11 July 2007

madonna-whore complex

The median number of lifetime sexual partners for women is 3.7, for men 6.8, according to this study by the CDC which I read about at blogadilla blogadilla. The information was collected by computer, because, as is pointed out at blogadilla, "your average co-ed isn’t going to admit to some researcher that she had sex with 23 guys named Biff last Spring Break."

This seems a bit suspicious to me, because if you ask all the men in the world how many sexual partners they have had, and then you ask all the women the same question, the numbers should be approximately the same. So the mean number of sexual partners should be the same for men and for women. There are a few things that could make the means be different, even if both people involved agree they had sex:

  • Not all sex acts involve one man and one woman. Anecdotal evidence suggests there are more gay men than lesbians. But anecdotal evidence also suggests that there are more straight-identified women who have had sex with other women than straight-identified men who have had sex with other men. So I'm not sure which way this effect should go.

  • If one partner in a sex act (that already happened) is dead and the other isn't, that'll skew things. But women live longer than men and the woman is probably on average the younger partner in a sex act, so there are probably more couples where the man has died than the woman, lowering the average for men.

But let's ignore those; those don't seem like they'd cause much difference in the means. The factors that would really skew the means are:

  • If two people engage in acts of physical intimacy, one of them might say that they've "had sex" but the other wouldn't. I'm not sure which gender is likely to do what here.

  • Since this relies on self-reporting, we have to remember that people might forget who they've had sex with.

But the big thing here is that the article is talking about the median, not the mean. I suspect that the means are pretty similar, and that the distribution of the number of sexual partners is a lot more skewed for women than for men. In other words, I have provided mathematical evidence for the Madonna-whore complex. (That's Madonna the mother of Jesus, not Madonna the singer.)

5 comments:

Cynthia W Gentry said...

Wow, interesting take on the study. Thanks for quoting me!

Cynthia W Gentry said...

By the way, I would certainly like to forget some of the people I've had sex with. So you may be on to something there.

Anonymous said...

This could easily go the other way and, all in all, I expect that's the better explanation. That is, I think it's the men who are the Madonnas/Whores, or the Saints/Gigolos, or whatever.

If the median number of partners is higher for men than women, there are two ways that the distribution could be skewed. The men could be more uniform in their number of partners and the women could divide into promiscuous and unpromiscuous groups, where the majority of women are in the Madonna category, thus dragging the median number down from the mean.

Or the men could divide into two groups: the more promiscuous and the less promiscuous (this is the famous "Winner/Loser Complex", I think), where the winners outnumber the losers, thus dragging the men's median up from the men's mean.

Based on the evolutionary concept of differential investment, which tends to make females of most animal species more selective of mates, I would expect this answer. This means that the most reproductively fit men (the "winners") reap a bonanza, and the least reproductively fit men do not. But the fact that the male median is above the probable mean under this scenario tells us that most men are in the "winner" category.

Krackonis said...

I'm pretty sure than some are forgotten, and not unreasonably. I can't for the life of me remember some of the people I have had sex with.

Anonymous said...

Men who see sex workers may count them as a sexual partner.

But the sex workers dont, they only count their non-paid experiences.

There are many more female sex workers then male sex workers. Which explains the difference in both the means and medians.

A professional sex worker over a few years could have sex with 1000s of men. Some of whom see her on a regular basis and consider it a fairly permanent sexual relationship. She's not counting and he is...