It does tell us about personality

The number of sexual partners is not a societal choice and not a tendency. It’s a personal choice of an individual that is made based on preferences, wishes and personal decisions. The number of people someone chose to sleep with can suggest some things about the person, such as:

  • their level of experience — more partners can mean more experience, but experience can also be obtained by one single sexual partner, only the diversity and the ability to adapt to different people are not assured;
  • some hints about their personality, as more sexually adventurous people tend to be more extrovert and social. However, introverts can have their different ways of hooking up with more people;
  • it can suggest a higher usage of substance and alcohol consumption, as these are known to lower inhibitions;
  • and it can suggest a general attitude towards sexuality, as those with higher numbers tend to be more liberal and sex positive.

But these are not sure fire signs, merely suggestions. And we can find examples to extroverts and introverts, experienced and inexperienced, liberals and not so liberals with higher or lower numbers.

Numbers don’t speak about the quality of character

What a number won’t tell you is the quality of someone’s character. No sexual history — especially not one described by a 1–2–3 digit number — can tell you anything about the person itself. It doesn’t suggest whether they are intelligent, loyal, ethical, kind, empathetic, caring or the exact opposite.

Yet research suggests that despite the fact that the numbers are not too tell-tale on an individual level, people still care about it, and tend to jump into biased and judgmental mode — if it’s too high or too low. Yes, neither is good.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

But mostly, damned if you even speak about it.

What is a normal number?

I’d like to make a clear point of distinction here between normal and ideal. Norms are coming from a societal perspective where we define some values based on what is done and therefore accepted by a grand majority of people.

Ideals are showing more the personal preferences, therefore talking about normal and ideal are talking about two very different layers.

As an example, let’s say that the ideal family setup for a child is having two parents and growing up in a family where everything is provided for their growth, education, mental, physical and emotional well-being.

This ideal family is not the norm, taking into consideration of the high number of divorces, patchwork families, and the frightening number of kids living in unsuitable households.

The norm is what we have a lot of regardless of it being ideal or not. The usage of the word ‘normal’ even if it’s coming from the word norm is more depicting a desired and accepted state than the average.

When it comes to defining the ideal number, there is no agreement, and it has a lot of reasons.

1 It starts with the definition of sex

Sex is interpreted differently by different individuals. For example, many men don’t count oral sex as sex, but for women, oral sex is a central act in their sexual playbook.

The ideal number varies by the report, depending on when the study was done, what panel was asked, and even how the question was formed. Think about different phrasing of the same question, when the question itself already suggests a direction — what is ideal versus what is acceptable versus what is too many. The way the question is asked is a common tactic used in politics, taking a negative or positive edge to the same question will bring different results.

One report says the ideal number of sexual partners for maximizing happiness is one a year. The other found three partners to be the ideal. Men in their 20s consider seven or more partners “too high” for a woman; women in the same age group are more lenient, considering ten or more partners to have too high. According to another one men put the limit at 14 sexual partners maximum, while women drew the line at 15. Moreover, men saw less than three partners as too low. For women, less than two was too low.

2 Self-reporting allows lies

People still lie about it as they can, because it’s all self-reported (duh).

People lie, people forget, people reframe. Of course, as they are self-reported, we will have no proof of people lying, but round numbers are suspiciously popular. Not a lot of people report having slept with nine or nineteen people. Stating to have slept with ten or twenty is much more common. Women tend to under-report their numbers and men tend to over-report.

3 Promiscuity and prowess

This suggests that, on some level, men and women still associate a higher number of sexual partners with promiscuity in women and sexual prowess in men.

Women are still judged more than men.

As said above, we are getting better at destigmatizing sexuality, but the harsh reality is that the classic double standards still linger: While men are praised for having sex with a lot of people, women are shamed for it. That’s wrong on so many levels, but in principle, it means that no matter how far we have come, we still have an even longer way to go before an attitude of sexual acceptance and celebration truly becomes the norm.

Promiscuous women considered being less confident than women who’ve slept with fewer partners. And it is women who will judge women with more partners as less competent, emotionally stable, warm, and dominant. And equally for both genders those with higher numbers are viewed as less intelligent, kind, honest or trustworthy.

Both men and women expressed equal reluctance to get involved with someone who they judged as having an extensive sexual past. There is a decrease in willingness to date someone as their numbers are getting higher as reportedly they tend to view these people as poor choices for long-term partners, friends, although occasionally acceptable for a casual, short-term fling.

Why do we even need to talk about it?

The majority of people still believe that it is important to share relevant sexual history details — numbers included. Especially because if it is a deal-breaker, then it has to be known sooner or later. They find that the best time to discuss is somewhere already during the first month — decreasing the risk of possible misalignments later.

I am always advocating for open communication within a relationship, but here I would add one thought, mainly based on my personal negative experience: If you for some reason find it way too important to know about the exact figures of your partner’s sexual history, maybe it is time to stop and ask yourself what lies behind it.

What emotions drive your curiosity? Insecurity? Shame? Jealousy? Is it the societal norms that drive you to care this much? Take some time to think this over, discuss it with your partner if you feel comfortable enough. After all your partner’s sexual past doesn’t have much to do with how they’ll treat you in the present or in the future.

Society and culture have still a long way to go before we the attitudes toward sexuality will get to a level where acceptance and sex positivity is the norm.

The gender bias is more prominent than it should be, women are still shamed to an unacceptable extent for choosing casual sex or even serial monogamy.

While the number in itself doesn’t suggest anything about the quality of someone’s personality, the possible misalignments should be treated early on.

For me someone who is overly eager to deep-dive into my past is a sign of an immature, insecure personality — and as such a huge red flag.

Asking me if I am clean from STDs is a sensible question and it can be asked anytime! This question is about our present and future together. It speaks volumes about how responsible I am about sexuality.

In a relationship there is no place for questioning my quality of character unless I give clear reasons for it. Besides, trying to hold me responsible for something I cannot change is already doomed — it’s the setup for a broken relationship and let’s not go there.

As long as your partner is happy and satisfied with their sexual experiences — whether they happen quite frequently or they’re few and far between — then they’re already at their own ideal.

And this should be good enough for you too.

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