Having More Sex Partners Does Affect Your Marriage Chances, New Study Finds

Researchers are offering new insight into the full impact of premarital sex.

Even in 2022, premarital sex can be a subject of controversy. While it's certainly become the norm for people to have sex outside of marriage, some individuals still hold off until they've put a ring on it—whether for religious reasons or because they believe having too much sex before marriage could somehow affect their prospects. The latter may seem like an old-fashioned notion, but it's a question that researchers are actually looking into. In fact, new research has found that the number of sexual relationships you have can impact your chances of tying the knot—but it's more complicated than you might think. Read on to discover the latest findings.

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Previous research shows most people have sex before marriage.

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Nearly everyone in the U.S. has sex before marriage. An oft-cited 2007 study published in Public Health Reports used data from the federal National Survey of Family Growth to find that roughly 95 percent of people in the country have had premarital sex.

"This is reality-check research. Premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans, and has been for decades," Lawrence Finer, study author and director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute, said in a statement at the time.

Publicly, some people are still a bit prudish. A 2019 survey from the Pew Research Center found that just 65 percent of U.S. adults think sex before marriage is at least sometimes acceptable. Meanwhile, a quarter of respondents said they oppose sex outside of marriage—even when the participants are in a committed relationship.

Regardless of stated beliefs, however, it's clear that people are still doing it. Now, new research is looking into the question of sex before marriage in terms of quantity.

The number of sex partners could affect marriage chances.

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Two researchers from the University of Utah and University of Oklahoma recently sought to test the controversial theory that marriage rates in the U.S. are declining because of an increase in sex outside of marriage—publishing their findings Oct. 11 in the Social Science Research journal.

"Sociologist Mark Regnerus' book Cheap Sex was infamous in the field," study author Nicholas H. Wolfinger, PhD, professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, said in a statement. "Mark argues that the easy availability of casual sex and porn have undermined the marriage rate, but he doesn't really provide any direct evidence. Nor, we were surprised to learn, had anyone else: there's never been a study that's taken a broad look at premarital sex and marriage rates. So there were good questions, and we had two excellent national datasets to answer them with."

The first dataset used by the researchers for the 2022 study was the National Survey of Family Growth. Their sample included nearly 30,000 women from data collected between 2002 and 2015. According to their findings, marriage rates were indeed lower for women who had more sex partners.

For the women who reported just one non-marital sex partner, 95 percent were married by the age of 40. But when that rose to between six and nine sex partners, the marriage rate by 40 dropped to 76 percent. And among women reporting 10 or more prior sexual partners, only 67 percent were married by 40.

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But researchers say it only matters in the short-term.

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Wolfinger and his co-author Samuel L. Perry, PhD, an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma, said that the one dataset provided a limited insight into the topic. With that in mind, the researchers also analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which interviewed a sample of 4,598 men and 4,377 women every year from 1997 through 2011, and then biennially after that.

Through this analysis, Wolfinger and Perry found that while having more sex partners was associated with lower odds of marriage, that was only true for the short term.

According to the new study, having more than a single sex partner in the past year reduced a person's chances of marriage. But that same person's lifetime number of sexual partners was unrelated to their odds of marriage, indicating that "recent sexual behavior, not complete sexual biographies, is what matters for marriage rates," the researchers stated.

"Premarital sex doesn't have any long-term effects on the odds of marriage, at least for the vast majority of people," Wolfinger said. "But short-term behavior does matter: if you're looking to tie the knot, don't step out on your significant other. Multiple partners in any given year greatly reduce the chances of marriage. So too does having zero sex partners. You can't win if you don't play."

Marriage rates may be declining, but sex isn't the cause.

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Marriage rates in the U.S. have been steadily dropping over the years. The Pew Research Center found in 2019, around 4 in 10 adults between the ages of 25 to 54 were neither married nor living with a partner.

But researchers maintain that a jump in sexual partners is not to blame—and most people are having less sex than you might think. Previous research from Wolfinger in 2018 found that the average U.S. woman only has three sex partners in her lifetime, while the average U.S. man has just a total of five.

"We like to think of America as sexually permissive," Wolfinger said. "We're bombarded with stories of rapid-fire Tinder liaisons and meaningless college hookups. The reality isn't monastic but is more staid than most of us think."

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