Love & Sex

A Decade Later, Women Still Lying About their Number of Sexual Partners

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The commonly held belief that men always multiply the number of sexual partners they’ve had by three, while women divide their real number by three. 

Moments of sexual truth-speaking can be found in the strangest of places. Take for example in American Pie 2, when Jessica philosophically cites a well-known paradigm known as the "Rule of Three". This commonly held belief stipulates that men always multiply the number of sexual partners they’ve had by three, whereas women divide their real number by three. “It’s an exact science,” Jessica insists, “Consistent as gravity.” And, as it turns out, she’s kind of right.

In today’s society, we propagate the idea that strict gender roles are quickly becoming a thing of the past, a silly staple of our grandparents’ generation when men brought home the bacon and women ironed the shirts. As products of the age of egalitarian enlightenment, we believe ourselves to be above traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity. Fathers insist on letting their sons play with Barbie dolls. Women are encouraged to “have sex like a man” without the backlash of societal judgment. The housing questionnaire at my super liberal college asked not what gender you were, but whether you identified with “male,” “female,” or (confusingly at the time) “other.” All the signs point to the belief that the line between masculine behavior and feminine behavior is becoming blurred. Except, as always, when it comes to sex.

According to a recent survey, college-age men were perfectly comfortable admitting that they write poetry or lie about their weight (activities usually associated with women), and college-age women proudly declared that they belch or curse (behavior usually considered male). But when it came sex, men tended to exaggerate the number of sexual partners that they had, whereas women lowered their numbers. These results coincide with an identical 2003 study, the only change being that there are more women having casual sex, but not more women admitting to it.

Terri Fisher, author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University, attributed the finding to the fact that men and women still feel pressure to present themselves as “real” men or women when it comes to attracting the opposite sex, “There is something unique about sexuality that led people to care more about matching the stereotypes for their gender. Sexuality seemed to be the one area where people felt some concern if they didn't meet the stereotypes of a typical man or a typical woman."

Some evolutionary scientists would argue that this is inescapable. Men, as the hunters, are biologically programmed to seek several mates, whereas women are supposed to be more selective in order to be seen as a more viable life-long partners. That’s not to say that women have fewer sexual desires (an ancient myth that has thankfully been debunked by now), as it’s commonly known that libido is dependent on a hormonal balance that differs from person to person regardless of gender. But, however progressive men today may claim to be, there can still be a common tendency to divide women into different categories based on how many past partners they've had. 

But there’s a caveat. One of the things that I’ve noticed in my walks with men is that they’re often much more genuinely accepting of a woman’s sexuality if she owns up to it. Women who present an image of innocence and then turn out to have several notches on their belts become objects of ridicule, but women who shrug their shoulders and casually say, “Yeah, I enjoy having sex,” without any insecurity or false bravado are greeted with respect, often times even admiration.

I wonder if the sexual revolution—one that equalizes the sexual powers of men and women—isn't only halfway finished. Some men and women are doing all sorts of things that don't seem so traditionally masculine or feminine, but this trend hasn't yet permeated into all sexual expectations completely. Barring some sexual counterrevolution, it seems inevitable that the permissiveness we now hold towards gender roles in the US will soon extend to sexual histories as well. Soon men and women might be splitting the difference on that "Rule of Three" and simply trading their real number of partners.