By Dr. Justin Lehmiller
In determining whether someone is a desirable partner, we appear to take their sexual history into account, according to a recent study in the Journal of Sex Research. However, the way we feel about a given person’s sexual history is complex and depends not only on our gender, but also our personality and relationship goals.
In this study, researchers in Wales surveyed 188 heterosexual adults recruited online and at a college campus regarding their willingness to become sexually or romantically involved with hypothetical persons of the other sex. These prospective partners varied in the number of people they’d had sex with before, ranging from 0 to 60 or greater.
Participants also answered questions about their sociosexual orientation, or their degree of comfort with casual sex. People who have what’s called an “unrestricted” sociosexual orientation have an easier time separating sex from emotion, which means they don’t feel as much need to be close to someone in order to have sex.
Results indicated that people were less willing to get involved with someone who had zero partners than someone who had between 1-6. In other words, virgins tended to be penalized. Those with 7-8 partners were rated about the same as virgins. Beyond 8, though, the numbers really began dropping.
Overall, participants rated those who had 0-14 partners above the mid-point of the scale, which tells us that they were more willing than unwilling to get involved with them. It was only when someone got to 15 or more partners that ratings fell below the mid-point and people were more reluctant to get involved.
The pattern was similar for both short- and long-term relationships: having a small number of partners provided an attractiveness boost over having none, but at a certain point, having more partners was linked to less desirability. However, people’s standards weren’t as strict for short-term relationships—they were okay with a partner who’d had more sexual experience as long as they wanted casual sex.
Men’s and women’s ratings were similar for long-term partners; however, men found larger numbers of partners acceptable than women when looking for short-term relationships.
Lastly, people with a more unrestricted sociosexual orientation—that is, people who were more comfortable with casual sex—were more willing to get involved with those who had larger numbers of partners across the board. They also penalized virgins more than anyone else.
While these results are intriguing, it’s worth highlighting that only young adults and heterosexuals took part in this study. People of different ages and sexualities might have very different views on this subject.
Also, the why the authors presented information about number of partners may have influenced the results. There were 16 different questions about this: 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, some were standalone numbers, while others included ranges of 2, 3, 8, or 10 numbers. The reasoning for this and why 60 was chosen as the highest number is unclear. Also, in making 60 the largest number, it established what psychologists refer to as an “anchor,” implying that 60 is a very large number and that the options in the middle (9-11 or 12-14) are average.
This may be why ratings dropped into the “unwilling” range when participants got past the middle. Perhaps the point at which responses begin to drop into the unwilling range would be higher than 15 if the anchor were 100+ or 1,000+ instead.
Limitations aside, I suspect the overall pattern of results is likely to hold up in future studies, particularly the differences in short- vs. long-term relationships, as well as the gender and personality differences. However, caution is warranted in drawing conclusions regarding the specific number of sex partners people find acceptable because the questions asked may have altered participants’ views of average.
Stewart-Williams, S., Butler, C. A., & Thomas, A. G. (2017). Sexual history and present attractiveness: People want a mate with a bit of a past, but not too much. The Journal of Sex Research, 54(9): 1097-1105.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. He has published articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, written two textbooks, and produces the popular blog, Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller's research topics include casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. He is currently the Director of the Social Psychology Graduate Program and an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at Ball State University.
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