Psychologist Terri Fisher of Ohio State University wondered if these findings were truly accurate. Fisher noted that most previous research had been conducted by face-to-face interviews. She theorized that because of the social expectations placed on them, women might give misleading information in this type of setting.
So Fisher and her colleague Michele Alexander had participants complete written questionnaires. The study included 201 unmarried, heterosexual college students of both sexes between ages 18 and 25. The students were split into three groups and questioned about frequency of sex, number of partners and age when first sexual intercourse occurred.
One group was connected to a polygraph machine and told it was so sensitive it could detect lies on written answers—but the participants did not know that the polygraph was non-functioning. The second group was informed that their answers would be completely anonymous. The third group was told that the researcher sitting close by might read their responses.
Fisher anticipated that men would overreport their sexual activity; however, the guys did not give significantly different answers under the three settings. According to the results, published in The Journal of Sex Research, the range was between 3.7 and 4.0 partners.
The women, however, gave widely varying responses. When they thought researchers might read their answers, they reported 2.6 sexual partners. When connected to the faulty polygraph, they reported 4.4 partners. And when they thought their answers were absolutely private, they gave responses in the middle range: 3.4 partners. The answers to questions regarding age when sex started and frequency of activity followed the same pattern.
Fisher was not surprised that women changed their responses more than men: “We live in a culture that really does expect a different pattern of sexual behavior from women than it does from men. Women appear to feel pressure to adhere to sex role expectations that indicate women should be more relationship-oriented and should avoid being seen as promiscuous.”
Although the sexual behavior of women is closer to that of men than previously believed, there still persists considerable social pressure on women to downplay the role of sex in their lives.