Boys and Men Just Want Sex. Right?

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.[1]

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. [2]

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. [3]

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. [4]
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 [5]; 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. [6]

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.

Read more:

Boys in the Friend Zone

Smashing Male Stereotypes on The Good Life.

Image credit: Phillip Pessar/Flickr

 

Endnotes

  1. Schmitt et al 2004
  2. Dariotis et al., 2008; Humblet et al., 2003
  3. Rostosky et al 2004
  4. Carver et al., 2003
  5. Carver et al., 2003
  6. Buss et al., 2001; Carver et al., 2003

References

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.

Humblet, O., Paul, C., & Dickson, N. (2003). Core group evolution over time: High-risk sexual behavior in a birth cohort between sexual debut and age 26. Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 30, 818-824.

Rostosky, S. S., Wilcox, B. L., Comer Wright, M. L., & Randall, B. A. (2004). The impact of religiosity on adolescent sexual behavior: A review of the evidence. Journal of Adolescent Research, 19, 677-697. doi: 10.1177/0743558403260019

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: 10.1037/0022-3514.85.1.85

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About Andrew Smiler

Andrew Smiler, PhD is a therapist, evaluator, author, and speaker residing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (USA). He is the author of “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the stereotype of promiscuous young male sexuality” and co-author, with Chris Kilmartin, of “The Masculine Self (5th edition)”. He is a past president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity and has taught at Wake Forest University and SUNY Oswego. Dr. Smiler's research focuses on definitions of masculinity. He also studies normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds. Follow him @AndrewSmiler.

Comments

  1. Now that people are actually taking the time to notice what a lot of guys have been saying for a long time I’ve noticed that the stereotypes have become so comfortable to people that they have no problem invoking them when it suits them.

    Let’s hope that more personal stories and statistical facts come out to show that the stereotypes are nowhere near as broadly true as folks think.

  2. Well, if you do want sex, a committed relationship has way more upside than being single, unless you’ve got the skills to maintain a harem and spin some serious plates. If you’re in close proximity to your SO and you aren’t getting laid 5x per week + (or just as much as you want) you’re doing it wrong. Even the most committed player would struggle to get that much action.

    • @CmE…

      I think the author is certainly on to something here. I have never desired a lot of sex partners. I love sex but only with women I know, am friends with, and like. So, casual sex is out, period.

      I have sex 3-4 times a week with two FWB partners I have known several years as friends.

      Honestly, it is women who I notice are into lots of sex partners. This is understandable as women need novelty and variety in sex. This is best supplied by multiple partners. IMO.

  3. I’m all for debunking myths – stereotypes – StereoTropes – but it seems here we have proof that there is a dragon, but not where it hides to it can be caged – held – made a pet or if necessary slain.

    So 85% of young guys would prefer a 1 on 1 with the partner that is tight for them – but where did the monster of all men just F### it if it moves come from… and how does it get put into it’s place?

  4. Bravo. I couldn’t agree more. Usually, and I’m speaking from experience and what I’ve witnessed, the multiple sex partners are often the result of a young man being heartbroken and/or scarred from the actions of a young lady in a previous relationship which causes men to exhibit a somewhat “stray” behavior. As you’ve stated, the heart of a man is most likely focused upon the affections of one woman in particular. And never several.

  5. If this is the case, then they need to start showing it in how they treat women their age. Good place to start: stop doing crap like calling women “sluts” if we sleep with them and “bitches” if we don’t. I really hated that when I was in college. Women were pressured to have sex to appear “fun” enough, and were then shamed for not waiting for a committed relationship – or even called a slut after a breakup because they had dared to have sex at all!

    • At the expense of being anecdotal, I’d just like to respond as a college-aged male.

      My male friends and I hardly ever use terms like “slut” to describing a girl. Indeed, the only time I can remember one of my bros bringing up one of his hookups sexual history in a negative way this semester was when he was afraid she wouldn’t commit to a monogamous relationship with him. She had a reputation for one-night stands and he was sure that he couldn’t fulfill her sexually and thus she would never decide to stay with him.

      I guess our schools just had different cultures. But some guys (even ones in college!) work to avoid participating in a slut shaming culture.

    • @Claire…

      What you are failing to mention is that probably 20-25% of the guys in college get 80% of the action! So, what’s really happening is a lot of college age women are having sex with the same guys.

      Why? Again, most women find few men attractive. Two, usually most women find the same guys conventionally attractive.

      I seriously doubt most young men who are getting much sex can “afford” to call women sluts and bitches. It is coming from the 20-25% of men who are getting all the sex.

      So, perhaps these college age women need to re-assess the men they choose to sex. Stop blaming the majority of men for the actions of a small minority that most women PREFER to have sex with. The blame and responsibility is with women, not men.

  6. …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.[1]

    This seems to be unrealistic that 75% would want ZERO or one! Was the sample the Standard Student Sample? Was this a reporting bias, with an expectancy toward the cultural norm? Why wasn’t zero categorically separate from one?

    • If you have a chance, read the referenced paper and you’ll note that they are measuring with student surveys and attempting to relate it to romantic attachment theory across cultural stress profiles.

      The impetus of the study seems to be to show that stressful environments (low resource and high fertility) produce more short term romantic attachments than the opposite.

      Indeed, well fed caged animals are much more long term romantically inclined 

    • “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

      A survey is one thing. Present those men with real-life opportunities and I suspect the findings would be quite different.

    • lucrezaborgia says:

      Why is it impossible to assume that not everyone wants a sexual partner all the time?

    • Graeme

      Because the author has an agenda.

  7. The survey describes what guys say they WANT (as the ideal).

    Does it also get into what they’re actually getting, and what they’ll settle for?

  8. I have a feeling the statistics and information put forth in this article are completely skewed and inaccurate.
    It simply does NOT correlate with the global experiences of women throughout the years .

    However, I also do not believe that the majority of males are the hyper-sexualized critters that Hollywood makes them out to be, but to say 3 in 4 young men are open to having sex with only one female in a 12 month period (when NOT in a monogamous relationship) is absolute madness. If we bring basic human biology and urges into this conversation the idea becomes even more ridiculous.

  9. @ Tiffany – It simply does NOT correlate with the global experiences of women throughout the years.

    Wow – since you have had to talk to every women on the planet to be able to make such an “accurate” statement – It’s a pity that whilst chatting to them and asking them about their lived experience you didn’t avail yourself of the opportunity to do a little survey and record a few stats!

    Net time you are off on your globe trotting and chatting escapes please do take a pen an paper with you, and can you thank my Aunty Marie for the socks she sent three Christmases ago! Cheers.

    I do find it amazing that so many people love to Use KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) when they are not looking at simple systems and simple dynamics.

    Yes – if you strap a subject to a chair – put electrodes on bits you think will get a measure and then show them pictures and videos you will “Evoke” a response. Proclaiming that the blips on the graph have absolute meaning is crass stupidity.

    Human’s are complex biological social creatures – and if the view is that all males are just sexual automatons one wonder’s why in male only environments you don’t end up with 100% homosexual activity.

  10. Ofcourse in reality most young men DONT HAVE multiple partners.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The idea that guys want lots of sexual partners is central to our culture’s conceptualization of young men’s sexuality. It shows up as the idea that guys would screw around if they could, that more partners is better, and that a guy who has lots of partners is The Man. As someone who writes about sex, and who conducts academic research on sex, it’s a response I hear a lot (see comments here, here, and here). […]

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