You can’t help it; if you’re plugged into popular culture at all, you’ll come away with the idea that everybody is having a lot of sex. In fact, they’re having a lot of sex with a lot of different partners. This is particularly true if you watch television dramas: a cast of characters mix-and-match from week to week, moving from one passionate moment to the next. Those of us living in real life – which can often look very different – can’t help but feel like we’re missing out on something. In short, whether we admit it or not, compared to those characters it seems like we’re dating a lot less than we should be. But how accurate is this perception? How many partners do most Americans really have?
Luckily for us, researchers have asked this question; specifically, how many people has the average American adult had sex with in the past 12 months? Despite what you see on TV, no matter how you divide it, the answer is one 1, 2. Regardless of the age group, and regardless of geographic area, Americans tend to have slept with one partner in the previous 12 months. This is a far cry from the string of hookups we see celebrated on TV. In fact, as many as 80% of Americans have had either zero or one sexual partner in the last year. And what of the rest? If someone was part of the minority that had more than one partner, it is most likely that they had fewer than four (only 3% of Americans had five or more).
Of course, this is just looking at number of partners in a single year. What about if we extend the time frame out to five years, surely then the numbers will start to add up? Actually, only 4% of people have had ten or more sexual partners in the last five years, which hardly lives up to the stereotype so popular in the media.
The truth is, people tend to form long-term relationships, and they tend to wait a while before having sex with a new boyfriend or girlfriend 1. The perception of everyone coming home with a different person each weekend is statistically very, very improbable. But what about the celebrated freedom of the college years? Have 30 years of low-budget campus comedies been lying to us? Although there were some differences between age groups (with the younger people tending to acquire more partners), these differences were almost negligible.
Given the rather surprising finding that Americans tend to have a single partner per year, we wondered whether or not this was common knowledge. At least as far as college students are concerned, it isn’t. A series of studies have found that college students tend to vastly overestimate the sexually permissive attitudes and behaviors of their peers. Case in point: the National College Health Association survey 3 of almost 30,000 college students in 2002 showed that these young adults believed 85% of their peers had been with two or more sexual partners, when the reality was a far lower 28%. Furthermore, they also vastly underestimated the percentage of their peers who were not sexually active. Students’ assumptions about their peers’ attitudes towards sex appear to be similarly inaccurate. Additional studies have shown students over-estimate their peers’ level of comfort with sexual behavior 4 and sexual activity while not in a relationship (i.e. “hooking-up”) 5, as well as expectations for how soon in a relationship sexual intercourse should occur 6.
This brings up an interesting question: if Americans tend to be largely monogamous, why does it seem like everyone is getting a lot more action than the data support? Well, partly because that’s what makes for good TV. A study from 2006 found that college students believed that others were a lot more sexually promiscuous than they actually were, and that they had gotten that idea from watching TV 7. In fact, the more entertainment media a person is exposed to, the higher their estimates tend to be 8. However, it might also depend on who we compare ourselves to in real life; people tend to pay attention to new and different things (in other words, the people who stand out in the crowd), and are more likely to notice things that support what they already believe. If we believe that the average person’s love life is filled with a constant stream of new men or women, we may tend to remember the one popular person who appears to fit this stereotype, rather than the 99 others standing alone at the bar – or the countless others sitting at home.
- Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Zimmer-Gembeck, M., & Collins, W. (2008). Gender, mature appearance, alcohol use, and dating as correlates of sexual partner accumulation from ages 16-26 years. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42(6), 564-572.
- American College Health Association. (2002) National College Health Assessment: Reference Group Report. Baltimore, MD: American College Health Association.
- Cohen, L. L., & Shotland, R. L. (1996). Timing of first sexual intercourse in a relationship: Expectations, experiences, and perceptions of others. Journal of Sex Research, 33(4), 291-299.
- Lambert, T. A., Kahn, A. S., & Apple, K. J. (2003). Pluralistic ignorance and hooking up. Journal of Sex Research, 40(2), 129-133.
- Hines, D., Saris, R., & Throckmorton-Belzer, L. (2002). Pluralistic ignorance and health risk behaviors: Do college students misperceive social approval for risky behaviors on campus and in media? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(12), 2621-2640.
- Chia, C. S., & Gunther, A. C. (2006). How media contribute to misperceptions of social norms about sex. Mass Communication and Society, 9(3), 301-320.
- Buerkel-Rothfuss, N. L., & Strouse, J. S. (1993). Background: What prior research shows. In B. S. Greenberg, J. D. Brown, & N. Buerkel-Rothfuss (Eds.), Media, sex, and the adolescent (pp. 225-247). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.