How many people have you had sex with?

The NY Times published a short piece on Sunday called The Myth, The Math, The Sex. It discusses the impossibility of large differences in numbers of sex partners between men and women. Here is their statement of the problem:

One survey, recently reported by the federal government, concluded that men had a median of seven female sex partners. Women had a median of four male sex partners. Another study, by British researchers, stated that men had 12.7 heterosexual partners in their lifetimes and women had 6.5.

This is a statistical impossibility. In a given population, with a set number of sexual encounters between men and women, the average number of sexual experiences between men and women must be equal.

So where are all of those other sex partners coming from? Two ridiculous suggestions by Dr. Sevgi O. Aral, associate director for science in the division of sexually transmitted disease prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are that those extra partners are made up of foreigners and prostitutes.

Is she serious?? Before I can go on, I have to stop and have a really good laugh at this one. This suggests that the US average man has had sex with three (3!!) female foreigners or prostitutes. Oh, but not British women, clearly, because they’re not having sex as much as their men either, so they’re not skewing the American data. It must be women from a nation full of sex-craved, American-huntresses like Canada or Tunisia that are throwing our data.

Okay, but Dr. Aral does go on to make one decent suggestion addressing this statistical anomaly. She suggests – gasp! – that both men and women might exaggerate (i.e., lie) about the number of sexual partners they have had. This seems pretty likely. Men probably increase the number and women probably decrease the number.

However, this same analysis cannot be used for adolescent sexual partners. Adolescents have sex with non-adolescents with some regularity, so a difference in average number of sex partners may be more legitimate.

However, the only real statistically significant difference in number of sex partners between adolescent girls and boys is that boys apparently start having sex younger than girls. Again, let’s think about this more closely. For that under-13 group, boys report having had sex more often than girls. Who on earth are those boys having sex with? It’s just so unlikely that high numbers of girls who are older than 13 are deciding to have sex with boys who are under 13.

So the summary is that people, regardless of their age, lie about how many people they have had have sex with. We should accept that, and start labeling these statistical charts and graphs “Reported Number of Sexual Partners.” It’s more honest, and it explains the statistical impossibility.

Thank you for reading this short public announcement on analyzing statistical data. Let’s end on this note: Think about what you read! Just because our government or any other organization published a study doesn’t mean the numbers or the theories based on those numbers make sense!

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Plus which, wouldn’t the prostitutes’ high number of sexual partners raise the average number for women in general?

    Do men have sex with other men more often than they admit? Or are they counting more different types of sexual behavior than women?

  2. I do think people lie about this, but I think some of the discrepancies can be made up of 1.) partners from outside the area (remember: travel and the internet really opens up your sex pool) and 2.) how people define sex? Is the guy I gave a blowjob to once considered a sexual partner? How about the woman that I fisted that one time at the club with gloves on?

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