While previous research on sexual behavior and its potential risks has tended to focus on teens and young adults, this study looked at the determinants for number of sexual partners in more than 7,000 men and women age 50 and older.
The researchers found some interesting correlations between the subjects' sex lives and specific sociodemographic and behavioral factors, which they say could help clinicians identify people at greater risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). To get a better grasp of what these findings might mean, I asked some of my colleagues to weigh in on the data.
Men in this study were more likely to report a higher number of lifetime sex partners than women. Forty percent of men said they had at least five partners, compared with 24% of women. Likewise, being gay was associated with having more sexual partners among men.
That's not surprising, said sex therapist Dulcinea Pitagora. "Because our culture socializes men — regardless of sexual orientation — to believe that they should be more sexually active than other genders, they may feel they have permission to be more sexually active, or they may feel like they have to present that appearance," she explained.
In fact, "this is much more of a 'male' issue than a 'gay' issue," added sex therapist Kimberly Resnick Anderson. "Men have ten times more testosterone than women (at all stages of life), so gay men share a hormonal push for sexual outlet, whereas heterosexual couples must contend with often discrepant biologic drives."
For men, and older men in particular, economic status also seemed to increase the overall number of sex partners. That was true for both men in the top 20% of income and those in the lowest 20% . Although that may seem odd, it may actually make some sense. "Wealthier men have less stress about day-to-day necessities. There is more emotional space for pleasure and more time to have it, since they may not be working as much as a person with fewer financial resources," explained sex therapist Holly Richmond. "On the flip side, for men with less money, having sex with multiple partners may be a distraction from the social burden of having a lower income."
Better body image, greater opportunity
The researchers identified some intriguing characteristics for women, too. For example, they found that women who were white, bisexual, physically active, or free of chronic illness were more likely to have a higher number of sex partners.
The latter three factors aren't surprising: Regular exercise likely translates to a better body image — and, in turn, more confidence to pursue sex — while good health makes it easier to engage in sexual activity without discomfort.
"The healthier and more vital one is, the more sex they tend to have" said sex therapist Lawrence Siegel. Bisexuality may also be associated with increased confidence, as well as greater opportunity for sex partners.
But what about race? "In the past few decades, women who identify as white have been receiving messages about how to feel liberated sexually — "Sex and the City" is a great example of such influence," said psychosexual therapist Sara Nasserzadeh. "But women of other ethnicities — mainly outside of North America and Western Europe — may not feel comfortable expressing desire or experiences with multiple partners."
Freedom from judgment
Some factors spanned across all genders. For both men and women, being younger, separated or divorced, single or never married was associated with a higher number of sexual partners.
"When we consider factors like being younger —say, 51 rather than 78 — being separated or divorced, single, or never married, this creates space for more ego-driven, self-focused sexual behavior rather than having to worry about a partner's feelings, children or increased health problems that come from advanced age," explained Richmond. "These dimensions allow them to be in it for themselves and have less concern about other people's perceptions of their behaviors."
What's more, certain habits could have an effect on one's number of sex partners. The study found that being a current or former smoker and drinking alcohol regularly or frequently were linked to a higher number of sex partners in both men and women.
"These might be people who tend to be greater risk takers or seek out more stimulation, which could apply to their sexuality as well as use of nicotine or alcohol," said Pitagora. "Additionally, those who drink alcohol sometimes enjoy being disinhibited as a result, which might flow over into their sexual expression as well." Regular drinkers may also frequent bars or other public spaces, giving them more opportunities to hook up.
Remember, though, that this study could only show associations between certain factors and sexual activity, not cause and effect. Having such characteristics won't determine your number of sexual partners — that's a choice that only you can control.