What’s your number? Usually, it’s a question about your phone contact. But sometimes people ask about the other number; the one about sex partners and activity. It’s a delicate topic that the lead characters in the 1994 film, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” famously explored: “Less than Madonna; more than Princess Di, I hope.” But Americans, and especially women, have far less sex than what people think. This gap reveals how little social mores and the images of American women in media and culture have really changed.
When asked to estimate the number of lifetime sex partners for middle-aged women, men guessed 27, according to a newly released Ipsos poll. That’s more than double what women guessed and the actual average of 12. Men also overestimated that young women have sex 23 times in a one-month period, nearly four times their actual experience.
“It goes to show that men really don’t have a firm grasp on women’s sexuality,” says Mallory Newall, research director for Ipsos Public Affairs US. “It’s something that feeds into our culture in the U.S. the way that young people — particularly young women — are portrayed or sexualized.”
Americans overall were closer in estimating men’s lifetime bedfellows at 19. But in approximating monthly sexual activity, men guessed triple men’s real figure of four. Women guessed double that.
Sex taboos drive misinformation
These results reflect the clichéd images men see in media but also in their own insecurities, says Bobby Duffy, managing director of public affairs for Ipsos Mori. “Sex is central to human life, but it’s one of the least openly discussed topics,” he adds. “The information we get is low-quality locker-room or playground chat, or from spurious novels or literature or bad magazine articles. It’s one where you cannot observe realistic sexual behavior because it happens behind closed doors.”
The results are part of a larger study about people’s misperceptions on social realities called The Perils of Perception. Duffy’s new book, “The Perils of Perception – Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything,” tackles this gap between reality and people’s observations about various social topics.
Executive guesses higher
A deeper look at the demographics of those polled about sex reveals other interesting patterns. Business owners and senior executives guessed higher than lower-ranking workers on partners and frequency for men and especially women. Millennials were less off-base than older respondents about others’ monthly sexual activity, but they still overestimated.
Low-income respondents gave higher estimates on the number of partners for others and their own partner count. Business owners, senior executives and Southerners also claimed higher partner counts than others. While Millennials said they had sex six times a month — the same amount as Gen-Xers — they claimed the lowest number of lifetime partners. They claimed nine partners, while GenX-ers said they had 34 and Boomers had 15. This aligns with changing sexual activity for younger Americans.
What’s also changing is how people identify their sexuality. About 90 percent of Americans identified themselves as heterosexual, 3 percent as gay or lesbian, and 6 percent as bisexual. One percent overall identified as “other,” but 3 percent of Millennials identified that way. Ten percent of Millennials identified as bisexual, compared to 5 percent of Gen-Xers and 3 percent of Boomers.
“This shows you that Millennials may be more open to talking about their sexual partners than older generations, says Newall. “It shows a willingness among this generation to be more open and honest when it comes to their own sexuality that we haven’t seen among previous generations.”