Having a higher number of past sexual partners is tied to greater self-esteem, especially among men

An analysis of data collected across 10 world regions suggests that men’s self-esteem is more strongly tied to their sexual success than women’s. The findings were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Researchers David P. Schmitt and Peter K. Jonason based the rationale for their study on the sociometer theory of self-esteem, which posits that self-esteem serves as a “gauge” that measures the extent that one is socially accepted by others. Further taking an evolutionary-adaptive approach to this theory, Schmitt and Jonason suggest that self-esteem functions as a measure of success in adaptive skills that are important for survival, like short-term mating. Success in such domains should, therefore, lead to improvements in self-esteem.

The study authors accordingly proposed that having a greater number of past sexual partners should increase self-esteem. They further reasoned that this positive link between self-esteem and number of past sexual partners should be stronger among men since greater sexual acceptance is more adaptive for men. That is, men’s ability to pass on their genes relies strongly on having a high number of sexual partners, while women’s success in passing on their genes rests on having higher quality sexual partners who will invest in offspring.

The data for the study came from the International Sexuality Description Project (ISDP), a multi-country research study that involved the collaboration of more than 100 scientists. In total, over 16,000 participants were surveyed across 10 regions — North America, South America, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Southern Europe, Africa, Oceania, East Asia, South/Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. In addition to various demographic measures, the questionnaires included an assessment of self-esteem and asked respondents to indicate the number of sexual partners they had in the past year.

An analysis of the data revealed that in all regions but two, men had higher self-esteem than women. In Africa and East Asia, women had higher self-esteem than men although the relationship was not statistically significant.

Across all regions, men’s self-esteem was positively related to their number of past sexual partners. However, the effect sizes were small and fell below significance in four regions. In line with the researchers’ speculations, across all regions, this link between self-esteem and past sexual partners was stronger among men than women. This sex difference was also significant within four of the regions.

The researchers next tested whether a person’s desire for short-term mating would strengthen this relationship between self-esteem and number of past sexual partners. According to the participants’ responses, it did not, and neither did living in a region where more people desired short-term mating. Schmitt and Jonason conclude that, at least among men, mating success is associated with higher self-esteem, regardless of a person’s motivations toward short-term mating or the motivations of the culture they reside in.

The authors note that past experimental studies have found that manipulating self-esteem seems to impact sexual desire differently among men and women, suggesting that self-esteem might be “both a cause and a consequence of short-term mating success in men.”

“Future work should seek to disentangle the many functions of self-esteem within men’s short-term mating psychology,” the researchers write, “including work to identify how self-esteem may serve specially-designed functions as both a consequence, and a cause, of short-term mating success.”

The study, “Self-esteem as an adaptive sociometer of mating success: Evaluating evidence of sex-specific psychological design across 10 world regions”, was authored by David P. Schmitt and Peter K. Jonason.