“What’s your number” is the sex talk some of us dread when things are getting serious with a new partner. Talking about your intimate past can be difficult, emotional and sometimes a bit scary.
There are all kinds of social stereotypes and misconceptions when it comes to how many people you’ve been intimate with. As much as we are growing as a society, there are still tons of cases of toxic masculinity where the more women men have claimed to have been with, the more successful they are.
On the flip side, women are no strangers to being objectified and ridiculed for how many sexual partners they’ve had.
Whatever your number (single digits, triple digits or somewhere in between) - your sexual journey is just that...YOURS. What you choose to do with your body and who you choose to share those parts of yourself with are deeply personal decisions that you don’t need to explain to anyone for any reason.
That being said, it’s totally and completely natural to be curious about other people’s sex lives. You can be curious without being judgemental - that’s why there are literally hundreds of studies that have been conducted on the average sexual partners a person has had, the average age we’ve lost our virginity and the most common kinks we all enjoy.
What is sex?
While this may sound like a really ridiculous question to some, my 13-year-old self (who was quite reserved, if I may add) was convinced that sex meant vaginal penetration by a penis - that’s it. Everything else was just “leading up to sex.”
With young teens especially, there were all kinds of misconceptions floating around about when you actually lose your virginity.
Is it when your boyfriend’s hands are down your skirt (rather clumsily feeling for your clit to no avail) in the janitor’s closet at school? Was it the first time you received oral sex? Was it the first orgasm you experience? Or was it really that one big thing everyone committed to doing on prom night?
Well, the definition of sex might be grey, but not as grey as many young teens think it is.
In a 2017 study (lead by social psychologist Ava Horowitz) that included 300 young adults (ages 18-30), we take a closer look at what most people consider sex to be.
A separate study that surveyed 594 adults (267 men and 327 women) conducted by researchers at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City will also be referred to here.
Intercourse (anal and vaginal) is definitely sex.
The study consisted of a range of adults with varying sexual orientations and the choices of what constituted sex were: vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, multi-directional sex acts (such as mutual oral and manual stimulation...in other words oral and handjobs), masturbation and mutual masturbation (phone or video sex).
Intercourse rated as the most representative of what “sex” means (no shock there). The study conducted by the University of Utah, Salt Lake City established that up to 98.7% of people surveyed said penetrative vaginal intercourse was “definitely sex”, with the answer varying a little depending on whether or not they and/or their partner reached orgasm.
What is interesting about the study conducted by Horowitz is that among gay men, anal penetration was deemed as constituting sex more so than when heterosexual men/women and lesbians were asked.
Mutual masturbation, nipple play, dry-humping and/or oral stimulation are a bit more “undecided”...
Sexual activities like nipple play and mutual masturbation (phone or video sex) were more likely to be counted as sex by heterosexual men/women and gay men, but lesbians felt these acts were less descriptive of sex and more described as sexual activity.
According to the Salt Lake City study, only 24.6% of people defined oral sex as being “definitely sex” (though that number did pop up to 31% when an orgasm was involved). 33.2% of people surveyed classified mutual oral sex (commonly referred to as 69) as “definitely sex”.
Does sexual orientation shape what we view sex to be?
According to the authors of this study, absolutely. The nature of your sexual and romantic attractions to other people shapes what you like, what you want and what you consider to be sexual.
What else colors our opinions about what sex really is?
According to both studies, the things that blurred the line between “that’s definitely sex” and “...maybe that’s not sex” were things like whether penetration occurred, whether your genitals were involved, whether it caused arousal and climax and whether it could result in a pregnancy or STI.
I feel like this needs to be said: you CAN have sex without an orgasm.
What is most interesting to me from these studies is that there was a lot of wiggle room when it comes to “is this sex” depending on whether or not you had an orgasm. This idea seems really strange, especially considering orgasms aren’t easily achieved by everyone and many women don’t experience them every time they have sex.
According to a 2017 Cosmo article where women were asked about the first time they had an orgasm, some of them ranged from as early as 9 or 10, when they first started discovering their intimate parts, all the way up to 36 years old. Orgasms not only feel different for everyone, but they also are definitely not a mandatory part of having sex - many women have sex for years before experiencing a great orgasm.
As someone who fumbled their way through quite a few men in my late teens who had absolutely no idea what they were doing, the idea that orgasm=sex would mean I could likely knock half the numbers off my list!
While there are maybe quite a few different sources I could pull from when it comes to when the average age is to lose your virginity, the most prominent research seems to have been done by the Online Health Service Dr.Ed, so we’re going to stick with those stats for now.
According to a survey given to 1,000 people (in both Britain and the USA) by Dr.Ed, the average age to lose your virginity is around 17 years old.
What is interesting about the stats given by Dr.Ed is that it’s not just about when you lose your virginity, but we can also take a look at things like when most people became “sexually aware”, which is basically when you realize you have sexual needs and urges and start to become curious about how to satisfy yourself.
According to their survey, the average age for sexual awareness is just after your 15th birthday.
An interesting note: of the people in the study who identified as homosexual also identified as having a younger age of sexual awakening, around 14 years of age. Homosexual individuals in the study also reported losing their virginity a bit later, closer to their 18th birthday.
62% of people associated their “sexual awakening” with an actor or celebrity and 30% of people claimed it was an older sibling’s friend who first made them feel all tingly like they’d never felt before, and 6% claimed it was a relative that got them thinking about sexual desires and needs.
Generational gaps in virginity loss...
According to the data presented in this study, “baby boomers” (people born between 1944 - 1964) lost their virginity around 17.6 years of age, while generation X (people born between 1965 - 1979) had an average virginity loss age of just over 18 years old.
Millennials, on the other hand, have an average virginity loss age of 17.4 years old.
Let’s look at the average loss of virginity age by country…
According to this 2016 article by Indy100, Brazil, Colombia, and Austria lead the ranks in terms of lowest average age to lose your v-card with 17.3, 17.4 and 17.5 years of age respectively.
The United Kingdom is somewhere there in the middle with 18.3 years of age being the average age to lose your virginity, with USA and Canada being close with 18.4 and 18.5.
Jumping all the way to Indonesia and Malaysia, the average age to lose your virginity is around 23.6 years of age.
Our sexual wellness journey first begins when we start to discover ourselves as sexual beings on this earth who have primal needs and desires that are totally natural to the human condition.
My challenge to you: live a loud and proud sex life.
I want to preface this section of the article by saying this: do not let anyone ever make you feel anything other than great about how many people you’ve been intimate with.
While the stigma of living a loud and proud sex life is slowly dwindling, there will always be people who disagree with some of the choices you make, and some of those people may choose to showcase that disagreement in ways that are just plain obnoxious and rude.
While you may be a naturally preserved person who doesn’t share intimate details of their life with the internet (like I do), there should be no shame in who you are as a sexual being unless you’re doing things that are illegal or coerced, in which case you need to seek professional help to control urges that aren’t good for you or society.
But when it comes to how many people you have slept with...whether you’re in single digits or triple digits - this is your life. Be proud of who you are, what you want and the experiences you’ve had.
That being said...what is the average number of people to have been intimate with?
Let’s take a look at some numbers that come from a study published in the Journal of Sex Research (which consisted of over 15,000 people between the ages of 16-74).
It’s important to note that, although the gap has narrowed over time, surveys across the world find that men typically report around twice as many lifetime sexual partners as women and this kind of inconsistency has been confusing researchers for decades.
Are these numbers real? Here’s what effects surveys like this...
Just because these are scientific studies often done anonymously, doesn’t mean people don’t lie. Whether a person reports their “true” number of sexual partners depends on so many different things.
Some research suggests that the underrepresentation of sex workers in surveys like this could be one factor that tips the scales. Other things like gender and sexual orientation can also factor in - for example, if someone is non-openly bisexual, they may only report their opposite-sex partners.
Social stigmas and stereotypes may also play a key role when it comes to the average number of intimate partners reported for both men and women.
Men are still sometimes considered “players” or “macho” if they have more sexual partners, causing some to feel the need to inflate their number. Women, on the other hand, in the past have been labeled as “easy” or “slutty” if their number is too high, which may cause some women to deflate their real number to one that is considered more “socially acceptable”.
How common is it to lie about your sexual partner history?
According to this study conducted on a total of 2180 participants (1263 male and 917 female), over 41% of men and over 32% of women claimed to have lied in the past about their sexual history when it comes to how many partners they’ve had.
This study showed men were more likely to increase their number of sexual partners where women were more likely to omit sexual encounters, decreasing their number. However, 5.8% of women and 10.1% of men claimed to have both increased and decreased the number of sexual partners they’ve had depending on the situation.
Does it really matter how many sexual partners you’ve had?
When it comes to dating, the “what’s your number” conversation is a bit daunting...but does that number really matter as much as we think it does?
According to this article on HealthLine, it matters to a very small percent of the population - with 8% of people saying they were “somewhat likely” to end a relationship if their partner had too few sexual partners.
What is defined as “too few” sexual partners?
In this case, “too few” were around 1.9 sexual partners, which the women deemed “too conservative” and 2.3 sexual partners, which the men deemed “too conservative”.
What is defined as “too many” sexual partners?
On the other end of the spectrum, a higher number of people claimed they may end a relationship if their partner had too many sexual partners in their dating history. In fact, 30% said they were “somewhat likely” to end a relationship if their partner had “too many” partners.
In this case, the men in that 30% claimed they were “somewhat likely” to end things with a female partner if she had over 14 sexual partners, whereas women claimed to be “somewhat likely” to end things with their man if they had over 15 sexual partners in their past.
The “ideal” average number varies from person to person...also from country to country.
The “ideal” average number varies from person to person, however, according to all the surveys I’ve listed in this article, between 7-8 sexual partners is considered “ideal” for both men and women.
Something interesting to note is that in European countries, it was more ideal to have a bit of a higher number (closer to 10).
While it’s totally normal to be curious about how many lovers your partner has had and I totally encourage asking this question to create an open and honest conversation about sex with your partner - there are a few other things I want to mention here that go beyond what that number really is.
The myth that “the higher the number, the more likely they have an STI…”
Having the “how many” talk isn’t the conversation you need to have with a new fling…
“When was the last time you were tested?” and “are you free of STIs?” are sometimes hard to force out of your mouth, especially if the date is going really well and you don’t want to kill the mood.
But yes - you need to have the STI talk...every time.
When it comes to how many people we’ve been with, if you hear that number without having asked if your potential lover is clean and clear, it’s natural to feel a bit uncertain about your partner’s sexual health.
But in reality, the number isn’t so important when it comes to the potential of your partner having an STI. While it’s normal to think “the higher the number, the more likely they are to have an STI”, this hasn’t always been the case and thinking this way can be a bit dangerous.
Looking beyond the number (however small or large it is), sexual contact with anyone at any time can open you (and your partner) up to a risk of contracting an STI. While that chance may be a bit higher if the person has been with 20 people instead of 2 people, it only takes one instance of sexual contact with someone who has an STI to contract an STI.
The myth that “the higher the number, the more they cheat/are promiscuous/can’t be trusted…”
There is another myth surrounding high numbers: they got those numbers in a bad way. Some think people with high numbers must use other people, lie to them to get what they want, cheat on their partners or refuse to be monogamous and this is just simply not the case.
When someone tells you their number, refrain from your initial judgements for a moment and just lean into the conversation that’s presenting itself. If you’re curious about how high (or low) your partner’s number is - just ask them about it.
The myth that “the lower the number, the more prude/inexperienced/non-kinky they are…”
I feel as though I am living proof that this is utter bullshit. My number remains in the single digits and yet, out of my circle of friends, I am likely one of the kinkier ones.
People with “limited experience” don't always have limited experience, if you know what I mean.
Maybe they were in a few long-term serious relationships where they experimented with bondage, breath play and knife play. Maybe they are about to shock you with just how much they know and want. (A side note: these can be the best kinds of hookups, where you’re not expecting much and then your stealthy lover blows your mind.)
Forget everything you think you know about how experienced someone is based on what that number they give you is. Everyone has different experiences, different strengths and different challenges.
At the end of the day, the number is just a number.
While it is an important conversation to have, it doesn’t give you a full picture of who they are as a person or as a lover. My suggestion would be to use the “what’s your number?” talk to segway into more meaningful converastions about sex, kinks and everything in between.