After running last week’s abortion regressions, I looked at the General Social Survey’s histograms for reported numbers of sexual partners.  They’re weird.  Here are the distributions of opposite-sex partners for men and women.

Figure 1: Men’s Reported Lifetime Number of Opposite-Sex Partners


Figure 2: Women’s Reported Number of Lifetime Opposite-Sex Partners


Notice: The most common number of lifetime partners for both genders is 1!  This is not an artifact of the binning, because the “1 partner” response is in its own bin. 

Of course, people could be lying.  But in what direction would they lie?  Conventional wisdom says that men overstate and women understate.  For men, then, the modal monogamy result is probably even stronger than it looks.  Furthermore, to overturn the modal monogamy result for women, we would have to imagine that women have markedly more partners than men claim to have.  Possible, but definitely weird if true.

What do you think?  Can monogamy truly be modal?  My guess is that the pattern is real.  It seems weird because people with lots of partners are vivid and memorable.  Think about how many popular adult t.v. characters are in the 21-100 or even 100+ bins!  The obvious explanation is that the media is desperately trying to pique and hold our interest. 

The latter observation may tempt you to blame the media.  It’s easy to believe that the media amplifies our biases.  The root bias, though, is overestimating the frequency of the vivid and the memorable.