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.
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.