Monday, August 13, 2007

What is sex, exactly? A simple answer to the promiscuity paradox

In the New York Times on Sunday, an article referred to a paradox regarding male and female promiscuity.

As everyone would expect, when asked how many sexual partners they have had, men always answer a much higher number than women. This just makes sense, right? Guys are hornier.

Problem is, mathematically this is impossible. Assuming we're talking only about heterosexuals here (and not swingers), you have a certain number of sexual couplings that have taken place in the world. Each one contained a man and a woman. Assuming you have a representative sample, you should divide by the number of people who participated and have the same number on each side.

The two explanations offered were: 1) the sampling wasn't really random, and 2) guys exaggerated and women did the opposite. The sampling error would assume these guys hooked up with a small group of extremely promiscuous women (presumably prostitutes) who were not sampled, either because they don't answer the polls or they're all in Thailand. The second is more obvious; guys like to brag about sex and girls don't, meaning one or both are lying.

I can only assume that when they asked these questions they had the sense to ask "How many members of the opposite sex have you slept with?" It's obvious that if homosexuals were simply asked their number of partners, that throws off the whole calculation. Outside of television most people would likely agree that gay men have far more partners than gay women. And that's not to mention the fact that a large percentage of straight guys have had homosexual encounters, though they probably wouldn't be bragging about them.

But let's assume that was taken into account. Another thing that may have been left vague is the question of just what one counts as sex. If guys have a more liberal definition, then it might be that no one is deliberately lying, they just have different definitions. Most people have probably had the experience of a totally hot, possibly even naked roll in the bed that just never quite went all the way for whatever reason. And then you have oral sex, hand jobs, dry humping, etc. Guys, who want to up their numbers, might call these encounters sex. Girls, and Bill Clinton, might think that doesn't really count.

But then maybe they were specific enough to say "How many members of the opposite sex have you had penile-vaginal intercourse with?" If anyone asked me that, I would lie for sure, and I hope you would too.

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