My new boyfriend wants to know about my past lovers

Part of me thinks it’s none of his business, but if I do decide to tell him, I don’t want him to be shocked.

Q. When my new boyfriend asked me how many sexual partners I’d had, I laughed it off in mock indignation. 

Part of me thinks it’s none of his business, but if I do decide to tell him, I don’t want him to be shocked. 

I’m 34 — what is the norm for the number of partners I might have had at my age?

A. Although honesty is generally the best policy when it comes to intimate relationships, I think disclosing how many people you have had sex with is the exception to that rule. 

It is perfectly natural, if a little masochistic, for your boyfriend to be interested in your previous relationships, but there is no correct answer to the question, “How many sexual partners have you had?”

A low number risks making you look inexperienced. A high number could be interpreted as promiscuous, or careless. And an average number is, well, average.

However persistent his inquiries become, laughing them off and changing the subject is still the best response. 

Also, where you believe you sit on the sexual experience continuum is entirely subjective, because one person’s low is someone else’s high. 

Take, for example, a 34-year-old woman who has been sexually active for 15 years and has a relationship history that includes a couple of one-night stands, a few brief flings, and two or three longer-term committed relationships — ie, eight or so partners.

That sounds perfectly reasonable to me, but statistically her total is higher than the number of sexual partners reported by women of a similar age. 

Data from the 2013 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles shows that the median average number of partners for women in your age group (between the ages of 25-34) is five. 

The reason we look at median averages rather than mean averages is because the mean is unreliable; it adds together all scores, no matter how outrageous, and then divides by the number of people in the sample. 

The median, or middle number in the data set, is therefore more representative of the general population because it is more resilient to extremely large or small values, and therefore provides a better representation of the “typical” response.

What we can say the number of sexual partners reported by men is always higher. 

This discrepancy has long been queried by mathematicians who argue that heterosexual encounters generally involve one man and one woman, so the only thing studies that reveal gender differences in partner numbers prove is that people don’t always tell the truth. 

Countless surveys confirm that men inflate the number of people they have had sex with whereas women minimise the number. 

In fact, statisticians joke that they divide the figure for sexual partners in half when the respondent is male and double it when the respondent is female.

When it comes to how many sexual partners people have had, gender roles and social cultural constraints are still a barrier to veracity. 

In 2003, Michele Alexander at the University of Maine and Terri Fisher at Ohio State University devised an experiment that helped them to get to the truth about partner numbers. 

In their study, participants aged 18-25 were asked to complete a questionnaire on sexual attitudes and behaviours while they were attached to a polygraph machine (lie detector). 

The machine was not actually functioning, but the participants were led to believe that dishonest responses would be picked up.

As Alexander and Fisher predicted, when participants thought they were being monitored by a lie detector, there was virtually no difference between the number of sexual partners reported by the men (4) and the women (4.4). 

This suggests that men and women should simply take a risk and be more honest with each other. 

However, in the absence of your own polygraph machine, my best advice to you is still “don’t ask and don’t tell”.


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