Having recently been scolded for citing survey data on an anthropology blog (mea culpa), I’d like to rectify the situation by referring readers to this fun piece in the NY Times about the myth that men are more promiscuous than women:
In study after study and in country after country, men report more, often many more, sexual partners than women.
One survey, recently reported by the federal government, concluded that men had a median of seven female sex partners. Women had a median of four male sex partners. Another study, by British researchers, stated that men had 12.7 heterosexual partners in their lifetimes and women had 6.5.
But there is just one problem, mathematicians say. It is logically impossible for heterosexual men to have more partners on average than heterosexual women. Those survey results cannot be correct.
The article offers two explanations. One is that “men exaggerate the number of partners they have and women underestimate.” The other is that “men are going outside the [survey] population to find partners.” For instance, most surveys don’t include paid sex workers. Feministe plays with the idea that promiscuous women “don’t count”:
But I’d say that what we’re seeing here is actually the conventional explanation for the discrepancy: women don’t have much sex compared to men, but supposedly there are some women who “make up for the difference” by having LOTS and LOTS of sex with then menfolk. Furthermore, these women don’t count, at least not for the CDC’s purposes — they’re beyond the pale, outside of society. They’re prostitutes, or as Ms. Aral suggests, they’re foreigners. In the past (of segregation and slavery) and still today in so many cases, they’re women of color. They’re women who have to be left out of the math in order to make the “common sense” 7:4 ratio accurate. They’re the original reference of the shame-word “slut.”
They’re every type of woman who’s been made to to serve as the “whore” of the classic “virgin/whore” dichotomy — to balance this mathematically impossible equation by having all the sex that good marriageable white-wedding girls supposedly don’t. (Even though this is also the survey that pointed out that 89% of Americans have premarital sex.) I could go even further and start talking about how this relates to characterization and exploitation of trans women as sex workers, in the US and around the world, as a kind of ultimate “doesn’t count as a woman” but I’ll save that for another post. You get the idea.
That the press and the public love to see their gender stereotypes reinforced, despite the questionable nature of the data, is something that has also been extensively covered at Language Log in a series of posts on the myth that women talk more than men.