Everyone has one – but some of us are more honest and willing to talk about it than others. Our "sex number" a.k.a. the number of people we've slept with, isn't something most of us shout from the rooftops, for various reasons. Whether that's embarrassment over our sexual timidity or a fear of being slut-shamed.
But when people do reveal their digit(s), a clear pattern emerges: men generally report having slept with more opposite-sex partners than women. Statistically speaking, this doesn't add up and the number should be roughly the same, which begs the question: why are men telling porky pies?
A new study in The Journal of Sex Research examines exactly that. Researchers from the University of Glasgow analysed data from over 15,000 British men and women aged 16-74 in the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) to find out why men over-report more opposite-sex partners on average than women. (Men reported an average of 14 lifetime partners compared to women's seven.)
Their conclusion? There are three main factors, one of which is social norms and our gendered attitudes towards casual and nonexclusive sex. Women reported more conservative attitudes towards sex than men – only 9% saw one-night stands as "not wrong at all" (compared to 18% of men) and took a more negative view of a "married person having sexual relations with someone other than his or her partner". Sixty-five percent of women considered it "always wrong", versus 57% of men.
Past research backs this up, finding that "fear of social disapproval for transgressing gender norms may lead men to overreport and women to underreport their lifetime partners," the researchers said.
The team's other explanations for the discrepancy are that men are more likely to rely on estimating their lifetime total (while women are more likely to keep a running tally), and their habit of reporting extreme numbers.
Accurate reporting of the number of sexual partners people have had is important from a sexual health perspective, the academics said. It is "crucial to a wide range of sexuality research, including measuring trends in sexual behaviour, assessing individual risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and estimating the rate and modelling the impact of STI/human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) transmission in a population."
Someone's "sex number" may provide an intriguing glimpse into their sexual habits, particularly if they're a new partner, but it's not just gossip fodder, so maybe it's time to start being a little more truthful?