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The Myth, the Math, the Sex

The NY Times put up an article recently titled, “The Myth, the Math, the Sex”. It’s about the discrepancy between self-reported sexual partners.

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.

But there is just one problem, mathematicians say. It is logically impossible for heterosexual men to have more partners on average than heterosexual women. Those survey results cannot be correct.

(Side note: median is probably the wrong word here. Did they mean “mean“, which is the same as “average”? Because there’s really no problem getting two different medians. Different averages, on the other hand, are mathematically impossible.)

They run through some possibilities:
– Men are exaggerating numbers
– Women are minimizing their numbers
– Prostitutes (who aren’t included in the surveys) skew the numbers for men (more specifically, if every man had slept with three different prostitutes, or one in ten men slept with 30 different prostitutes, it would create an average gap of 3 between men’s and women’s numbers)

Since the survey asked about the number of female sex partners for males, and male sexual partners for females, it eliminates the chance for homosexual sexual partners to skew those numbers.

The article concluded that men were probably exaggerating and women were under-counting their numbers. There were a few things the article missed, though. First of all, they don’t define was a “sexual partner” was. Men, eager to boost their numbers, might consider oral sex in their count of sex partners. On the other hand, women, eager to lower their numbers, might ignore oral sex in their count.

Additionally, a long time ago, I had read an article about another study involving heterosexual college students aged 18 to 25. In this other study, they had split men and women into three different groups. In the first group of men and women, they filled out a questionnaire which included their names that asked how many sex partners they had over their lifetime. To the second group, they gave men and women anonymous questionnaires asking them how many sex partners they had over their lifetime. To the third group, they hooked up each person to a (fake) lie detector machine and asked them how many sex partners they had over their lifetime. What were the results? The men in all three procedures gave approximately the same answer. (I have to admit, I was a bit surprised that the self-reported number didn’t change.) The women, on the other hand, showed a bias. When asked on questionnaires with their names attached, their sexual partners number was low (2.6 sexual partners). When given an anonymous questionnaire, the numbers were a little higher (3.4 sexual partners). And when hooked up to a lie detector, their numbers were higher still (4.4 sexual partners). It seems that when researchers ask how many sexual partners someone has had, the men appear to be fairly honest, but the women are minimizing their numbers.

Update: I found the fake lie-detector study, via Feministe. (BTW, why do hardcore feminists always sound like they’re yelling directly into my face?)

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