At a time when countless people feel compelled to share their intimate lives with the world, and when the means for doing so are becoming less expensive and easier to use, it is nice to know that people the world over still lie about sex.
In survey after survey within country after country men report having more heterosexual partners over their lifetime than women do, and as this article and this clarification point out, what people say in these surveys cannot be a reflection of what they do.
If these surveys were representative, we would expect that the average number of heterosexual partners reported by men in each sample to approximate the average number reported by women. Instead, the numbers aren’t even close. In Britain men report having an average of 12.7 hetrosexual partners over a lifetime whereas women report an average of 6.5; in France men report an average of 11.6 heterosexual partners, women 4.4; and in Germany men say 15.5, women 10.1.
In the US men report a median of 7 heterosexual partners and women 4, whereas Durex, the prophylactics manufacturer, plays safe in its 2005 global sex survey by reporting both that the average number of (heterosexual?) partners worldwide is 9, and that the global average for men is 10.2 and that the global average for women is 6.9.
Although dubious, the statistics are striking. From rigorous studies to pulp-weekly polls, swinging Berlin to dour Bethesda, straight men and women invariably talk one way yet walk another. This invites explanation.
The French Agence nationale de recherches sur le sida (ANRS) researchers speculate that the reason for the difference in their data is that French women don’t count one-night stands, whereas French men count everything.
Norman Brown, a research psychologist, conjectures that the difference is not due to females deliberately under-counting, nor even to men deliberately over-counting, but instead is partly due to two different methods used to estimate the number of partners. On Brown’s view women are likely to rely on enumerating the names of their lovers to produce their estimates, which typically leads to an underestimated count, whereas men are twice as likely to use a “rough approximation” strategy, which yields an overestimated count.
Unfortunately, the data Brown and his colleagues used to test the hypotheses were from a web-based survey of American adults—hardly a representative sample. (Women, 8.6. Men? 31.9.)
But the interesting feature of Brown’s study was that he also asked the respondents to rate the truthfulness of their estimates. He found that 5% of men and 4% of women indicated that they thought their estimates were inaccurate, and 16% of men and 11% of women indicated that they knowingly misrepresented their counts. Still, even when these “self-incriminators” were removed from the sample population, there was still a significant discrepancy between the counts for men and women.
Brown and his colleagues then concluded that “bad faith” was one component to the bias in the data and “cognitive factors”, such as these two estimating strategies, another. People on the whole want to be truthful about their sexual histories, Brown thinks, they just get ham-strung by faulty methods.
Perhaps. But here is another hypothesis: not everyone cops to a lie. And the reasons we have for lying about sex are as numerous as the reasons there are for having it in the first place. Until there is a method for estimating the number of sexual partners that people enjoy in a lifetime that does not rely upon the testimony of the actors, one that is as incontestable as counting the rings of a tree, we aren’t likely to have a clear idea just what the neighbors are up to, nor how often—which is precisely how it should be.