The idea that guys want lots of sexual partners is central to our culture’s conceptualization of young men’s sexuality. It shows up as the idea that guys would screw around if they could, that more partners is better, and that a guy who has lots of partners is The Man. As someone who writes about sex, and who conducts academic research on sex, it’s a response I hear a lot.
Many of us even know one or two guys who've had lots of partners. But for most of us, it’s “only” one or two dudes out of all the guys we know, which means that a relatively small percentage of the guys in our actual life fit the image. So we’re left with the question of what’s fact and what’s fiction when it comes to number of partners?
Public health and social science researchers have asked men about number of partners for decades. The primary reasons for asking guys about their sexual behavior have to do with risk for contracting or spreading sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, as well as risk of having an unplanned pregnancy. Secondary reasons include better understanding of sexual behaviors and human development.
♦ ◊ ♦
To figure out how many partners guys want, researchers often ask “Ideally, how many sexual partners would you like to have in the next month?” with a blank line so that survey-takers can fill in any number they like. That question is central to Sexual Strategies Theory, a part of the Evolutionary Psychology movement. It’s typically asked of college students who are taking Introduction to Psychology. For the researchers, the goal is to demonstrate a clear difference between young women and young men regarding desired promiscuity. And the research is clear: a higher percentage of young men than young women are interested in having 2 or more partners in the next 30 days. For American undergrads, the numbers are often about 25% of guys vs. about 5% of girls. Clearly, men have greater interest in multiple partners.
College age dudes are stereotyped as incredibly horny and not particularly selective, and they’re living in what has come to be described as a “hookup culture.” Yet only 25% of these guys say they want two or more partners in the next month.
But hold on a second. Why is it only about 25%, or one guy in four? We’re talking about college students here. Most of the guys are 18 or 19, live away from home without direct adult supervision, and are not married. They live with girls who are the same age, also unmarried, and also living without direct supervision. College age dudes are stereotyped as incredibly horny and not particularly selective, and they’re living in what has come to be described as a “hookup culture.” Yet only 25% of these guys say they want two or more partners in the next month. What’s up with that?
Sure, about half of them are in monogamous dating relationships and thus aren’t interested in sleeping around. But if dudes were really all about having lots of partners, why would they agree to be in those relationships? It’s not like anyone can force a guy to be someone’s boyfriend.
I suppose it’s possible that some young men are giving the politically correct answer and saying they only want one partner, but I’m not sure why they’d do that. It’s not like guys have a reputation for minimizing their number of partners. The surveys are anonymous, so there’s no way their answers could be revealed. And even if Jimmy’s answers were somehow made public, who would be surprised if he said he wanted 30 partners in 30 days? OK, Jimmy’s parent’s or partner might be shocked, but isn’t that the kind of answer we’d expect?
It’s also possible that some guys are trying to be “realistic,” because they know they can’t or won’t have as many partners as they want. That means they’re not actually answering the question that’s being asked: “Ideally, how many sexual partners would you like to have in the next month?” I’m not sure why we think that young men in college have so much trouble understanding a simple sentence or why they’d replace that with the question “how may partners do you think you could actually have sex with in the next 30 days.” And if that’s what’s going on, then we need a sizable percentage of guys—at least 25%—to be making that mental substitution. That seems unlikely.
Maybe it’s not really about how many partners they say they want, maybe it’s about the number of partners they actually have because maybe they somehow just end up having sex even though they hadn’t planned to. Y’know, “it just happened.” After all, we assume guys do not refuse sex.
When researchers ask male undergrads how many partners they’ve had in the last 12 months, about 15 to 20% of guys say they've had three or more partners in the last year (here, here, or here). And remember, we’re still talking about 18 and 19 year old unmarried guys who have very little in the way of adult supervision and live in close proximity to lots and lots of unmarried and unsupervised girls.
They’re also talking about three partners in one year, or one new partner every four months (on average). Because most researchers don’t ask guys to describe the relationship, so there’s no way to know if a guy with 3 partners has just been finding random partners, if he’s into serial monogamy but his relationships only last for a two or three months, or some other set of “relationships” with his partners.
Even though it puts a dude in the top 15 or 20%, three partners in one year wouldn’t sound like a lot in any other area of life. Let’s assume a dude was seriously trying to get laid and went to one party every week. If he has three hookup partners in one year, that means he’d only “score” 1 time in 16 weeks. That’s a “batting average” of .0625, and it assumes he’s only hitting on one young woman at any given party. Major league pitchers are better hitters than that.
Of course, a college guy doesn’t have to sleep with college girls. If he’s really just interested in getting laid, he could always go to a hookup website. At the risk of sounding skanky or desperate, he could cruise the local high school to find a girl who’d be thrilled to f— a college guy.
For that matter, he could always hire a sex worker. It’s a lot easier than spending the whole night trying to impress someone with his money, charm, or good looks without really knowing if he’s going to get laid. Besides, why settle for an amateur when you can have a pro? If it’s really about sleeping around and having more partners, then how you get those partners doesn’t matter.
Maybe the reality is that when guys talk about wanting lots of partners, most of them are just conforming to the stereotype and staying inside the “man box” because they’ll get crap if they say “no, I’d prefer one steady partner.”
Overall, it seems like the fiction is that guys want lots of different partners. No matter how we cut it, only a minority – albeit a sizable minority – of 18 and 19 year old dudes say they want two or more partners in the next 30 days. An somewhat smaller minority, 15 to 20%, have 3 or more partners per year. If there’s any group of guys on the planet that are in a better position to have lots of partners in a short time period, I’d like to know who they are, because these numbers say most guys aren’t that interested in having lots of partners.
Maybe the reality is that when guys talk about wanting lots of partners, most of them are just conforming to the stereotype and staying inside the “man box” because they’ll get crap if they say “no, I’d prefer one steady partner.” Or maybe we’re like the 12 year old boy at the end of Animal House who has a hot babe fly through his window and land in his bed; we’re willing to screw around, but only if we don’t have to do any work to make it happen.
–uncredited photo from totallyfreeimages.com