Americans vary widely in the number of sexual partners they report over a lifetime. Few never have sex, while a non-trivial number report sex with only one person: those who have had only one sexual partner comprise 16 percent of adults ages 18-60. (Keep in mind that such an estimate can diminish as people age, but won’t likely rise.)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, very few people report high numbers of lifetime sexual partners: just two (2) percent of heterosexual37 women and three (3) percent of heterosexual men report having had more than 50 opposite-sex sexual partners, while two (2) percent of self-identified lesbian women38 have had over 50 female partners. Thus, the experience of large numbers of sexual partners is uncommon for the vast majority of the population. The exception to this is self-identified gay men. Indeed, 30 percent of gay men report over 50 male sexual partners in their lifetime
But what is typical? How many sexual partners does the average adult have?
The median heterosexual man or woman (age 18-60) reports somewhere between four and six opposite sex partners in their lifetime. Lesbian women, too, report about the same number of partners. Meanwhile, the median gay man has notably more partners—reporting between 16 and 20 same-sex sexual partners to this point in their lifetime.
While sexual orientation is predictive of the gender of sexual partners, it is by no means deterministic. A notable share of lesbian women (70 percent) and gay men (30 percent) who report attraction exclusively to members of their own sex also report having had at least one opposite sex sexual partner in their lifetimes. On the other hand, among those who considered themselves exclusively (or “100 percent”) heterosexual, the share who had sex with someone outside of what their reported sexual orientation would predict were much lower: just three (3) percent of heterosexual men and five (5) percent of heterosexual women had at least one sexual partner of the same sex.
The reasons for this are being debated, no doubt, but it is clear that it should not be assumed that sexual orientation indicates exclusive sexual contact, especially so for sexual minorities. As such, public health officials are taking note that significant percentages of lesbian women may at some time face public health risks such as unplanned pregnancy or certain sexually transmitted infections that are more commonly passed in opposite-sex sexual contact.39
37 For measurement purposes we grouped those who said they were “100% heterosexual” and those who identified as “Mostly Heterosexual.” The figure represents percentages for both of these groups.
38 To increase sample size and thus confidence in our point estimates, we grouped women who said they were 100% homosexual and those who said they were “mostly homosexual.” The same procedure was done for men who identified as mostly or 100% homosexual. The results of these estimates are those displayed in the corresponding figure.
39 Marrazzo, Jeanne and Stine, Kathleen. “Reproductive Health History of Lesbians: Implications for Care.” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 190, no. 5 (2004): 1298-1304.
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