Having multiple sexual partners might mean that a person has more than one sexual partner over a period of time. Or it might mean having multiple partners during the same time period.

A 2018 study defines having multiple sexual partners as “having more than one sexual partner over a period of time.”

This may mean having one sexual partner, then another. Or it may mean having more than one sexual partner within the same time frame.

This article looks at the average number of sexual partners that people may have. It also explores some possible benefits and risks of having multiple sexual partners.

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The National Survey of Family Growth, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, provides statistics from 2015–2019 for people who have had vaginal, oral, or anal sex with a partner of a different sex.

It reports that the median number of sexual partners was 4.3 for women and 6.3 for men.

It also gives the following statistics:

Number of sexual partnersFemalesMales
117.7%11.2%
2–429.2%22.3%
5–928.6%25.8%
10–1411.6%12.5%
15 or more12.9%28.3%

A 2021 online survey of 1,987 adults aged 18–70 years looked at patterns of sexual behavior across a range of ages, ethnicities, sexualities, and income levels.

Across all the participants, the mean number of lifetime sexual partners was:

  • 8.5 for oral sex
  • 11.4 for vaginal sex
  • 2.1 for anal sex

The researchers noted that:

  • 2.4% of participants reported having had more than 50 oral sex partners
  • 3.9% reported having had more than 50 vaginal sex partners
  • 3.6% reported having had more than 15 anal sex partners

The number of sexual partners over a lifetime increased with age, then declined after the age of 60 for males and after the age of 40 for females.

It is okay to have multiple sexual partners.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines sexual health as:

  • a state of well-being physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially, in regard to sexuality
  • a positive, respectful approach to sexual relationships and sexuality
  • having the possibility of safe, pleasurable sexual experiences
  • respect, protection, and fulfillment of the sexual rights of all people involved

The American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) state that as long as there is consent and no danger to anyone involved, there is no right or wrong way to attain sexual pleasure. This can involve having multiple sexual partners.

ASHA adds that the important factors in a satisfying sex life are an individual’s understanding of their own sexual needs and responsibilities and an acknowledgement of the needs and responsibilities of their partner or partners.

As research from 2021 reports, sexual activity may have the following benefits:

  • Improved sleep: Research from 2019 has found that orgasms help promote sleep. Orgasms with a partner had an association with the perception of better sleep outcomes, and orgasm via masturbation had associations with better sleep quality.
  • Improved immune function: Older research from 2004 found that people who had sexual intercourse once or twice a week had higher levels of IgA, an antibody that fights pathogens.
  • Release of oxytocin: This hormone can positively impact stress, anxiety, and how people process negative experiences.
  • Reduction in cortisol: This hormone is connected to stress, and elevated levels can have a negative effect on physical and psychological health. Research from 2019 found that sexual arousal can cause a decline in cortisol.
  • Improved physical health: Sexual activity counts as physical exercise, which can benefit cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health. Research from 2013 found that sexual activity of moderate intensity can count as significant exercise.
  • Improved longevity for men: Research from 2010 found that, for men, sexual activity, an interest in sex, and the quality of a person’s sex life have positive associations with a longer life expectancy. Also, sexual activity had an association with a lower risk of death relating to cancer and other causes.

In addition, sexual relationships may positively effect overall life satisfaction and happiness. Lower levels of sexual activity may be related to increased mortality rates and self-reported rates of ill health.

Having multiple partners may:

  • provide sexual fulfillment, variety, and pleasure
  • increase the release of endorphins, which help fight cancer cells and infections
  • reduce the likelihood of low levels of sexual interest

The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing found that the number sexual partners can increase the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs). These can then lead to health risks, including in later life.

The researchers found that having 10 or more lifetime sexual partners increased the risk of a cancer diagnosis, compared with having one sexual partner or none.

Hepatitis B and C, for example, can increase the risk of developing liver cancer. And human papillomavirus, better known as HPV, can increase the risk of developing:

However, an older study from 2014 found that males who had more than 20 female sexual partners had a decreased risk of prostate cancer.

The study also found that males with more than 20 male sexual partners may have an increased risk of prostate cancer.

Having multiple partners can also increase the risk of HIV transmission.

A 2018 study looked at the link between depression, substance use, and a person’s number of sex partners.

The study included 199 Northern and Indigenous females aged 13–17 years from the Northwest Territories, Canada.

The study found no direct link between depression and whether participants had multiple sex partners. Depression directly affected substance use, and substance use then had an effect on a person’s number of sex partners.

An older study from 2013 also found a link between substance use and having multiple partners, but it found no link between anxiety or depression and having multiple partners.

Sexual activity may help reduce stress, increase happiness levels, and promote better sleep.

Research has found that increased frequency of sexual intercourse links to a lower risk of fatal heart problems, prostate cancer, and breast cancer.

Among the 1,158 female and 1,046 male participants, who were 57–85 years old and lived in the U.S., the frequency and quality of sex had protective effects against cardiovascular problems in later life.

Sexual activity releases endorphins, which researchers have linked to increased levels of natural killer cell activity. This activity involves helping to fight cancer cells and infections.

According to a 2018 study, the timing of partnerships may link to an increased likelihood of contracting an STI.

If people have more than one sexual partner in a given period, it may increase the risk of exposure to STIs or transmission of these infections.

The study found a significant reduction in the likelihood of an STI diagnosis when there was a gap between sexual partners. For females, a gap of 4 months or more, and for males, a gap of 6 months or more, reduced the risk of an STI diagnosis.

People with multiple sex partners may also have a higher risk of HIV exposure or transmission.

The 2017 British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles looked at factors affecting a lack of interest in sex among 6,669 females and 4,839 males who were 16–74 years old. The participants reported having one or more sexual partners of the same or another sex in the past year.

The survey found that females with three or more sexual partners in the last year were less likely to report low levels of sexual interest than females with one partner in that period.

The survey found no link between the number of sexual partners and low sexual interest in males.

For some people, sex may feel impersonal with multiple partners, and this could have a negative emotional impact. Breaking up short-term relationships may also have an emotional toll.

Some strategies for safer sex with multiple sexual partners include:

  • using a condom or a dental dam every time
  • having regular STI testing
  • using condoms on sex toys, and washing toys before and after each use
  • avoiding excess alcohol and drug use, as this can increase risk-taking

According to ASHA, a person who is sexually non-monogamous and who uses barrier methods regularly and correctly is less likely to contract an STI than a person who is mutually, serially monogamous and does not use barrier methods or has a partner with an unknown STI status.

A person has multiple sexual partners if they have sex with one person, then later another. A person also has multiple sexual partners if they have more than one partner during the same time frame.

There is nothing wrong with having multiple sexual partners, as long as everyone involved consents and is free from harm.

There can be benefits and risks to having more than one partner. To practice safe sex, make sure to use barrier methods and have regular STI testing.