In reality, most male undergraduates don’t have—or want—multiple sex partners.
Many people believe that teenage boys and young men just want sex. According to stereotype, guys aren’t interested in relationships and they’re not particularly picky about who, when, or where they have sex.
You’ve certainly seen the movie. One guy—or a guy and his friends—desperately try to get laid. After a series of comic mishaps, the guy (usually) succeeds. “Porky’s” and “American Pie” are the genre’s “classics,” but Hollywood cranks several of these movies each year.
You also know him from TV; today, he’s usually a good guy, not a bad example. Among top rated and award winning shows and actors, it’s guys like Barney (“How I Met Your Mother”), Charlie (“Two and a Half Men”), Martin (“Martin”), Sam Malone (“Cheers”), The Fonz (“Happy Days”), and Hawkeye Pierce (“MASH”).
In fact, this guy is so popular that he routinely shows up in sex ed programs. In some curricula, especially from the abstinence-only crowd, this is the only version of male sexual behavior presented.
But it’s not the only way that most teenage boys or young men approach dating and sexuality, and it’s not even what most guys want or do.
I’m going to say that again: most guys don’t conform to the stereotype. Some guys say they want to. On surveys of undergraduates, about 25% of guys—one in four—-say they’d like to have two or more sexual partners in the next 30 days. The flip side is that 75% of guys, three out of four, say they want zero or one sexual partner in the next month. That’s a substantial majority.
Let’s think about that more closely. Most of those male undergrads are 18 or 19 years old, unmarried, living away from home, and living in close proximity to several thousand young women their same age. Only 25% of them say they want two or more sexual partners in the next 30 days.
The numbers get smaller when we talk about actual sexual behavior, not just desire. Fifteen to twenty percent of teenage boys and young men say they’ve had three or more sexual partners in the past 12 months. That’s still a lot of guys, about 1 in 5 or 1 in 6. But most guys don’t do this for any length of time. Only about 5% of guys have three partners per year for three consecutive years. That’s 1 in 20. 
These are the numbers that researchers report when they study a broad cross-section of young men. If you want a much higher number, ask young men who are active participants in the club/party/social scene; if you want a much lower number, ask young men who are devout members of their religion and choose to routinely attend church, synagogue, or mosque. 
The stereotype is also wrong when it says that guys aren’t interested in relationships and don’t care who their partner is.
The fact is, most teenage boys and young men date and have “serious” or “committed” relationships that are expected to be monogamous. By the time they graduate high school, eighty to ninety percent of boys have been in at least one such relationship. 
You may think that guys are just dating because that’s what you need to do in order to have sex with someone, but if you really buy that then you’ve probably never tried to get a 16 year old boy to clean his room or do his homework when he doesn’t want to. And you’ve certainly never seen a guy in love (described here and here).
Sure, some of these relationships only last for two or three weeks, but many of those relationships last 6 months or more. Research with high school students suggests that about one boy in six has been in a relationship of at least eleven months ; that number parallels the one in sex who have three or more partners per year.
Not surprisingly, guys are picky about who they date. The most important things are characteristics that make a long term relationship work: honesty, trust and trustworthiness, and a generally pleasant disposition. Having common interests is also key: you’ve got to have something to talk about and do together. 
When we act as though all guys fit this particular stereotype, we run the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re in that majority of boys who don’t fit the stereotype, it may make you feel like you’re not normal, so maybe you need to do something to prove your masculinity, like screw around. When this is the only guy we talk about in sex ed, then we adults are misinforming kids. When we choose to watch this character’s television shows and movies, we’re encouraging Hollywood’s decision-makers to keep cloning him.
It’s time to move past the stereotype and start talking about the ways guys actually behave.
Andrew Smiler, Ph.D. is the author of a new book, “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male.” To read an excerpt, click here. For more information or to buy the book, click here.
Image credit: Phillip Pessar/Flickr
- Schmitt et al 2004
- Dariotis et al., 2008; Humblet et al., 2003
- Rostosky et al 2004
- Carver et al., 2003
- Carver et al., 2003
- Buss et al., 2001; Carver et al., 2003
Buss, D. M., Shackelford, T. K., Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Larsen, R. J. (2001). A half century of mate preferences: The cultural evolution of values. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63, 491-503. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.00491.x
Carver, K., Joyner, K., & Udry, J. R. (2003). National estimates of adolescent romantic relationships. In P. Florsheim (Ed.), Adolescent romantic relations and sexual behavior: Theory, research, and practical implications (pp. 23-56). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Dariotis, J. K., Sonenstein, F. L., Gates, G. J., Capps, R., Astone, N. M., Pleck, J. L., . . . Zeger, S. (2008). Changes in sexual risk behavior as young men transition to adulthood. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 40, 225.
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Schmitt, D. P., & 118 members of the International Sexuality Description Project (2003). Universal sex differences in the desire for sexual variety: Tests from 52 nations, 6 continents, and 13 Islands. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 85-104. doi: 10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206