New study examines whether men and women value “former promiscuity” differently

Many people (women in particular) intentionally limit the number of partners they have sex with because they worry it could hurt their chances of finding long-term monogamous love once they are ready to settle down. They worry that their “number” will be a challenge for their future spouses, even if they truly and honestly put their promiscuous days behind them and commit to complete monogamy.

From past research, we know that most people of both sexes prefer their partners to be on the nonpromiscuous end of the spectrum. But is that because they fear the promiscuous ones are simply not interested in long-term relationships and/or not really capable of monogamy (and more likely to cheat) or is it because of the social stigma and shame attached to dating / marrying a promiscuous person, past or current? And, does this differ for men versus women?

A new study addresses these questions by looking at what happens to someone’s desirability as a long-term partner if they used to be promiscuous but are now committed to monogamy.

For this study just published in Sexuality & Culture, psychologist Daniel Jones at University of Texas at El Paso recruited 180 adults (53% women; 58% White; 70% in some type of serious relationship/marriage, mean age = 32) from “Mechanical Turk”, a diverse online pool of research participants run by Amazon who’ll complete surveys for a couple of dollars. He presented participants with descriptions of three potential romantic targets ostensibly taken from real online personals ads, and told them to assume that the target was of the gender and age they would be interested in dating. The profiles contained randomized information about the target (e.g., hobbies, interests, sense of humor style, education), but where they differed systematically was in their past and current sexual history.

The nonpromiscuous target had had sex with 2 people, and described her/himself as: “I am looking for someone I can have a serious relationship with. I have never been interested in just having sex with someone. I need feelings and commitment behind it.

The reformed promiscuous target had had sex with approximately 40 people, but was no longer into it. Their description said “I used to have a lot of casual relationships and sex in the past, but that is behind me now. I haven’t had sex with anyone for over a year and only do committed serious relationships now. I am looking for someone who wants the same thing.”

The still promiscuous target had had sex with approximately 50 people and described her/himself as “I enjoy all kinds of relationships. I am really open. I am willing to have some casual relationships, and I am open to a more long-term relationship. I enjoy meeting and dating all kinds of people and having all kinds of relationships.”

The participants were asked a simple question: ‘‘If you were single and you could choose one person, who would be most desirable for a long-term committed relationship?”

Zhana Vrangalova, based on Jones, Sexuality & Culture, 2016
Source: Zhana Vrangalova, based on Jones, Sexuality & Culture, 2016

As you can see from the graph above, very few people of both sexes (6%) chose the “still promiscuous” target as their ideal long-term partner. This is not surprising, given that most people are looking for monogamous relationships. Moreover, most men (80%) and women (62%) chose the “never promiscuous” target as their ideal, suggesting that most people of both sexes prefer not only someone monogamous, but also someone with a limited sexual history and little interest in casual sex, past or present.

But a nontrivial minority of people—14% of men and 32% of women—chose the “reformed promiscuous” target. Choosing this target over the “still promiscuous” one suggests these participants—like the majority—value monogamy in their long-term relationships. But choosing this target over the “never promiscuous” one suggests that—unlike the majority—there is also something about an extensive sexual past that these participants value: perhaps things like sexual openness, sexual skill, adventurous spirit…

But whatever the benefits of an extensive sexual past may be, these were obviously valued by more women than men…twice as many women, in fact! What this suggests is that the reason why men and women generally prefer less experienced partners may be different. Given the realities of the “mating market”, a highly sexually promiscuous man is likely to be not only sexually skilled and adventurous, but also likely highly attractive, socially admired, and possibly also wealthy. For women, such a man might be quite the catch, and the primary reason why she wouldn’t want him for a long-term partner might be her concern he wouldn’t want to settle down into monogamy or be capable of staying faithful. Having the reassurance that he is indeed committed to monogamy (by being told he’d been celibate for a year while waiting to meet “the one”), allowed a full third of women to view his past as an asset.

For men, the math is a bit different. While promiscuous women may possess all of the desirable qualities most promiscuous men do, they do not necessarily need to: They can get to 50 partners even without being traditionally attractive, charming, socially respected, or wealthy. Then, there is the (inaccurate) stereotype that, unlike for men, promiscuity is “unnatural” for women, so that a promiscuous woman must have some mental health issues that explain her promiscuity: low self-esteem, depression, bipolar disorder, sexual assault history… Furthermore, female promiscuity (past or present) is much more socially stigmatized than male promiscuity, threatening a man’s own reputation should he marry a promiscuous woman. Finally, the risk of the formerly promiscuous woman going back to her old ways may be more evolutionarily costly for the man (than a similar breach of trust would be for a woman) if it leads him to invest his time and resources in someone else’s genetic offspring. All in all, the potential negatives of marrying a promiscuous woman—even if she’s no longer promiscuous—far outweigh the potential positives.

Stereotypes, reputational concerns, and reproductive realities explain why a high “number” is riskier for women than for men who do eventually want a long-term relationship (which is the vast majority of people on the planet, including the highly promiscuous ones). The sexual double standard is still with us to some extent. Yet, there are at least two pieces of good news for the men and women with high numbers.

First, if you eventually do want monogamy, there are about 15% of men and 30% of women who would not only tolerate, but actually prefer a partner who’s had a lot of sexual experience in the past, as long as they can be assured they won’t get cheated on. And these are only ideal choices in a hypothetical scenario: In real life, other qualities a person has might compensate for the less-than-ideal high number. In other words, there’s a pretty good chance that some (many?) of those 60-80% who would ideally prefer a less promiscuous partner would nonetheless happily date or marry a more promiscuous one if other things work out (like “Trainwreck,” for example).

Second, if you want long-term love but you also like your casual sex, you can have your cake and eat it too. You may not be most people’s cup of tea, but there is a nontrivial percentage of people out there—of whichever your preferred sex happens to be—for whom you are exactly what they are looking for. People who want to date and marry you not despite your promiscuity, but precisely because of it. (Six percent may not sound like a lot, but it actually is: About 6% of Americans identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, for example, and they manage to find long-term love just fine.) So if casual sex is something you truly love and don’t want to give up, make sure you look for love among the 6%. As one of my favorite sex educators, Reid Mihalko, says: Date your own species.

(Of course, this study comes with all the usual caveats that most studies in sex research do: relatively small and nonrepresentative sample, potential biases due to self-report, a hypothetical scenario that may play out very differently in real life, etc. so take findings with the usual grain of salt.)

Have a casual or group sex story to share with the world? That’s what the Casual Sex Project is for.

Want more sex education and sex research news? Follow me on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook as @DrZhana, or watch my daily sex educational live video streaming broadcasts on Periscope. You can also check out my website: drzhana.com.

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