Bryan Caplan  

Both Men and Women Overstate Sexual Frequency

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Many readers were incredulous when I pointed out that in the General Social Survey, the modal number of self-reported lifetime sexual partners equals 1.  Given the stereotype that men overstate and women understate on these matters, the pattern is solid: Can we really imagine that men's true number is less than women's reported number, or that women's true number is more than men's reported number?  Tyler Cowen demurred that both men and women understate their number of partners.

I was intrigued, then, to discover strong behavioral evidence that both men and women overstate a different measure of sexual activity: frequency.  In the New York Times, boils down the evidence:

I analyzed data from the General Social Survey, a classic source. Heterosexual men 18 and over say that they average 63 sex acts per year, using a condom in 23 percent of them. This adds up to more than 1.6 billion heterosexual condom uses per year.

Heterosexual women say they average 55 sex acts per year, using a condom in 16 percent of them. This adds up to about 1.1 billion heterosexual condom uses per year.

Who is telling the truth, men or women?

Neither. According to Nielsen, fewer than 600 million condoms are sold every year.

Americans may also be exaggerating how often they have unprotected sex. About 11 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 say they are sexually active, not currently pregnant and not using contraception. Even with relatively conservative assumptions about how many times they are having sex, we would expect 10 percent to become pregnant every month. But this would already be more than the total number of pregnancies in the United States (which is one in 113 women of childbearing age).

Men who have never been married claim to average 29 condom uses per year. This is more than the total number of condoms sold in the United States to married and single people combined.

Yes, Tyler can always say that both genders understate their number of partners but overstate their frequency.  But did he - or anyone for that matter - ever predict such a thing before hearing the facts?  If you know of such a source, please share in the comments.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
CHN writes:

does the survey explicitly define what is meant by "sex"?

I ask because back in my day (old) it pretty much meant P2V. But, I'm quite sure there are many acts that are considered sex that don't lead to pregnancy. Perhaps people are doing much more of the latter?

That may explain the discrepancy in the pregnancy numbers. I got nothing for the condom numbers.

Matt Skene writes:

Pretty much every college, every Planned Parenthood location, and probably a number of other health service locations give away condoms for free. Unless the numbers sold include these, you'd need to figure out how many of those are being used in addition to the ones being sold before you could conclude that the frequency numbers are being dramatically overstated.

Morgan writes:

I agree with Matt. Nielsen analyzes consumer behavior, so it's possible that they're only counting condoms sold directly to end-users, and wouldn't catch condoms sold in bulk to organizations that give them away.

Chris Thomas writes:

Do those condom sales figures take into account that a huge number of free condoms are distributed every day by groups like Planned Parenthood, city health clinics, high schools, colleges, bars, and various advocacy groups? Maybe the people giving away condoms still have to buy them, but maybe they are donated by condom companies. Would that be counted in sales figures? Not sure, but that could change the analysis.

David Condon writes:

How is contraception being defined and do the survey respondents understand it? The pull-out method is technically a form of contraception, but many would not consider it contraception. This data states that 6% of women are infertile and 10.9% have fertility impairment to a certain degree. I'm guessing there's a lot of overlap between the two groups.

lemmy caution writes:

I am not surprised that people exaggerate how often they have sex. Sex is good.

Frequency of sex is also a good metric of relationship strength. Do people overestimate or underestimate their relationship strength on facebook?

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