About Those Notches On Your Bedposts…

The September/October issue of Psychology Today is chock-full of incredible information on relationships. On page 45, an article by Jay Dixit examines how men & women remember and count their sexual partners.

Conventional wisdom tells us that men inflate their numbers, while women demur their digits — and according to this article, that’s true. But why? Are we both lying to look better, with men trying to project their stud status and women trying to protect their reputations — or their lovers’ feelings?

Norman Brown, a psychologist at the University of Alberta (who finds that American men report an an average of 18 while women report an average of just 5), says it’s not simply a matter of lying. “It has to do with self-presentation, estimation, and memory.”

Women are more likely to “just know,” or to have a tally somewhere, a method psychologists call “notches on the bedpost.” Women are also more likely to use enumeration (“Let’s see, Dave, Tarik, that guy from the gym…”), which produces underestimates, since people forget instances.

Men are more likely to use rough approximation (“Jeeze, I don’t know, like maybe 50?”) or rate-based estimates (“Let’s see, one a month for the past five years…”) — a method that produces overestimates.

But the gender discrepancy isn’t just a matter of poor counting either; the survey method itself matters.

Extremely sexually active women downgrade phone estimates compared to onine. (Men don’t.)

While the article doesn’t expound, I’m guessing vulnerability and anonymity are key here.

Another factor is undersampling prostitutes, who don’t get included in surveys due to “lifestyle issues” — they’re not in the phone book and they aren’t often home during dinner hours.

This is especially important, in my mind, because male clients are included in the surveys — and surely such professional interactions inflate their numbers. (Enlarge scan below to see evidence of this in male celebrities’ self-proclaimed numbers — which, by the way, does not include female celebrities. Arg!)

Surprisingly, men base their sexual partner count on the overheard comments of others — lowering their count to match conservative opinions, raising their count to match permissive sentiments. Women who overhear such conversations are unaffected.

I cannot but help to wonder if it this sheep mentality on the behalf of males which dictates a knee-jerk response to the “moral majority” — men clearly are more insecure and willing to submit to conservative cultural conformity (in word, in preaching; not in deed), and this must drive much of our current politics and societal conversation (including the control of women who aren’t affected by such espoused norms).

The article ends with more familiar territory; in which men are more likely to inflate their numbers when the researcher is female, even though the research shows that the more sex partners a man has had, the less attractive he seems.

Wouldn’t it just be simpler if men just resisted the urge to do or say anything to get laid? It doesn’t work anyway.

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