While the common man may dwell on his sexual frustrations, researchers are busy thinking about their frustrations with sex. A situation that’s vexed sex researchers for years is the “gender gap” in reported sexual partners.
Men consistently report having many more sexual partners throughout their life than women do, but Kristen Mitchell, Ph.D., a senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow who co-authored study, says that simply can’t be true.
“Scientists researching sexual behavior generally have to rely on what people tell them,” Mitchell told Inverse on Wednesday, the same day the study was released.
“The interesting thing about opposite-sex lifetime partners is that statistically, the average number reported by men and women should be the same,” Mitchell says.
Because scientists base their research on self-reported sex habits, this “inconsistency has long vexed researchers” and has the potential to produce inaccurate research, Mitchell and her team write in the article, published in The Journal of Sex Research. Accurate reporting of sexual partners is crucial for scientists who want to assess population risks for sexually transmitted infections, estimating the rate of STI/HIV transmissions, and measuring trends in sexual behavior.
Surveys conducted around the world demonstrate that men typically report twice as many lifetime partners as women. In an effort to understand why this gender gap exists beyond the satirized attitudes of teenage boys, and whether not it’s statistically real, the researchers evaluated data from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle, a probability sample survey of the British population.
Researchers examined the responses of 6,023 men and 7,170 women who were asked about their attitudes about sex, how many partners they’ve had, and how they determined that the number.
That question, while as simple as it might seem, was key: They had to say whether or not they just knew the number, if they remembered each partner then counted them up, if they estimated the number, or if they thought of some partners and estimated the rest.
14.4 vs. 7.12
Based on the data of reported sexual partners alone, they found that men reported a mean of 14.4-lifetime partners and women reported 7.12. That immediately made the team suspicious, because of Mitchell’s reasoning that the average number of lifetime partners should be about the same — after all, it takes two to tango. “The extent to which the average for men differs for women,” Mitchell says, “tells us about the extent to which there is bias.”
So the team began to sort out what could be forcing this disparity: They took out individuals who reported very high numbers who were skewing the average, which closed the gender gap a bit, and dived into the data on how people reported their method for remembering their partners. It turns out that men were much more likely to estimate rather than count their lifetime partners: Specifically, among the men and women who reported having between five to nine partners, they found that 24 percent of men estimated compared to 15 percent of women.
Why women are less likely to estimate isn’t exactly known, but Mitchell reasons that women in a study may feel more obliged to work out the answer and, “it may be possible that women are more likely to keep an ongoing tally in their head, so when asked the question, it’s not so difficult to work out the answer.”
They also found that attitudes about whether sex is something to be proud of, or really what sex even is, was messing with the data. Men were less likely to consider oral sex as “sex” than women, and women were more likely than men to see one-night stands as “wrong” and more likely to view having a relationship with a married person as “always wrong.” Previous studies have indicated that women under-report their number of sexual partners, so they adjusted the gap to reflect the likelihood that those attitudes were downplaying the accuracy of the data.
“This [the narrowing of the gender gap after adjusting for attitudes about sex] suggests that social expectations of men to be sexually active and women to be sexually chaste still has an influence,” says Mitchell. “However, since the gender gap has been reducing over time, these gender norms may be weakening a little.”
The weakening of these norms benefits researchers and serves to be a boon for society. While the scientists can’t comment on whether the numbers people reported in this study are really accurate or not, the fact that a gender gap remains is demonstrative that outside influences — and not actually having sex — affect how people talk about having sex. This study reasons that misreporting stems from a desire to conform to societal expectations, not because men are doing it more.
In a closed population and defined time period, the mean number of opposite-sex partners reported by men and women should be equal. However, in all surveys, men report more partners. This inconsistency is pivotal to debate about the reliability of self-reported sexual behavior. We used data from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3), a probability sample survey of the British population, to investigate the extent to which survey sampling, accounting strategies (e.g., estimating versus counting), and (mis)reporting due to social norms might explain the inconsistency. Men reported a mean of 14.14 lifetime partners; women reported 7.12. The gender gap of 7.02 reduced to 5.47 after capping the lifetime partner number at the 99th percentile. In addition, adjusting for counting versus estimation reduced the gender gap to 3.24, and further adjusting for sexual attitudes narrowed it to 2.63. Together, these may account for almost two-thirds of the gender disparity. Sampling explanations (e.g., non-U.K.-resident partners included in counts; sex workers underrepresented) had modest effects. The findings underscore the need for survey methods that facilitate candid reporting and suggest that approaches to encourage counting rather than estimating may be helpful. This study is novel in interrogating a range of potential explanations within the same nationally representative data set.