Once upon a time, Berlingske Tidende was known as “Auntie Berlingske” (yes, just like the BBC). This was because Auntie was supposed to be a nice little old lady who would only talk about the things nice little old ladies would talk about. Obviously, sex was NOT part of the package.
Times change. Somebody at Berlingske got hold of a Reuters story about the sex lives of young English women and decided that … well, let’s look at the facts:
We are dealing with research commissioned by a British pharmacist and the results are only reported in a very truncated form so for a social scientist it is almost impossible to draw some valid conclusions but according to the Reuters article, for a sample of 3000 24 year-old English women the average number of (male?) sex partners was 5,65. This was an increase from 1,67 in “the 1960s” and 3,72 in “the 1970s”. No references are given for the later figures.1
Let’s see: We do not have any information about when English women have their sexual debut – in Denmark the median age for the first intercourse has remained stubbornly fixed at around 16,5 years so the median Danish 24 year-old would have had some eight years of sexual activity behind her.2
If we return to our English lasses, I suspect that the share of 24 year-olds with 0 partners is minimal while we will have some extreme values on the other side of the average, so the median3 is probably below 5,65 – let’s say 3 or 4.
Would a 24 year-old with 3-4 sex partners strike you as being unusual? I mean: This looks a bit like the number of steady boyfriends a lot of young women will have had at that age. And it would also strongly suggest that most sexual activity involving a partner takes place in medium-to-long term relationships.
Inquiries into sexual activities always face a fundamental problem: Can the answers be trusted? Even if you are filling out a paper questionnaire, answers may be guided by norms. No, you did not vote for the Danish People’s Party last time and no, you did not have sex with five guys every night the last time you went on holiday in Bulgaria. (What? You did? You pervert! Voting for the Danish People’s Party really…) Okay – the suspicion is that women in particular tend to underreport sexual activities in general and the number of partners in particular.
Anyway, the results made the brains of several (female?) journalists on Berlingske Tidende’s newsdesk explode and they had to take to the streets to … well, if they had only stuck to doing that then they would have some of their reputation left, but no: They had to do a vox pop where the Danish people tells their unfiltered version of what goes on between the sheets.
May I suggest that Tine Damgård contacts my cousin Henrik Lassen who has studied how tales wander through the ages (You can listen to him here – even if he is not talking about sex) and who would be able to show exactly what is wrong with these answers.
But do we know anything about the number of sex partners young Danish women have? We do, even if the research is four years old, and the results suggest that the median and average number of sex partners may be a bit, but not excessively, higher among Danish women compared with the English. You can get the report here – go to pages 43-45. The numbers are not immediately comparable, but my best guess is that we could be looking at a value in the range between 5-10 partners for 24 year-old Danes – and remember that if a 24 year-old woman has had 10 partners since making her sexual debut at the 16,5 median, that is (only) a little over one new partner per year.4
So maybe the truth about the sex lives of young Danes is that despite all talk of one-night stands, hook-ups and whatnot, most have sex with steady partners and that a kind of serial monogamy is the name of the game.
Paradise Hotel5 and Sex and the City are fantasies (and people in a relationship have more sex than singles, for some weird reason) and anyway we all know that other people lead more adventurous lives – in and out of bed.
PS: Epidemiology can be fun. For instance it can show that Danes and Swedes are not attracted by each other in real life.
- Actually, the pharmacy is trying to sell HPV vaccinations to your daughter [↩]
- What does this mean? It means that if you collect a representative sample of Danish girls aged 16 years and 6 months, half of them will not have had intercourse [↩]
- Corrected from mean. Ouch! [↩]
- If she was taking a new guy home every month we would be looking at a figure in the order of 100 partners. How likely is that in real life? [↩]
- Remember that the cast of PH is … a cast deliberately chosen by the production company. They are not representative of 18-25 year-olds. [↩]