According to one popular online dictionary, promiscuity refers to having casual and indiscriminate sexual relations, often with many people within a limited time frame. Gay men, in general, have come to be seen by the majority (including many gay men themselves) as being promiscuous or sexually voracious.

But is this a fairly accurate reflection of gay men and their insatiable sexual appetites or is it merely another plot by society to vilify and pathologise gay men? The answer, unsurprisingly, is a complicated yes and no, as there are a number of arguments for and against this stereotype.

According to the evolutionary-biological view, men in general appear to be naturally promiscuous, as this increases their chances of beating out other sperm competitors and ensuring that their offspring is spread amongst different partners. The evolutionary instinct to ensure continuance of the human species exists in all men, irrespective of their sexual orientation, or whether physically able to procreate or not. According to this view, men share a natural compulsion towards wanting sex as often and as widely as possible.

Through the ages, men have developed the ‘reputation’ for having an insatiable sexual appetite. Some well-known, albeit exaggerated, examples that have re-affirmed this perception include: an anonymous participant in Dr Alfred Kinsey’s research who averaged 33.1 sexual encounters per week, or more than four times a day over a period of 30 years; a Spanish nobleman by the name of Tenorio (a real-life Don Juan) admitted to having 2 594 mistresses; novelist Frank Harris claimed that he had had seduced over 2 000 women; and Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, is said to have enjoyed sexual pleasure with 20 000 women.

Although substantially less dramatic, Alexander the Great indulged himself with at least one man (Hephaestion), four mistresses, three wives and a eunuch.

Contrary to popular belief (or misbelief) recent evidence seems to suggest that women are far from being naturally monogamous themselves, and are actually genetically programmed to have sex with many different men in order to increase their chances of having healthy and strong offspring with the greatest likelihood of survival. Furthermore, by having more then one mate they ensure “mate insurance,” a backup replacement in case their life partner does not survive.

Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, is reputed to have demanded and received more than 1 000 men in one night, and the French actress, Mlle Dubois, is believed to have had over 16 527 sexual encounters through the course of her illustrious life. Further evidence comes from a paternity/maternity-marker study conducted in the West, which found that the percentage of adulterous children born to married women with ready access to other men can be as high as 25-45%.

All of these examples, some extreme, point to the fact that the notion of promiscuity is not reserved for the male species only and that people in general desire sexual variety and will exhibit a range of sexual desires and activities depending on their context at a given time.

A person’s number of sexual partners, both in a lifetime and concurrently, varies widely within and between populations, as can be seen in the following illustrative survey results:

  • 29% of men and 9% of women report having had more than 15 sexual partners (a US Study);

  • Young men reported having between 18 and 1 000 sexual partners during their student life (a US study of undergraduates);

  • In a 2004 global sex survey, the Chinese reported having the most sexual partners over the past year (19.3), followed by the Brazilians (15.2), Japanese (12.7), and the Danish (12.5). The global average a year for men is 13 and for women it is seven;

  • In a study on young gay men conducted by OUT, 16% of respondents reported having casual sex outside of their primary relationships. 12% reported having casual sex once a week and 14% reported having casual sex at least 2-3 times a month. Furthermore, 32% reported having more than 20 sexual partners in their lifetime.

So the question becomes, if ‘promiscuity’ is fairly ‘common’ then why has it been problematised to the extent that it has, and secondly why have gay men as a group been labelled as being particularly sexually promiscuous? The answer to these questions has to do in part with economics, religion, public health, and psychology (such as internalised homophobia), to name but a few.

There are a number of forces, both historically and currently, that challenge and limit our instinctual nature to have sex as widely as possible by actively warning us against the negative consequences of being promiscuous.

For example, ancient societies needed an organised and secure environment, with a system of rules, to handle the granting of property rights, and the protection of bloodlines. Monogamy (along with the institution of marriage) appeared to handle these needs directly and was therefore promoted vigorously. Then, through the ages, Christianity, for example, advocated strongly against any form of sexual expression that resulted in pleasure. This was regarded as a sin.

The Christian Church reserved sexual acts for the purpose of procreation between a man and a woman considered to be in a union before the eyes of God and State. Skip a few hundred years forward and public health messages continue to warn that promiscuity increases the possibility of transmitting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. The focus of these messages, interestingly, is largely on promiscuity rather than negotiated safety.

These forces cumulatively reinforce the moralistic view that promiscuity is in and of itself bad despite being somewhat common among all types of people. Psychologically, this can lead to a great deal of shame and guilt, which needs to be placed elsewhere, in order to allow a person to live without too much internal conflict or tension.

As a result, the majority (society in general) project this ‘badness’ (e.g. being promiscuous, being sexually deviant…) onto an identifiable ‘outgroup’ (e.g. gay men) in order to distance themselves from their own unacceptable instincts and desires and to retain a sense of goodness, morality and safety as a result.

This sets up a ‘good us/ bad them’ scenario. Unfortunately gay men are an easy target for this type of projection, enabling it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many gay men feel disconnected, alone, unworthy, deviant, perverted, immoral, and self destructive (created and maintained largely by society’s homophobic prejudices) and will, as a result, act this out in their sexual relationships.

One or more of the following may occur. Firstly, many might feel that they are not masculine enough (because for them being gay means being feminine) and might strive to achieve masculinity as an ideal. To be masculine traditionally means to be dominant, aggressive and virile.

As such, many will compensate by becoming overly sexually active by attempting to prove their masculine worth. Secondly, many feel that their sexual identity is all they have and that their only source of connection with others is through sex. To abstain from sex would mean giving up the ‘only’ source of connection with others and dying a slow social death. And thirdly, many have developed self-destructive feelings towards themselves. They feel undeserving of love, commitment and emotional attachment. They place themselves at considerable risk hoping, at an unconscious level, that they will be hurt, punished and possibly annihilated for their inherent badness.

These scenarios may s

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