Q: I hear a lot of guys brag about their sexual history, and some guys complain about having almost no sexual history. How does this come across to women?
A: The evidence from a recent study suggests that having some sexual history is fine, but too much of a history will keep people away.
- In 2016, a study was published in The Journal of Sex Research on how a person’s “sexual history” comes across to potential partners or mates.
- In previous research, there was some evidence that “less is more” in this arena. Back in the ‘90s, the research suggested that having fewer partners (for both men and women) was more attractive.
- However, this is 20-year-old research, and it was conducted with small sample sizes.
- These new researchers wanted to see if times had changed, and whether there were more complex things going on in the data.
- But do people really think that?
- For instance, some people feel that there is a sexual “double standard.” Women who have multiple partners are “slutty” while men with multiple partners are “dominant” or “alpha.”
- The researchers suggested two conflicting stereotypes:
- First, maybe some sexual history signals to potential mates that a person is desirable, in-demand, and having social and romantic skills.
- On the other hand, maybe having too many past partners is a signal that a person’s standards are too low, that they might be carrying a disease, or might be a lousy long-term partner.
- It turns out both might be true. But let’s look at the experiment!
- The researchers had three main hypotheses:
- Having some sexual history was a positive thing, but then there’s a point where it just becomes too many.
- When people are asked to evaluate someone for a long-term relationship, both men and women will be equally interested in a person. But when asked to evaluate someone for a short-term relationship, men will be more interested.
- There will be some people for whom sexual history is irrelevant. People who are just interested in low-commitment relationships won’t be influenced by a person’s sexual history.
- The researchers got a group of 84 men and 104 women from England and Wales to do an online survey to assess their mate preferences.
- The ages of the participants was 18-35, with an average of 21.
- Generally, the participants were not very religious, and mostly identified as Caucasian.
- The participants were given two main parts of a survey.
- The first was a “Willingness to Get Involved” scale.
- Participants were given a hypothetical individual, and were asked to indicate whether they’d be willing to get involved with this person in the short-term (one night stand or brief fling) or long-term (marriage or long-term relationship).
- The hypothetical individual was shown as having a randomly-chosen number of past sexual partners, ranging from 0 all the way up to 60+.
- The second was a “sociosexuality inventory.”
- This is just a fancy-sounding survey measuring a person’s belief about whether a person feels freer to have sex without commitments, or has stronger beliefs about whether sex needs to be committed and emotional.
Hypothesis 1: Is there a “sweet spot” of past sexual partners, or is it about “less is more?”
- The “sweet spot” seems to be 2-3 past sexual partners. Zero is still seen as fairly attractive, but some sexual history seemed to benefit the hypothetical individual. Once a person got up to around 9-11 past sexual partners, people’s willingness to be involved with that person went down dramatically.
- The researchers pointed out that the average age of raters was 21. Thus, 2-3 past partners seem to indicate an experienced (but not overly experienced) person.
- Raters who were older were more tolerant of more sexual history.
Hypothesis 2: Were there differences between men and women raters on willingness to engage in a relationship with the hypothetical individual?
- The researchers figured that men and women were going to rate pretty much the same when it came to evaluating a person for a long-term relationship. But they thought that probably men would be more forgiving and willing to engage in a relationship when evaluating someone for a short-term relationship.
- This was confirmed. Men are more forgiving when it came to short-term evaluations, but when it came to long-term evaluations, men and women were about the same.
- Additionally, they found very little evidence of a “sexual double standard.” Both men and women had a “drop off” point, where past history was just too much.
Hypothesis 3: Ratings significantly depended on the sexual inhibition of the rater.
- Perhaps not surprisingly, people who were more sexually open found more sexual history attractive, while more sexually inhibited people preferred fewer past sexual partners.
- In fact, they found that for sexually open people (people who were less committal about sex), having 0-2 past partners was rated as less attractive than having 3-8.
What’s the take away from this study?
- The researchers concluded that the idea that “less is always more” when it comes to attractiveness and sexual history is not necessarily accurate.
- Some sexual history does increase attractiveness to both men and women.
- However, there comes a point where the number just becomes too much.
- For the 21-year olds and younger, 9+ partners started to significantly hurt a person’s attractiveness.
- Older raters were willing to tolerate larger numbers of partners.
- Additionally, women who were looking for short-term partners wanted less sexual history in a potential mate (men were more forgiving when looking for a short-term partner).
- Lastly, for sexually open (uninhibited and casual people), having few sexual partners was seen as less attractive – the “sweet spot” was more around 3-8.
- For more sexually inhibited people (those who felt that sex needs some emotion and commitment), the sweet spot was actually 1-2 (and 0 was seen as pretty attractive too).
- Even for the sexually open, 15-18 was a strong “drop off” point.
- Therefore, bragging about having a TON of “conquests” is not generally going to help people get a date (or a partner). Both sexually-open and more sexually-inhibited women were interested in a modest range of past sexual history.
- This differed depending on a person’s attitude toward sex, but was still true in either case.
- SO: You can bring up some sexual history (and this can improve your attractiveness a little), but don’t go overboard.
Stewart-Williams, S., Butler, C. A., & Thomas, A. G. (2016). Sexual history and present attractiveness: People want a mate with a bit of a past, but not too much. The Journal of Sex Research, 1-9, 2016. Link: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00224499.2016.1232690?needAccess=true