Every guy wants to know his partner’s number, but Hugo Schwyzer thinks it’s time for us to stop worrying.
Judging from what I read online and hear from my students, the question of the “number” is as compelling as ever. In February, Marie Claire ran an article, “What’s Your Number?” in which five women (whose numbers ranged from zero to 100) told their stories. The March issue of Cosmopolitan Australia featured the same discussion, noting that 59 percent of readers surveyed thought knowing a partner’s exact number was important, and that 33 percent of those same readers had lied about their own pasts, claiming fewer sexual partners than they’d actually had.
(A quick note: most people use “the number” to refer to the count of people with whom they’ve had heterosexual intercourse. Any kind of sex that doesn’t involve a penis inside a vagina usually “doesn’t count.” A lot of us are like Bill Clinton in that regard, not seeing oral sex as real sex. This is a very limited—and limiting—understanding of what sex really is. But that’s a topic for another day.)
It’s understandable to be curious about the sexual lives of our peers. It makes sense to want to know what the averages are. (According to the experts at the Kinsey Institute, the average number of lifetime sexual partners for men aged 30 to 44 is around seven, while for women in that same age group, it’s four—both lower than you might think).
But the number has different meanings for men and women. The old double standard is still alive and well: a man with more sexual partners than his buddies may be teasingly called a “man whore,” but the epithet is a compliment, not an insult. Ask a woman who has dared reveal her number to someone who considers it too high, and she’ll surely tell you a story of being “slut-shamed.”
It’s quite common for a guy to worry about a girlfriend’s sexual past. Too many men are still raised to see sex as crude competition, in which bedding a woman who has already had a lot of lovers counts less than scoring with a woman who is “hard to get.” But I think the average guy’s worry is simpler than that. The more men his girlfriend has slept with, the greater number of lovers to which she can compare his skills. It’s easier to win a contest against two than against 20, he figures. And even easier to rank first when he’s the only one to have ever played the game. No wonder so many men—in this country and around the world—are obsessed with finding a virgin.
This is the real reason why so many men get so filled with rage at sexually experienced women. And of course, it’s the real reason so many women feel compelled to lie about their number.
Too many women have told their boyfriends their real number, only to be nagged incessantly for explicit details. (One friend of mine recounted to me in horror how her current boyfriend stopped one day in the middle of giving her oral sex to ask how his technique compared.) Other women find that their boyfriends endlessly psychoanalyze the reasons for a number that they think is too high: “Did you sleep with so many men because your father left you when you were a child?” (If I had a dollar for every woman I know who’s been asked that question, I could buy everyone reading this a Slurpee. Seriously.)
At this point, some men are probably protesting: “But I don’t slut-shame or endlessly analyze. For me, it’s not all about competing with other guys. Isn’t the number an important thing to know about someone you might be serious about? Isn’t it something I have a right to know?”
That sounds reasonable. But again, why is it so important to know an exact number? What difference does it make? Knowing whether a potential girlfriend has ever been in love before is important; discovering (slowly and patiently) how her past experiences have impacted her view of men (for better or worse) is important. But really, what’s the difference whether she’s slept with four or 14 men? She isn’t defined by her number—and if there’s a chance you might change how you see her when you discover the truth (should she tell you), why ask?
This has nothing to do, by the way, with asking about sexual health. It’s a great idea to talk about sexually transmitted infections; it’s a great idea for a new couple to get tested before having unprotected sex. We have a right to know if a potential partner has herpes. But the exact number itself is altogether different.
I lost my virginity at 17 to my high-school girlfriend. She was a year younger but much more sexually experienced. She was my first for anything that went below the waist; I was the fifth guy she’d had sex with. I’d asked her number, of course, and then fought hard not to obsess about the four boys who had “been there” before me. But I saw the pain my questions caused her. And I came to realize that it didn’t matter.
I don’t know my wife’s number. I’ve never asked her. She’s never asked for mine. I know enough from the stories she’s told to know that there was more than one guy before me; she knows enough about my past to figure out that she can’t count my lovers on her fingers. Beyond that, we—who have shared so much sexually and emotionally in our nine years as a couple, six years as spouses, and two years as parents together—don’t need to know more specifics.
When we’re in a monogamous relationship, what we have a right to insist on is that no names get added to the list after our own. It doesn’t matter if I’m number five or 55. I’ll be crushed if my wife adds a number six or a 56 behind my back.
But the right to ask to be last is not the same as the right to know how far we are from the first. And for me, part of being a good man is knowing what I don’t need to know.
This piece was originally published in February.
—Photo Angelo González/Flickr