We like to think of America as sexually permissive. The median American woman has had three sex partners in her lifetime. The median man has had five. These s have remained unchanged for decades: you have to look at people born prior to the s, who came of age before the Sexual Revolution, to find lower s.
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The distribution of promiscuity is skewed to the right: most people have only a few partners, but a few people have a whole lot. The data look like this:. are unweighted. The yellow bars are medians, included to provide some perspective. Although most people have had only a few partners, a few have had a multitude indeed, I capped the maximum at so a single graph would be intelligible.
Five percent of women have had 16 or more partners; five percent of men have had 50 or more. One percent of American women have had over 35 partners; the comparable figure for men is Who are these people? The multiple waves of data provide a sample of over 30, respondents and therefore enough cases to look at sexual behavior at the margins.
I also look at the top one percentile of promiscuity where there are sufficient sample sizes to do so.
Except where noted, the are similar for the top-five and top-one percent of promiscuity. Finally, my tally of sex partners ignores sexual orientation. The figure below looks at what portion of the sample for each survey year falls into the top five percentile for the entire sample; in order words, what proportion of women for each survey year had 16 or more partners.
The data show a linear increase in the percentage of women who fall into the high side of sexual adventurousness. Bythis was up to 7 percent. The story is different for men, for whom promiscuity was most common in the decade.
Since then, a declining proportion of men have had 50 or more sex partners. Still, top-five percentile sexual exploration remains a bit more common for men than it was in the early s, near the beginning of the time series. The residents of Promiscuous America are predictable in many ways.
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They watch more porn. Many of them live in the western United States for women, that means the intermountain west more than the west coast. Still, in terms of sheer percentage points, the differences between Christians and nonbelievers are not enormous. Chi-square tests statistically ificant at the. are weighted. Religious participation also has the anticipated negative correlation with promiscuity: the most sexually adventurous Americans are least likely to attend religious services. Regular attendance defined as several times a month or more translates into the lowest odds of sexual sybaritism.
Promiscuous america: smart, secular, and somewhat less happy
Occasional attendance produces middling rates of sexual adventurism. Regularly darkening the door of a church, synagogue, or mosque may both reinforce doctrinal proscriptions against promiscuity and offer social reinforcement about the desirability of monogamy. Two related factors—education and intelligence—are highly predictive of having a large of sex partners.
People with post-graduate degrees are much more likely than their less-educated peers to be promiscuous, and this is especially true of women. Almost 1.
Both these s are far higher than they are for people with less formal education. Generally speaking, people with high levels of education have the highest marriage rates and the lowest divorce rates, but their ranks also contain a sprinkling of sexual sybarites. Related to education is the comparably higher intelligence of sexually adventurous Americans. Both men and women in the top percentile of promiscuity report higher intelligence scores than do their less well-traveled peers. Top-five percentile men have IQs only slightly higher than their less sexually adventurous peers.
T-tests between low- and high-promiscuity groups are statistically ificant except between top-five percent men and bottom percent men. The link between education and sexual exploration has long been clear. In his brilliant and ethically-challenged study of anonymous gay sex, the late sociologist Laud Humphreys observed that his educated respondents were more willing to explore a range of sexual activities. National data also show higher rates of anal sex among educated women.
A small of highly educated people seem to have channeled this curiosity into promiscuity.
Perhaps this dynamic can also explain the proclivity for poly-partner promiscuity and intelligence. Finally, these associations seem particularly strong for women. There are modest but still statistically ificant differences in respondent happiness by promiscuity. Multivariate analysis reveals that the happiness gap between Promiscuous America and their less sexually adventurous peers can be partly explained by marital status.
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Recall that promiscuous survey respondents are less likely to be married and more likely to be divorced. Regular readers of this blog are well aware of the fact that marriage and happiness are correlated, and this association might for why some promiscuous adults are less happy. But there are likely other reasons, some of which might be anterior to both unhappiness and promiscuity. For instance, childhood sexual abuse increases the later-life chances of both promiscuity and unhappiness.
In other words, there is no way of knowing if promiscuity is directly causing people to be unhappy. The happiness story changes when promiscuous Americans get married.
These respondents are not more or less happy in their relationships than their non-promiscuous peers. Some may have relegated their infidelities to their first marriages. But there will always be outliers, Americans who have a multitude of sex partners. This behavior is becoming more common for women, but less common for men.
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Perhaps these women are experiencing the last stages of the Sexual Revolution, stages that came earlier to men. Promiscuous America is urban, secular, and politically progressive, as well as smart and well educated. On average, educated people with high IQs are more likely to get married and stay married. The reasons why are among the most intriguing questions raised by this research brief. The answers require in-depth interviews and psychometric data.
The appeal of promiscuity is the excitement of diverse sexual experiences.
Some people may be more suited to sexual sybaritism than monogamy. For others, the downside is less happiness over the long haul, and for these people, promiscuity may be more a reaction than a conscious choice. Nicholas H.
Bradford Wilcox Oxford University Press, Follow him on Twitter at NickWolfinger. Interested in learning more about the work of the Institute for Family Studies?
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