You and your partner have been going out for a few months. You’re still getting to know each other and on your last date the subject of past lovers came up. You were surprised by the number of guys she’d been with. And she seemed pretty shocked when she learned how many partners you’d had.
Turn on or turn off?
In many cultures, people enter into a relationship with a sexual past. That might include long-term partners, one-night stands, and passionate flings, to name just a few. It makes sense that a potential partner’s past – especially when it comes to the number of lovers they’ve had – could be a turn on … or turn off. Yet researchers aren’t entirely sure how people feel about their partners’ sexual histories.
Enter a group of researchers from the UK. To better understand the ways past lovers affect future relationships, they tracked down 188 young adults aged 18 to 35. The participants were asked how willing they’d be (on a scale of one to nine) to get into a long-term or short-term relationship with hypothetical people who’d had anywhere between zero and 60 or more past sex partners.
People with two past sex partners were rated as the most attractive long-term mates by the study’s participants. The researchers point out that their average age was 21. When the data was organized differently, it became clear that the ideal number of past partners was higher for older participants.
But regardless of age, when it comes to past lovers, at least in the UK, there seems to be a sweet spot: people are attracted to potential long-term partners with some sexual experience, but not those who’ve had a lot of lovers. After two past partners, people become less and less attractive as potential long-term mates. Those who’ve had many partners are seen as highly undesirable. This was the case for both men and women in the study.
When it came to short-term romance, however, there was a difference between guys and girls. Men were most into women who’d had at least two and no more than around 10 past lovers. Women, on the other hand, were most attracted to guys who’d had between two and about five sex partners.
Why would both men and women prefer long-term partners who have some sexual experience, as long as it’s not too much?
Some of the study’s findings are likely only to be relevant in cultures where sex before marriage is seen as acceptable, the researchers point out. Obviously, in parts of the world where it’s not, any amount of sexual experience before a committed relationship would not be seen as desirable.
But in more liberal cultures like the UK, an adult with no sexual experience might be seen as lacking social or relationship skills, say the researchers. If you couldn’t find a girlfriend or boyfriend before, maybe there’s something wrong with you!
At the same time, there’s something they call ‘mate-choice copying’. That’s where you see someone as more attractive simply because other people have been attracted to them. So a person could prefer someone with a bit of a sexual past because it means other people have been into them.
Regardless of culture, the researchers do feel that across the world it’s likely that people are not keen on getting into long-term relationships with partners who’ve had a lot of lovers. For one thing, there’s more chance of them having a sexually transmitted disease. And, at least statistically speaking, a person who’s been with a lot of partners might not be faithful or committed to a long-term relationship, say the researchers.
This article was first published on February 18, 2017.
Sexual History and Present Attractiveness: People Want a Mate With a Bit of a Past, But Not Too Much, Steve Stewart-Williams, Caroline A. Butler & Andrew G. Thomas
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