STDs aside, what's all the fuss about how many sexual partners you've had? According to many experts, it matters — and can say a fair amount about your sexual needs and even who you are. Here, with the help of sex researcher and adjunct professor of human sexuality at NYU Zhana Vrangalova, is an examination of what experts have found the number means for men and women, your personality, hormone balance, and whether you'll cheat in the future.
What Women Really Want
"The differences [between the sexes] are not as they're often portrayed in popular media," says Vrangalova. "That all men want to have hundreds of partners and all women just want one long-term partner that they're going to love and cherish for the rest of their lives. That's B.S." The numbers we often see are likely flawed due to a small number of men who give extreme answers, like 1,000 partners or 10,000 partners. When you look at the median numbers, rather than the average, what men want and what women want becomes much more similar.
As women's role in society and perceptions of women are changing, so are the gender differences regarding the number. When younger people are surveyed about their number of sexual partners, the numbers reported by men and women are closer together than in older populations. Vrangalova says changes in social norms, like access to birth control and financial independence for women, are probably significant factors in this. These days, women who desire more partners (as some women always have) have fewer social barriers dissuading them.
Your Genes Matter
We haven't found a gene for promiscuity, but there does seem to be a genetic component involved in the way each of our dopamine systems are wired. Some people are more naturally inclined to risk-taking behaviors because of the way dopamine works in their body and have a tendency toward sensation seeking, novelty seeking, and impulsiveness. All of those tendencies often go hand in hand with a higher number of sexual partners.
People with a higher number of partners also seem to have higher levels of testosterone and possibly more exposure to this hormone in the womb. "We know from a lot of different sources of evidence that is correlated with more sexual desire, higher libido, and potentially more interest in multiple partners and casual sex," says Vrangalova.
More Partners, More Friends
Research, including some conducted by Vrangalova, shows that if you ask people, hypothetically, whether they'd prefer to be friends with someone who is promiscuous or someone who isn't, they do prefer the non-promiscuous person. In practice, however, promiscuous people actually report having more friends and close relationships. This is likely related to the fact that promiscuous people are often extroverts. "They're more gregarious, get more energized around people. They're often liked by others," says Vrangalova. "Because of their extroversion, they're people that people gravitate toward." These people also usually come off as more positive and happy.
Promiscuity and Mental Health
Increased promiscuity is associated with some mental health issues. Chief among these are bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. While it is true that people who have these mental health disorders are more likely to engage in promiscuous behavior, this relationship is driven by factors other than your typical promiscuity. There is no definitive link, however, between promiscuity and depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. "The studies are really all over the place," says Vrangalova.
Influences of Upbringing
There are some aspects of sexual history that often exist in tandem with promiscuity. Vrangalova says having sex at an early age is particularly well supported. This could be interpreted as having sex young leads to promiscuity, or it could be that some people are just more sexual, which leads them to have more partners and have sex earlier. It's also the case that people who have been sexually abused are often more sexual. The opposite effect, reduced sexuality, is less common but also occurs.
There is also a theory that stability of the environment in which someone grew up may play a role in all of this. If you grow up in a place where you are cared for and there is little death, violence, or war, your body might respond by delaying puberty and sexual urges. "You spend more time as a child, maturing, and you enter puberty later and you're more focused on quality, longer-term relationships rather than quantity, shorter-term relationships," says Vrangalova.
As it relates to sexual history later in life, promiscuity is linked to a higher likelihood of cheating in long-term, serious relationships. Vrangalova thinks the reason may be that many promiscuous people aren't really built for monogamy. Still, "the vast majority of people, promiscuous or not promiscuous, do want long-term, committed, loving relationships," says Vrangalova. "There's a very small percentage of people who don't."