Men Who Have Many Sexual Partners Before Marriage Are More Likely to Engage in Extramarital Intercourse

M.L. O'Conner, Guttmacher Institute

First published online:

Men's premarital sexual behaviors are linked to the likelihood that they will have extramarital intercourse, but those relationships vary across countries. According to an analysis of data from four countries, the odds of extramarital sex increase significantly with the number of premarital partners in Tanzania and Thailand, and decline with rising age at sexual debut in Tanzania and Côte d'Ivoire.1 Knowing the first partner for more than a day before having sex significantly decreases the odds of having extramarital sex in Côte d'Ivoire, but increases them in Tanzania. In Zambia, no premarital sexual behaviors analyzed are associated with extramarital sex.

In 1989 and 1990, the Global Programme on AIDS conducted partner relations surveys in nationally representative samples of men and women in Côte d'Ivoire, Tanzania and Thailand and from a sample in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. All respondents participated in face-to-face interviews that included questions about premarital and extramarital sexual experience, current living arrangements, and social and demographic characteristics.

Women were omitted from the analysis because of their low prevalence of extramarital intercourse. After exclusion of men who had been married or in regular partnerships for less than a year, the final samples included 1,028 men in Côte d'Ivoire, 1,085 in Tanzania, 649 in Lusaka and 683 in Thailand.

The proportion of men reporting that they had had extramarital sex in the past year ranged from 16% in Thailand to 24-25% in Tanzania and Lusaka and 34% in Côte d'Ivoire. There was similar diversity in reports of premarital sexual experience. Around 20% of men in Côte d'Ivoire and Lusaka said they had first had intercourse before age 15, compared with 9% of Tanzanian and 4% of Thai respondents. The proportion who reported that their first intercourse was with a partner they had known for one day or less (an indication of casual or paid sex) was highest in Thailand, where prostitution is common--35%, in contrast to fewer than 20% in the African countries. The median number of premarital partners was three in Thailand and Lusaka, two in Tanzania and zero in Côte d'Ivoire.* Responses to two items were similar in the four locales: Between 30% and 40% of men were married within a year of first intercourse, and 30-45% married their first partner.

A bivariate analysis identified five predictive factors associated with extramarital sex--age at first intercourse, length of acquaintance with the first partner before intercourse, time between sexual debut and marriage, whether men married their first partner and number of premarital partners. All but two of these variables were entered into a multivariate logistic regression analysis, along with age and other potentially confounding behavioral, social and demographic variables. The exceptions--time between first intercourse and marriage and whether the man married his first partner--were omitted because they were strongly correlated with the number of premarital partners.

At all four sites, men who first had intercourse when they were 20 or older were less likely to have had extramarital intercourse in the previous year than were those who first had intercourse when they were younger than 15; however, the association was significant only for Côte d'Ivoire (odds ratio of 0.21) and Tanzania (0.38). Extramarital intercourse was significantly associated with short acquaintance with the first partner in Côte d'Ivoire (odds ratio of 0.51), and with longer acquaintance in Tanzania (1.55). While the odds of extramarital intercourse rose with the number of premarital partners in all sites, the association was significant only in Tanzania and Thailand: Compared with men who had had no premarital partners, the odds of extramarital sex among those who had had five or more such partners were 4.1 and 4.6, respectively.

Among the social and demographic factors, secondary or higher education and living in a nonmarital partnership were associated with higher odds of having had extramarital intercourse among men in Côte d'Ivoire (odds ratios of 1.9 and 2.9, respectively). In Tanzania, the odds of extramarital sex were decreased for rural men (0.67) and elevated for those in polygamous marriages (1.7).

Pointing out that their findings are in line with results from Europe and the United States, the investigators suggest that "early sexual initiation and multiple premarital partners may establish a pattern of sexual conduct that persists into later sexual lifestyle patterns."--M.L. O'Connor


1. White R, Cleland J and Caraël M, Links between premarital sexual behaviour and extramarital intercourse: a multi-site analysis, AIDS, 2000, 14(15):2323-2331.