Have I had an average number of sexual partners?

Is there any truth to the old stereotype of dividing a man's number by three?

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Indy Lifestyle Online

How many people have you slept with? It’s a question which can send a chill down many a spine for the very reason that there’s no ideal answer.  

People tend to feel especially awkward when this issue comes up in conversation with their current partner. There can be a real fear of being judged for being ‘inexperienced’ or ‘promiscuous’, which can lead to a tendency to either exaggerate or play down the truth.  

There’s an unreliable formula which is to be taken with a pinch of salt and assumes dishonesty on all fronts: some people say that whatever number a woman gives you should multiply it by three to get the real answer, and whatever number a man claims you should divide it by three. However, this idea does make the point that it might be tempting to massage the truth to this effect when as a society we too often still praise men who sleep with multiple partners for ‘playing the field’ yet label women who do the same as ‘easy’ or ‘slutty’.

When this question comes up between couples in the counselling room, Relate therapists explore all the potential drivers for asking a partner this question. For example, the person may simply be asking for reasons relating to sexual health, which is a perfectly valid reason to want to know a partner’s sexual history. Other times it may be a case of feeling insecure or even wanting to brag or compete. 

We see many people in sex therapy sessions who are concerned they aren’t ‘good’ at sex because of their ‘limited’ number of sexual partners.  If this is you, bear in mind that you can have multiple one night stands and not learn as much as you do in a forty year relationship with one person where you’ve understood what makes each other tick and how to satisfy you both sexually. That’s not to say you won’t pick up tips from a variety of partners either – it really comes down to luck of the draw and what you take from each experience.

 

So what’s the average number of sexual partners? Of course, mathematically speaking, this number does exist - although it depends largely on which survey you look at. According to the 2010 Health Survey for England, the mean number of sexual partners is 9.3 for men and 4.7 for women.  However, the 2013 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) found the mean to be 11.7 for men and 7.7 for women. Last week Slate also offered a sexual history calculator to see how you compare to peers your age.

Relate’s  2014 The Way We Are Now report found that 31% of men and 21% of women had slept with more than ten people in their lifetime. Perhaps due to more liberal attitudes and number of years sexually active, the number of sexual partners people reported over a lifetime peaked among those aged 35-44 years, with over a fifth of this age group reporting 20 or more sexual partners. In contrast, just 9% of people aged 65+ reported having 20 or more sexual partners during their lifetime.  This no doubt goes hand in hand with the way society is changing. A few decades ago, many hotels would only take bookings from married couples and sex before marriage was frowned upon. Nowadays, cohabiting is very much a part of our social fabric and casual dating with multiple partners is increasingly common.

Despite these cultural shifts, 8% of people who responded to Relate’s survey reported that they’ve never had a sexual partner. A further 17% said that they’ve had only one sexual partner. Women were slightly more likely than men to report no or one sexual partner (26% vs 23%), although the largest gender differences were found among those who’d had sex with over 20 people (8% of women vs 16% of men).

We always say at Relate that there’s no such thing as ‘normal’.  What one person may regard as an average or low number of sexual partners, another may consider shockingly high.  Eyebrows were raised when Nick Clegg alluded to sleeping with ‘no more than 30’ people, but compared to Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall who’s widely reported to have slept with over 1000 women, the former Lib Dem leader’s figure somewhat pales into insignificance.  

The point is that our personal take on what’s ‘normal’ is shaped by our own widely varying experiences and values. What it comes down to in the end is personal choice. Some people, for example, never want a sexual partner but are well acquainted with their vibrators, others want a different partner every night of the week and some experiment for a time and settle with one person.  As long as you’re practising safe sex and considering the feelings of others, it’s really down to you and only you as to how many people you sleep with. 

Whatever your magic number, try not be too hard on yourself, or compare yourself to your friends, partners or societal expectations.  It’s not a competition or a trial for that matter – it’s your sexual history so feel free to leave it in the past where it belongs.

Denise Knowles is a Relate counsellor and sex therapist

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