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Promiscuity is the practice of engaging in sexual activity frequently with different partners or being indiscriminate in the choice of sexual partners. [1] The term can carry a moral judgment if the social ideal for sexual activity is monogamous relationships. A common example of behavior viewed as promiscuous by many cultures is the one-night stand, and its frequency is used by researchers as a marker for promiscuity. [2]


What sexual behavior is considered promiscuous varies between cultures, as does the prevalence of promiscuity. Different standards are often applied to different genders and civil statutes. Feminists have traditionally argued a significant double standard exists between how men and women are judged for promiscuity. Historically, stereotypes of the promiscuous woman have tended to be pejorative, such as "the slut" or "the harlot", while male stereotypes have been more varied, some expressing approval, such as "the stud" or "the player", while others imply societal deviance, such as "the womanizer" or "the philanderer". A scientific study published in 2005 found that promiscuous men and women are both prone to derogatory judgment. [3]

Promiscuity is common in many animal species. [4] Some species have promiscuous mating systems, ranging from polyandry and polygyny to mating systems with no stable relationships where mating between two individuals is a one-time event. Many species form stable pair bonds, but still mate with other individuals outside the pair. In biology, incidents of promiscuity in species that form pair bonds are usually called extra-pair copulations.


Accurately assessing people's sexual behavior is difficult, since strong social and personal motivations occur, depending on social sanctions and taboos, for either minimizing or exaggerating reported sexual activity.

American experiments in 1978 and 1982 found the great majority of men were willing to have sex with women they did not know, of average attractiveness, who propositioned them. No woman, by contrast, agreed to such propositions from men of average attractiveness. While men were in general comfortable with the requests, regardless of their willingness, women responded with shock and disgust. [5]

The number of sexual partners people have had in their lifetimes varies widely within a population. A 2007 nationwide survey in the United States found the median number of female sexual partners reported by men was seven and the median number of male partners reported by women was four. The men possibly exaggerated their reported number of partners, women reported a number lower than the actual number, or a minority of women had a sufficiently larger number than most other women to create a mean significantly higher than the median, or all of the above. About 29% of men and 9% of women reported to have had more than 15 sexual partners in their lifetimes. [6] Studies of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases consistently demonstrate a small percentage of the studied population has more partners than the average man or woman, and a smaller number of people have fewer than the statistical average. An important question in the epidemiology of sexually transmitted infections is whether or not these groups copulate mostly at random with sexual partners from throughout a population or within their social groups.

A 2006 systematic review analyzing data from 59 countries worldwide found no association between regional sexual behavior tendencies, such as number of sexual partners, and sexual-health status. Much more predictive of sexual-health status are socioeconomic factors like poverty and mobility. [7] Other studies have suggested that people with multiple casual sex partners are more likely to be diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections. [8]

Severe and impulsive promiscuity, along with a compulsive urge to engage in illicit sex with attached individuals is a common symptom of borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder but most promiscuous individuals do not have these disorders. [9]

Cross-cultural studies

In 2008, a U.S. university study of international promiscuity found that Finns have had the largest number of sex partners in the industrialized world, and British people have the largest number among big western industrial nations. The study measured one-night stands, attitudes to casual sex, and number of sexual partners.[ citation needed ] A 2014 nationwide survey in the United Kingdom named Liverpool the country's most promiscuous city. [10]

Britain's position on the international index "may be linked to increasing social acceptance of promiscuity among women as well as men". Britain's ranking was "ascribed to factors such as the decline of religious scruples about extramarital sex, the growth of equal pay and equal rights for women and a highly sexualised popular culture". [11] [12] [13]

The top-10-ranking OECD nations with a population over 10 million on the study's promiscuity index, in descending order, were the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Australia, the United States, France, Turkey, Mexico, and Canada. [11] [12] [13]

A nonscientific survey conducted in 2007 by condom-maker Durex measured promiscuity by a total number of sexual partners. The survey found Austrian men had the highest number of sex partners of males globally with 29.3 sexual partners on average. New Zealand women had the highest number of sex partners for females in the world with an average of 20.4 sexual partners. In all of the countries surveyed, except New Zealand, men reported more sexual partners than women. [14]

The data can differ quite drastically between studies due to the small number of people that participate. A study funded by Durex, published in 2009 (collected in 2006) shows in all counties surveyed, except New Zealand, men reported fewer sexual partners than women. In this case, New Zealand women were the only country to report a lower average number of partners than men. [15]

One review found the people from developed Western countries had more sex partners than people from developing countries in general, while the rate of STIs was higher in developing countries. [7]

According to the 2005 Global Sex Survey by Durex, people have had on average nine sexual partners, the most in Turkey (14.5) and Australia (13.3), and the fewest in India (3) and China (3.1). [16]

In many cases, the population of each country that participates is approximately 1000 people and can equate to less than 0.0003% of the population, e.g. the 2017 survey of 42 nations surveyed only 33,000 people. In India, data was collected from less than 0.000001% of the total population at that time. [17] [15] [18]

Male promiscuity

Giacomo Casanova was famously promiscuous Calonghi.jpg
Giacomo Casanova was famously promiscuous

Straight men (heterosexuals)

A 1994 study in the United States, which looked at the number of sexual partners in a lifetime, found 20% of heterosexual men had one partner, 55% had two to 20 partners, and 25% had more than 20 sexual partners. [19] More recent studies have reported similar numbers. [20]

In the United Kingdom, a nationally representative study in 2013 found that 33.9% of heterosexual men had 10 or more lifetime sexual partners. Among men between 45 and 54 years old, 43.1% reported 10 or more sexual partners. [21]

Gay men (homosexuals)

A 1989 study found having over 100 partners to be present though rare among homosexual males. [22] An extensive 1994 study found that difference in the mean number of sexual partners between gay and straight men "did not appear very large". [23] [24]

A 2007 study reported that two large population surveys found "the majority of gay men had similar numbers of unprotected sexual partners annually as straight men and women." [25] [26]

The 2013 British NATSAL study found that gay men typically had 19 sexual partners in a lifetime (median). [27] In the previous year, 51.8% reported having either 0 or 1 sexual partner. A further 21.3% reported having between 2 and 4 sexual partners, 7.3% reported having between 5 and 9, and 19.6% reported having 10 or more sexual partners. [27] This reflects previous findings that a minority of gay men have a disproportionate share of all gay sex. [28]

A 2014 study in Australia found gay men had a median of 22 sexual partners in a lifetime (sexual partner meant any sexual contact, including kissing). [29] 30% of gay respondents reported 0-9 partners in their lifetime. 50.1% of gay men reported having either 0 or 1 partner in the previous year, while 25.6% reported 10 or more partners in the previous year.

Research on gay sexual behavior may overrepresent promiscuous respondents. [30] [23] [31] This is because gay men are a small portion of the male population, and thus many researchers have relied on convenience surveys to research behavior of gay men. Examples of this type of sampling includes surveying men on dating apps such as Grindr, or finding volunteers at gay bars, clubs and saunas. Convenience surveys often exclude gay men who are in a relationship, and gay men who don't use dating apps or attend gay venues. [30] [32] Some researchers reported that British and European convenience surveys included approximately five times as many gay men who reported "5 or more sexual partners" than the nationally representative NATSAL study did. [33] [31] Probability sample surveys are more useful in this regard, because they seek to accurately reflect the characteristics of the gay male population. Examples include the NATSAL in the United Kingdom and the General Social Survey in the United States.

John Corvino has said that many opponents to gay rights often rely on convenience sample statistics to support their belief that gay men are promiscuous, but that larger representative samples show that the difference is not so large, and that extreme promiscuity occurs in a minority of gay men. [34] Psychologist J. Michael Bailey has stated that social conservatives have taken such surveys as evidence of a "decadent" nature of gay men, but says "I think they’re wrong. Gay men who are promiscuous are expressing an essentially masculine trait. They are doing what most heterosexual men would do if they could. They are in this way just like heterosexual men, except that they don’t have women to constrain them." [35]

Regarding sexually transmitted infections (STIs), some researchers have said that the number of sexual partners had by gay men does not explain the rates of HIV infection, since most had similar numbers of sexual partners as straight men on an annual basis. They say that anal sex, which holds a much higher risk of HIV transmission, is the primary transmission factor, with number of sexual partners as a secondary factor. [36]

Famous examples

The words 'womanizer', 'playboy', 'stud', 'player', 'ladies' man', 'lady killer', and 'rake' may be used in reference to a man who has romantic affairs or sexual relations, or both, with women, and who will not be monogamous. The names of real and fictional seducers have become eponymous for such promiscuous men. The most famous include Lord Byron, John F. Kennedy, Errol Flynn, Warren Beatty, Hugh Hefner, Wilt Chamberlain, Future, Gene Simmons, Howard Hughes, and the historical Giacomo Casanova (1725–98). [37]

Others include Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Steve McQueen.

Famous historical fictional seducers include Don Juan, who first appeared in the 17th century, the fictional Vicomte de Valmont from Choderlos de Laclos's 18th-century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) , and Lothario from Nicholas Rowe's 1703 play The Fair Penitent .

More recent fictional characters who can be considered womanizers include Tony Soprano, James Bond, Chuck Bass, James T. Kirk, Tony Stark, Glenn Quagmire, Joe Quimby, Bruce Wayne, Charlie Harper, Sam Malone, Joey Tribbiani, Popeye Doyle, Donald Draper, Hank Moody, Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, Barney Stinson, Tim Riggins, Michael Kelso and Drake Parker.

During the English Restoration period (1660–88), the term 'rake' was used glamorously: the Restoration rake is a carefree, witty, sexually irresistible aristocrat typified by Charles II's courtiers, the Earl of Rochester and the Earl of Dorset, who combined riotous living with intellectual pursuits and patronage of the arts. The Restoration rake is celebrated in the Restoration comedy of the 1660s and the 1670s. After the reign of Charles II, and especially after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the rake was perceived negatively and became the butt of moralistic tales in which his typical fate was debtor's prison, permanent venereal disease, and, in the case of William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress , syphilis-induced insanity and internment in Bedlam.

Female promiscuity

Empress Catherine II is remembered in popular culture for her sexual promiscuity. Grand Duchess Catherine Alexeevna by anonymous after Rotari (18th c, Russian museum).jpg
Empress Catherine II is remembered in popular culture for her sexual promiscuity.

In 1994, a study in the United States found almost all married heterosexual women reported having sexual contact only with their husbands, and unmarried women almost always reported having no more than one sexual partner in the past three months. Lesbians who had a long-term partner reported having fewer outside partners than heterosexual women. [22] More recent research, however, contradicts the assertion that heterosexual women are largely monogamous. A 2002 study estimated that 45% to 55% of married heterosexual women engage in sexual relationships outside of their marriage. [38] [ better source needed ] While the estimates for heterosexual males in the same study were greater (50–60%), the data indicate a significant portion of married heterosexual women have or have had sexual partners other than their spouse, as well. [38]

One possible explanation for hyper sexuality is child sexual abuse (CSA) trauma. Many studies have examined the correlation between CSA and risky sexual behavior. Rodriguez-Srednicki and Ofelia examined the correlation of CSA experienced by women and their self-destructive behavior as adults using a questionnaire. The diversity and ages of the women varied. Slightly fewer than half the women reported CSA while the remainder reported no childhood trauma. The results of the study determined that self-destructive behaviors, including hypersexuality, correlates with CSA in women. [39] CSA can create sexual schemas that result in risky sexual behavior. [40] This can play out in their sexual interactions as girls get older. The sexual behaviors of women that experienced CSA differed from those of women without exposure to CSA. Studies show CSA survivors tend to have more sexual partners and engage in higher risk sexual behaviors. [41]

Since at least 1450, the word 'slut' has been used, often pejoratively, to describe a sexually promiscuous woman. [42] In and before the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, terms like "strumpet" and "whore" were used to describe women deemed promiscuous, as seen, for example, in John Webster's 1612 play The White Devil .

Thornhill and Gangestad found that women are much more likely to sexually fantasize about and be attracted to extra-pair men during the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle than the luteal phase, whereas attraction to the primary partner does not change depending on the menstrual cycle. [43] A 2004 study by Pillsworth, Hasselton and Buss contradicted this, finding greater in-pair sexual attraction during this phase and no increase in attraction to extra-pair men. [44]


Evolutionary psychologists propose that a conditional human tendency for promiscuity is inherited from hunter-gatherer ancestors. Promiscuity increases the likelihood of having children, thus "evolutionary" fitness. According to them, female promiscuity is advantageous in that it allows females to choose fathers for their children who have better genes than their mates, to ensure better care for their offspring, have more children, and as a form of fertility insurance. [45] Male promiscuity was likely advantageous because it allowed males to father more children.

Primitive promiscuity

Primitive promiscuity or original promiscuity was the 19th-century hypothesis that humans originally lived in a state of promiscuity or "hetaerism" prior to the advent of society as we understand it. [46] [47] [48] [49] [50] Hetaerism is a theoretical early state of human society, as postulated by 19th-century anthropologists, which was characterized by the absence of the institution of marriage in any form and in which women were the common property of their tribe and in which children never knew who their fathers were.[ citation needed ]

The reconstruction of the original state of primitive society or humanity was based on the idea of progress, according to which all cultures have degrees of improvement and becoming more complicated. It seemed logical to assume that never before the types of families developed did they simply exist, and in primitive society, sexual relations were without any boundaries and taboos. This view is represented, inter alia, by anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan in Ancient Society and quoted by Friedrich Engels' work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State . [51]

In the first half of the 20th century, this notion was rejected by a number of authors, e.g. Edvard Westermarck, a Finnish philosopher, social anthropologist and sociologist with in-depth knowledge of the history of marriage, who provided strong evidence that, at least in the first stages of cultural development, monogamy has been a perfectly normal and natural form of man-woman coexistence. [52] [53]

Modern cultural anthropology has not confirmed the existence of a complete promiscuity in any known society or culture. The evidence of history is reduced to some texts of Herodotus, Strabo, and Solinus, which have been hard to interpret. [54]

Religious and social views

Christianity, Judaism and Islam condemns promiscuity and instead advocates lifelong monogamous marriage (although Islam allows polygamy for men). [55]

Promiscuity has been practiced in hippie communities and other alternative subcultures since the 1960s. [56]

Other animals

Many animal species, such as bonobos [57] and chimpanzees, are promiscuous as a rule; they do not form pair bonds. Although social monogamy occurs in about 90% of avian species and about 3% of mammalian species, an estimated 90% of socially monogamous species exhibit individual promiscuity in the form of copulation outside the pair bond. [4] [58] [59]

In the animal world, some species, including birds such as swans and fish such as Neolamprologus pulcher , once believed monogamous, are now known to engage in extra-pair copulations. One example of extra-pair fertilization (EPF) in birds is the black-throated blue warblers. Though it is a socially monogamous species, both males and females engage in EPF. [60]

The Darwin-Bateman paradigm, which states that males are typically eager to copulate while females are more choosy about whom to mate with, has been confirmed by a meta-analysis. [61]

See also

Related Research Articles

Heterosexuality is romantic attraction, sexual attraction or sexual behavior between persons of the opposite sex or gender. As a sexual orientation, heterosexuality is "an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions" to persons of the opposite sex; it "also refers to a person's sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions." Someone who is heterosexual is commonly referred to as straight.

Sexual orientation is an enduring pattern of romantic or sexual attraction to persons of the opposite sex or gender, the same sex or gender, or to both sexes or more than one gender. These attractions are generally subsumed under heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality, while asexuality is sometimes identified as the fourth category.

The relationship between biology and sexual orientation is a subject of research. While scientists do not know the exact cause of sexual orientation, they theorize that it is caused by a complex interplay of genetic, hormonal, and environmental influences. Hypotheses for the impact of the post-natal social environment on sexual orientation, however, are weak, especially for males.


Biphobia is aversion toward bisexuality and toward bisexual people as a social group or as individuals. It can take the form of denial that bisexuality is a genuine sexual orientation, or of negative stereotypes about people who are bisexual. People of any sexual orientation can experience or perpetuate biphobia.

Infidelity Cheating, adultery, or having an affair

Infidelity is a violation of a couple's assumed or stated contract regarding emotional and/or sexual exclusivity. Other scholars define infidelity as a violation according to the subjective feeling that one's partner has violated a set of rules or relationship norms; this violation results in feelings of anger, jealousy, sexual jealousy, and rivalry.

Open marriage is a form of non-monogamy in which the partners of a dyadic marriage agree that each may engage in extramarital sexual relationships, without this being regarded by them as infidelity, and consider or establish an open relationship despite the implied monogamy of marriage. There are variant forms of open marriage such as swinging and polyamory, each with the partners having varying levels of input on their spouse's activities.

An open relationship, also known as non-exclusive relationship, is an intimate relationship that is sexually non-monogamous. The term may refer to polyamory, but generally indicates a relationship where there is a primary emotional and intimate relationship between two partners, who agree to at least the possibility of intimacy with other people.

Men who have sex with men (MSM), also known as males who have sex with males, are male persons who engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex, regardless of how they identify themselves. They may identify as gay, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, or heterosexual; or dispense with sexual identification altogether.

Sociosexuality, sometimes called sociosexual orientation, is the individual difference in the willingness to engage in sexual activity outside of a committed relationship. Individuals who are more restricted sociosexually are less willing to engage in casual sex; they prefer greater love, commitment and emotional closeness before having sex with romantic partners. Individuals who are more unrestricted sociosexually are more willing to have casual sex and are more comfortable engaging in sex without love, commitment or closeness.

The demographics of sexual orientation show variance, and estimates for the lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) population are subject to controversy and ensuing debates. Obtaining precise numbers is difficult for a variety of reasons. One of the major reasons for the difference in statistical findings regarding homosexuality and bisexuality has to do with the nature of the research questions.

Sexual attraction to transgender people has been the subject of scientific study and social commentary. Psychologists have researched attraction toward trans women, cross dressers, non-binary people, and a combination of these. Cisgender men attracted to transgender women primarily identify as heterosexual and sometimes as bisexual, but rarely as homosexual. Sexual arousal research has confirmed that their response patterns are unlike those of gay men and resemble those of heterosexual men, except that they are highly aroused by transgender women in addition to cisgender women. They show little arousal to men. A substantial proportion of cisgender men attracted to transgender women report also experiencing autogynephilia, sexual arousal in response to the image of themselves as female. There has been some discussion of attraction to trans men, but it has not yet been the topic of scientific study.

Human male sexuality encompasses a wide variety of feelings and behaviors. Men's feelings of attraction may be caused by various physical and social traits of their potential partner. Men's sexual behavior can be affected by many factors, including evolved predispositions, individual personality, upbringing, and culture. While most men are heterosexual, significant minorities are homosexual or varying degrees of bisexual.

Historically, studies assumed that transgender sexuality might be distinct from traditional human sexuality. For much of the 20th century, what was described as "transsexualism" was believed to be sexual in nature, and so was defined along these terms.

Monogamy is a form of dyadic relationship in which an individual has only one partner during their lifetime—alternately, only one partner at any one time —as compared to non-monogamy. The term is also applied to the social behavior of some animals, referring to the state of having only one mate at any one time.

Bisexuality Sexual attraction to people of either sex

Bisexuality is romantic attraction, sexual attraction, or sexual behavior toward both males and females, or to more than one sex or gender. It may also be defined as romantic or sexual attraction to people of any sex or gender identity, which is also known as pansexuality.

Sexual fluidity is one or more changes in sexuality or sexual identity. Sexual orientation is stable and unchanging for the vast majority of people, but some research indicates that some people may experience change in their sexual orientation, and this is more likely for women than for men. There is no scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed through psychotherapy. Sexual identity can change throughout an individual's life, and may or may not align with biological sex, sexual behavior or actual sexual orientation.

LGBT demographics of the United States Total population of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the United States

The demographics of sexual orientation and gender identity in the United States have been studied in the social sciences in recent decades. A 2017 Gallup poll concluded that 4.5% of adult Americans identified as LGBT with 5.1% of women identifying as LGBT, compared with 3.9% of men. A different survey in 2016, from the Williams Institute, estimated that 0.6% of U.S. adults identify as transgender.

Promiscuity tends to be frowned upon by many societies, expecting most members to have committed, long-term relationships with single partners.

A hookup culture is one that accepts and encourages casual sex encounters, including one-night stands and other related activity, without necessarily including emotional intimacy, bonding or a committed relationship. It is generally associated with Western late adolescent sexuality and, in particular, United States college culture. The term hookup has an ambiguous definition because it can indicate kissing or any form of physical sexual activity between sexual partners. The term has been widely used in the U.S. since at least 2000. It has also been called nonrelationship sex, or sex without dating.

Terri Conley is an American social psychologist who studies gender differences in sexuality, consequences of departures from monogamy, and the consequences of masculinity threat. She is currently an associate professor of psychology and women's and gender studies at the University of Michigan, where she leads the Stigmatized Sexualities research lab.


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