Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Male Promiscuity by the Numbers: 25-15-5

Media, Sexuality, Romantic RelationshipsAndrew Smiler

Guys are promiscuous. They want sex, not relationships, and they’re only looking to score. At the cultural level, and for many people in the culture, that’s what we believe.

But is it really true? Many of the guys I know don’t fit that profile. Most of the guys in my fraternity didn’t fit that profile, even though we fit other stereotypes about fraternities quite well. (Don’t walk barefoot in the house. Trust me. You don’t want your feet on that carpet.)

Everyone” believes guys just want sex. But is it really true? 

It certainly doesn’t fit the teen boys and young men I see for therapy. Many are in committed relationships. Some are looking for partners and that’s why they come to therapy. I don’t think I’ve ever had a client complain about an inability to hook up, nor have I ever had a dude start therapy because he couldn’t find someone to get laid. (If the Isla Vista shooter had come to therapy because he couldn’t hook up, would it have made a difference?)

But that’s just guys who choose to come to me for therapy. What do the numbers say?

Let’s start with the number of partners a guy says he wants. After all, fantasy tells us what a dude would want without the pragmatic constraints of having to find a partner. According to Sexual Strategies Theory (SST), developed by David Buss and David Schmitt, this is exactly the question to ask. And SST’s proponents have asked this question a lot.

Mostly, they’ve asked it to college students. And really, who better than a bunch of unmarried 18 to 21 year old men who are living on college campuses, away from parental supervision, and with fairly easy access to a slew of unmarried and unsupervised people their same age who are also unsupervised. If there were ever a group of guys who could fantasize about getting laid – and possibly even do it – undergraduates are the group. So when researchers hand out anonymous surveys and ask these young men how many sexual partners they want in the next month, what do you think they say? It turns out that about 25% of these guys say they want 2 or more partners in the next 30 days. 25%, or 1 guy in 4. That’s a minority of all guys. If you were in a two person election and only got 25% of the votes, that would be embarrassing.

If there were ever a group of guys who could fantasize about getting laid–and possibly even do it–undergraduates are the group, yet only 25% say they want multiple partners in the short term.

But hey, perhaps those survey-taking undergrads are shy or don’t want to somehow look bad in front of the researchers. (Are young men really concerned about that? On anonymous surveys?) And really, maybe we shouldn’t pay attention to what they say, maybe we need to focus on what they do. Other researchers, from public health to psychology, have asked the question for decades: how many sexual partners have you had in the last year? Among 18-29 year olds, whether college students or not, about 15 to 20% of guys have had 3 or more partners in the last year. If you think about it, 3 partners per year isn’t that many; it’s a new partner every 4 months. That doesn’t even require a hookup, although it doesn’t say much for staying power. 15% (or so). That’s about 1 guy in 6 or 7.

If we really want to know about male promiscuity, we shouldn’t stop there. I mean, it’s one thing for a guy to have a year where he has a couple of partners, but if we think promiscuity is the end-all and be-all of male sexuality, then guys should have multiple partners year after year after year. We’ve got those stats too: about 5%. Yep, 1 guy in 20 has three or more partners for three consecutive years. That’s truly a small percentage of guys.

So why do we think guys are only interested in sex? The 25-15-5 numbers for males are about 5 times the rate for women answering the same questions, so there’s a rather substantial male vs. female difference. If you focus on the difference without noticing the low base rates, it seems like men and women want very different things. But that’s not the case; the reality is that the male vs. female difference is due to a minority of guys.

Maybe we’ve bought our own hype. Fifty years ago, we didn’t think “nice guys” were promiscuous. Then we met James Bond, Fonzie, Hawkeye Pierce, and a parade of others ever since.

Maybe we’ve bought our own hype. Fifty years ago, we didn’t think “nice guys” were promiscuous. Then we met James Bond, Fonzie, Hawkeye Pierce, and a parade of others ever since. They were good guys, the stars of the show and we liked them. Since then, promiscuity alone isn’t enough to make a male character unlikeable anymore.

And Science says so! At least SST, which is part of the Evolutionary Psychology movement, says so. But as we’ve already discussed, their numbers are low. Besides, if guys were just roving inseminators, then who were the dudes who stayed home and provided for the women and children? Were there really only a handful of them?

If we really want to understand the realities of male sexuality and stop being scared of it, then let’s stick to the numbers. Study after study after study, from a variety of fields, and across decades of research, all point to the same conclusion: only a minority of guys are promiscuous or want to be. If you’re in that minority, good for you (and use a condom). If you’re in the majority, good for you (and use condoms). It’s time we all recognize thatthere are (at least) two ways guys approach their sex lives and stop teaching guys–and the people who partner up with them–that most guys only want sex.

-Images via flickr from Stephan Mosel (5, 14, 35), Peter Krefting (42), Jon Jordan (1), Selcuk Atundas (7), Andrechinn (1), Madelena Pestana (4),  Lali Masriera (3). All used under Creative Commons 2.0 license.