More sexual partners ups your reproductive cancer risks, study says


You might think bedding high numbers of sexual partners is a bragging right. That’s on you, but it is worthy to be aware of a recent study that found that the number of people you’ve had sex with may play an important role in your developing reproductive organ cancer.


The Study

A study published online in February 13, 2020 in the BMJ Sexual and Reproductive Health, evaluated data from 2,537 men and 3,185 women aged 50 years and above participating in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. The average age of the participants who were asked through questionnaire to self-report on the number of sexual partners they had had in their lifetime, was 64 years. The choices of number of sexual partners were broken into four categories as follows: 0-1, 2-4, 5-9, and 10 or more. Participants were also required to self-rate their state of health and self-report any limiting or long-standing illness, cancer, coronary heart disease, and stroke they may have had. Almost three in four of all subjects were married.



Following appropriate analysis of data obtained, it turns out that there is a strong association between number of sexual partners and cancer risk. As the number of lifetime sexual partners increased, so did the percentage of individuals diagnosed with cancer. Women who reported having 10 or more lifetime partners were 91% more likely to have been diagnosed with cancer versus women who had none or one partner. Meanwhile, men who claimed to have had at least 10 sexual lifetime partners were 69% more likely to have been diagnosed with cancer versus men who’d had zero to one.

The study’s findings supported previous research that had shown that specific sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may lead to several cancers, as indeed a higher number of sexual partners means greater exposure to STIs.

So, why the difference between men and women?

To answer this question, the study researchers proposed that women may be more vulnerable to certain STIs and cancer risk than men. An example in support of this is the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is known to be strongly associated with cervical cancer risks in women than penile cancer risk in men.


Study limitations

The study has limitations that impact its reliability and generalizability. Among these is the self-reporting method of obtaining data from participants. In addition, the study did not control for unhealthy behaviors or habits in the study population like smoking and drinking that have also been previously associated with higher risk of cancers.

It is also worthy to point out that the study did not claim or prove that having a lot of sex partners causes reproductive organ cancer. What it discovered is that there is a link between having a lot of sexual partners and cases of cancers in both women and men with a higher association in women.



So, what are some of the takeaways from the study?

These can be summarized as follows:

  • Higher lifetime sexual partner count is associated with higher risk of exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • Higher STI exposure risk is associated with higher reproductive cancer risk. This risk is higher in women than in men.
  • For these reasons, it is wise for both men and women to be mindful and limit lifetime sexual partner count, use barrier protections always, get tested for STI regularly and treat any STI early rather than later.
  • Adopting HPV vaccination is an additional and effective way to protect against cancer-causing strain of the human papillomavirus.


Reference: (Suitable for professionals only. Subscription is needed for full access)

Grabovac I, Smith L, Yang L, et al. The relationship between chronic diseases and number of sexual partners: an exploratory analysis. BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health Published Online First: 13 February 2020. doi: 10.1136/bmjsrh-2019-200352


Staff writer

Published: March 11, 2020

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