Study finds your number of past sexual partners has a large effect on your attractiveness

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Both men and women view someone with a larger number of past sexual partners as a less attractive option for a relationship, according to a study published in the Journal of Sex Research.

Using an Internet survey, the researchers asked 188 participants about their willingness to engage in a long-term relationship or short-term relationship with with a hypothetical individual who had a varying number of past sexual partners.

They found that the hypothetical individual’s number of past sexual partners had a large impact on the participants’ willingness to engage in a relationship with them. Having a few sexual partners was seen as more attractive than having only one or none. However, the participants grew progressively less willing to get involved in a relationship as the number of past partners increased beyond a few.

In addition, the researchers found no difference between men and women’s willingness to get involved in a long-term relationship with a hypothetical individual who had more than two past sexual partners.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Steve Stewart-Williams of the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus. Read his explanation of the research below:

Why were you interested in this topic?

Stewart-Williams: There are a few reasons why we were interested in the topic. (“We” is myself and my colleagues Andrew Thomas and Caroline Butler, by the way.) One was that it provided a way to look at how cultural and evolutionary forces interact. On the one hand, evolutionary principles suggest that people will tend to be a little wary about getting involved with someone who has a large number of past sexual partners. It’s a potential health risk, for one thing, but it’s also a sign that the person in question might not be a reliable long-term partner (if that’s what you want). So an overly extensive sexual history might be expected set off alarm bells. On the other hand, cultures vary a lot in their attitudes to premarital sex, serial monogamy, and the like. In a culture where these things are acceptable, someone who doesn’t have any past sexual partners at all might set off a different set of alarm bells. Why don’t they? Our prediction, then, was that in liberal Western cultures, people would typically want someone with a bit of a past, but not too much – which is exactly what we found (and is also the name of our paper).

A second reason we were interested in the topic was that it provided a way to test a very general hypothesis in evolutionary psychology – namely, that the sexes differ more when it comes to short-term, low-commitment relationships than they do when it comes to long-term, high-commitment ones. Again, that’s what we found. For long-term relationships, there were essentially no sex differences: Men and women were equally reluctant to get involved with someone with a very high number of notches on their bedpost. For short-term relationships, in contrast, men were less reluctant than women.

Finally, we were interested in individual differences in this area. People differ a lot in how comfortable they are with casual sex. Our thinking was that people who are more comfortable with it would be less wary about getting involved with someone with a high number of past partners. They’d be less concerned that such a person would be a poor prospect for a long-term mate, because they’re less interested in snagging a long-term mate in the first place. Sure enough, the data seemed to bear out this prediction.

What should the average person take away from your study?

One takeaway is that we can’t always trust widespread views about men and women. A lot of people are convinced that the sexual double standard is alive and well in the Western world. But our study and many others suggest that it’s a lot less common than it used to be. It’s not that no one cares about a potential mate’s sexual history; most people do care. But people seem to be about as reluctant to get involved with a man with an extensive sexual history as they are a woman.

Certainly, there are still some people out there who hold to the old double standard. But they seem to be a dwindling minority. One recent study found that only about 12% of students held the traditional double standard, but also that around 13% held a reverse double standard – in other words, they thought it was worse for men to sleep around a lot. The traditional double standard was more common among men; the reverse double standard was more common among women. In other words, underlying the different double standards there was actually just a single double standard: It’s OK for me but not for you! To be clear, though, most people didn’t have a double standard at all: They judged men and women in the same way. (You can read this study here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0049089X13000665)

This, of course, raises another question: Why do people think there’s a widespread double standard when there’s not? The answer is that it’s probably a hangover from an earlier time when there really was a double standard. We human beings are pretty sluggish when it comes to updating our ideas about the world. Part of this is confirmation bias. If we happen to bump into one of the 12% of people who hold the traditional double standard, we think “I knew it – the double standard is alive and well!” Meanwhile, we may overlook any evidence to the contrary. We might not notice the fact that there’s also a reverse double standard, for instance, or the fact that men are generally judged by the same standard as women.

Other than that, the biggest takeaway of the study for me is that people are different and that different relationships work for different people. Some people are interested in long-term relationships, and they tend to prefer to get involved with people who don’t have an extensive sexual history. Fair enough. Others aren’t so interested in long-term relationships, and they tend to be less worried about a mate’s sexual history. That’s fair enough, too. As a general rule, things probably work out best when people get involved with people who are similar to them in terms of their attitudes to casual sex.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

There are two main caveats. The first is that the participants in our study were quite young. The average age was only 21. We suspect that, as people get older, they come to tolerate higher numbers of past partners in a prospective mate. There’s a big difference between having, say, fifteen past partners at age twenty vs. having fifteen past partners at age 35. So, although the optimal number of past partners for our sample was around three, this wouldn’t apply across the board, to all age groups. The key finding, I think, is not the absolute numbers but the general pattern: the fact that attractiveness ratings rise for a while as the number of past partners rises, but then start to nosedive.

The second caveat is that we only conducted our study in one type of culture – a modern Western one – and thus we don’t really know how the data would come out in other cultures or times. Our hunch, though, is that some of our findings would transcend cultural boundaries whereas others would be more variable. We suspect, for instance, that in most cultures, people would be reluctant to get involved with someone with a high number of sexual partners. But our finding that a few past partners is better than none may be more culture-specific. In cultures where people – women especially – are expected to be virgins on their wedding nights, any past partners at all would probably be a deal breaker. The cross-cultural question is probably the main question that still needs to be addressed.

The study, “Sexual History and Present Attractiveness: People Want a Mate With a Bit of a Past, But Not Too Much“, was also co-authored by Caroline A. Butler & Andrew G. Thomas.

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