Who counts as a sexual partner? Women’s criteria for defining and sorting through their sexual histories

Breanne Fahs, Eric Swank

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Notions of who counts as a sexual partner–that is, what specific actions, feelings, or relationships become defined as part of one’s sexual history–often carry assumptions about sexual scripts, power, and social identities. In this exploratory study, we analysed semi-structured interviews with eighteen women from a diverse 2019 community sample (mean age = 36.39, SD = 12.24) collected in a large Southwestern U.S. city in order to examine how women made decisions about who was classified as a sexual partner throughout their lifetime when reviewing their sexual histories and previous sexual encounters. We identified six behavioural, relational, and emotional themes in how women defined and demarcated sexual versus nonsexual partners: 1) Having penile-vaginal intercourse; 2) Engaging in non-penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) forms of sex; 3) Having an orgasm with someone; 4) Any physical sexual contact involving genitals; 5) Having a romantic relationship with someone; and 6) Feeling attraction and desire for a person. Tensions about heterosexist biases in sexual inventories were discussed, as were methodological implications for measuring, studying, and identifying non-PVI sexual encounters.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)190-202
Number of pages13
JournalPsychology and Sexuality
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2023


  • Women’s sexuality
  • gender
  • heteronormativity
  • heterosexism
  • sexual attraction
  • sexual histories
  • sexual language

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gender Studies
  • Social Psychology
  • Health(social science)
  • Applied Psychology


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