What’s Your Number? Here’s Why I Don’t Care

Does it really matter how many people you’ve slept with? Emily Heist Moss doesn’t think so.

The previews for the Anna Faris vehicle What’s Your Number couldn’t make me want to see that movie any less if they added Exorcist-style projectile vomiting. The premise, if you have magically managed to miss the media blitz, is that Faris’ character realizes her list of sexual partners has one more digit than most of her friends’. She spirals into a panic attack induced by slut-shaming and spends the rest of the movie trying not to add a new guy to the list. It’s supposed to be funny, but I can’t work up more of a response than a frustrated eye-roll and a long, exasperated sigh.

Here’s the thing about counting sexual partners: context matters. A number is just a number. It gives no background on the who, what, when, where, and why. If we want to judge people’s sexual activity (which I’m not convinced we do), the qualitative matters so much more than the quantitative.

◊♦◊

There’s an exercise in middle-school sex education classes that involves passing a piece of clear plastic tape from forearm to forearm until skin cells, hair, and assorted lint has latched on to form a nasty little mini-carpet. The instructor then describes how being promiscuous means you have to be prepared to face all the gross crap that your partner collected before you were even on the scene. Picture 25 sixth-graders issuing a collective “ewwwwwww.”

I know that there’s one person I’ve slept with who, prior to me, had slept with upwards of 30 women. My eyes bugged out a bit when he first told me, but after the shock value had worn off and we talked about it for a few minutes, I realized it didn’t bother me one bit. He’s in his late twenties and has been sexually active for ten years. There were a couple of relationships in there, and then a whole lot of casual flings and hook-ups. I know him to be a respectful, honest, generous, kind-hearted person, and I’d be willing to bet big bucks that those thirty other women would tell you the same thing.

I also know guys whose lists are safely in the single-digits and some of them are assholes. They treat sex like a game that they are desperately trying to win, and women like prizes to be hoodwinked into participating. On paper, they might look like the safer choice than my friend, but in practice I’d tell every woman I know to pass them by and line up to be lady #31 for my Casanova. Of course, there are men with long lists who are douches, and men with short lists who are decent, respectable guys. The point is, you can’t tell from the number.

Remember the rule of three from American Pie? Take the number of people a woman has told you she’s slept with, multiply by three; take the number a man has slept with, divide by three. It’s a stupid rule, but it does nicely encapsulate the differences in the pressures facing straight men and women when revealing their sexual histories. Men are supposed to stud it up, bedding anything that moves; women are supposed to resist all approaches and hold out for the ones that really matter. This isn’t fair to either gender as it makes men out to be sex-fiends whose actions are dictated by hormones, and women as libido-less drones who hold the keys to the bedroom.

We do each other a huge disservice when we hold potential partners to some sort of tiered promiscuity scale based on a single number. I’m not saying you need to ask for an itemized list with age, duration of relationship, level of intoxication, number of positions, and kinky fetishes, but understanding your partner’s attitude toward sex and their behavior towards their partners is going to give you a better picture.

I was talking to a male friend recently who told me he starts to get wary about sleeping with a woman with more than fifteen notches on her bedpost.

“How old is she?” I asked.

“What do you mean,” he said, “Does that matter?”

“Well, it’s a different thing, isn’t it? Has she slept with fifteen people in six months? Or in ten years? Fifteen people in ten years seems pretty reasonable.”

He said it didn’t matter, what mattered was, to put it bluntly, the “number of penises she’d touched.” He applied the same standard to his male friends regarding the number of vaginas they’d been in contact with. He said, “more than fifteen and things start to get ‘icky.’” I personally disagree, but everyone is entitled to setting their own boundaries where they feel comfortable. What we can’t do is penalize people for acting on their desires in safe, consensual ways.

On a last note, there are practical reasons for discussing sexual history, protecting yourself from STDs, and preventing pregnancy chief among them. Discussing is one thing, judging is a different matter. I know how much thought I put into my own sexual decision-making, and how my upbringing, values, health, and emotional state factor into how I think about my own sexual history (and future!). If I told you my number, I’m sure there are people who would say it’s too high, and some who would say it’s too low, and some who would project all sorts of fire and brimstone for reasons I can’t understand. The fact is, none of them know what they’re talking about.

◊♦◊

I’ve never slept with a virgin before, and it’s quite likely that I’ve passed the part of my life where that might happen (although you just never know!) It feels like a safe bet to assume that everyone I sleep with from here on out has some sort of sexual history. They will almost definitely have a nice piece of scotch tape all jammed up with other people’s junk. I’m okay with that; it’s not the prettiest of things, but I have my own strip of gunk-y tape, too.

—Photo procsilas/Flickr

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About Emily Heist Moss

Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works at a tech start-up. She's a serious reader and a semi-pro TV buff. She writes about gender, media, and politics at her blog, Rosie Says. (Follow her: @rosiesaysblog, find Rosie Says on Facebook). 

Comments

  1. A beautiful last paragraph. The number shouldn’t matter.

  2. The double standard works both ways, a guy that has a track record of being selected by women is popular with women, a guy with a very low number or a late starter is viewed as a loser.

    • I”m not sure that’s always true. I can imagine a woman meeting a man whose number is say 100 and her thinking…eeesh! No commitment from this guy. Man-slut. My guess is, and this is a generalization, most people want their partners number to mirror theirs. So if I have 20 partners and I meet a man who’s had one, then I’m less likely to consider him experienced etc. He might consider me too experienced. If we both were 20, then we might feel like we both were “normal.”

      • Well, sometimes the number depends on if you’re looking for commitment or just some good sex. You might be able to tell that the guy won’t commit but if you aren’t looking to commit either, who cares?

      • Black Iris says:

        That’s true, but there’s something to what Ron is saying. If a guy’s number is really low, women may not want to get involved or sleep with him. That’s hardly fair.

      • Julie, aren’t you a quality gal? Filth.

  3. it would be nice if tgmp could take an egalitarian or male perspective from time to time, its cant all be gynocentric.

    • How is this article gynocentric, apart from the fact that the writer is female? I think it succinctly covers the pressures and double-standards that the “number system” creates for both genders.

      • but only from the tired old gynocentric perspective.

        Also, to be considered. Shaming of men with low numbers by women. Biological drives in men to safe guard against cuckoldry.

        The fact that slut shaming, appears to be something that is mainly female on female

        Four theories about cultural suppression of female sexuality are evaluated. Data are reviewed on cross-cultural differences in power and sex ratios, reactions to the sexual revolution, direct restraining influences on adolescent and adult female sexuality, double standard patterns of sexual morality, female genital surgery, legal and religious restrictions on sex, prostitution and pornography, and sexual deception. The view that men suppress female sexuality received hardly any support and is flatly contradicted by some findings. Instead, the evidence favors the view that women have worked to stifle each other’s sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2010 APA, all rights reserved) http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/gpr/6/2/166/

        The gynocentric perspective is very narrow.

        • Explain the male biological drive to protect against cuckoldry please.

          Yes, I agree, women are often the worst perpetrators of the cultural suppression of female sexuality. Although men have often created the societal structures to allow it to take place. Furthermore, in the cases of honor killings, men are usually the ones who commit the violence in those circumstances.

          • Jeni

            Have a look at this – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o800Whxw1fk

          • ” Although men have often created the societal structures to allow it to take place. Furthermore, in the cases of honor killings, men are usually the ones who commit the violence in those circumstances.”

            at the behest of women.

            • Ron, I disagree and you need to do more research. Women’s sexuality only became a scarce resource when women became the property of men. When societies were egalitarian, numbers didn’t matter and everybody had lots of sex.
              Also, this BBC documentary cracks me up. First off, when I gave birth to my daughter, I looked at her and wondered where the hell she came from. She looked nothing like me or anyone in my family. She looked like my husband’s side of the family. However, if I hadn’t watched her come out of my body, I would not have believed she was mine. Her toenails were my only indication that she was related to me.
              Also, in societies where people believe that multiple men are required to father babies, yes, they may look for evidence they are the father but, in the end, there’s rarely proof and they all help raise the child. It’s a good deal for everyone involved. Also, there’s no evidence that any man who spends time around pregnant women and children is NOT affected by hormones. Here, read this: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-dawn/201109/childcare-testosterone-and-the-marital-industrial-complex

            • Jeni

              ” Women’s sexuality only became a scarce resource when women became the property of men. When societies were egalitarian, numbers didn’t matter and everybody had lots of sex.”

              You can’t declare politicized, revisionist history as of it’s fact.

              Also, if the child child out of you and you were checking for reassurance that the child was your offspring, you must have been having some sort of mental problem, unless you thought they might have mixed your baby up with someone else’s.
              I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that men have a different experience and are mindful when it comes to paternity.
              You don’t get to define the male experience of child birth anymore than the male gets to define your experience of child birth.

            • My “politicized, revisionist history” isn’t any less of a fact than yours is.

              My point with the baby is that she looked like nothing like me or my side of the family. Men are NOT the only ones who look at that. I daresay it was like that for my sister-in-law as well when she gave birth to her first daughter. Every parent looks for signs that their infant is related to them even if it comes out of their own bodies. I’m not defining the male experience of childbirth. I also don’t doubt that their experience is different.

              The only reason men are mindful about paternity at this point is because we live in a patriarchal society where a privatized monogamous family unit reigns supreme. If we lived in a different sort of society men would not be so concerned.

            • Your politized revisionist history is nonsense, Jeni.
              Blacks legal dictionary first edition has no reference to wives being property.
              Women have agency, female apes have agency, they can decide to use sex to get meat from the best hunters, which they do and the best hunters learn that by hunting well, they get access to more sex which they do.

              The passing of a female from father to husband was more about the fact that prior to all this technology and birth control and female friendly jobs, a woman couldn’t look after herself on her own. Your revisionist history changed the meaning, and avoids giving context.

              And it is very likely that there are biological and psychological drives that steer the male to look after his offspring and make sure the child he is bringing up is his own. If these drives were not there, men wouldn’t care about paternity fraud and women would be fine with being given someone elses baby to be taken home from the hospital.

              “Every parent looks for signs that their infant is related to them even if it comes out of their own bodies.”

              No, mothers only looks to see whos looks the child has inherited, not to try to confirm that the child is related to her, because she knows it is because it came out of her.

              “I’m not defining the male experience of childbirth. I also don’t doubt that their experience is different.”

              Ok then try to understand that a mother looking at a babies face to see whole looks it inherited in the full knowledge that the child is hers because it came out of her. Is not the same thing as a father looking to see himself to reassure himself about his paternity.

              These are two different perspectives, one of them is one you can never experience.

              “The only reason men are mindful about paternity at this point is because we live in a patriarchal society where a privatized monogamous family unit reigns supreme. If we lived in a different sort of society men would not be so concerned.”

              Really, I call bullshit. Unless you agree that which child a mother is given to talk home is irrelevant, invalid and just a social construction.

              Listen to me, you backwards feminists with your illogical ideology, don’t get to say my feeling for my own off spring are invalid or somehow oppressive, do you get that? You don’t define my experience and feelings.

            • “Women have agency, female apes have agency, they can decide to use sex to get meat from the best hunters, which they do and the best hunters learn that by hunting well, they get access to more sex which they do.”
              Stop looking at apes and start looking at primates more closely related to humans. Try bonobos on for size.
              “The passing of a female from father to husband was more about the fact that prior to all this technology and birth control and female friendly jobs, a woman couldn’t look after herself on her own.”
              We were able to look after ourselves just fine until men decided to turn us into commodities. Men were the ones who chose to limit our opportunities. You clearly don’t think women have the intelligence and ability to manage on their own. Female-friendly jobs? What the hell is that? What PRECISELY is a female-friendly job?
              “ Is not the same thing as a father looking to see himself to reassure himself about his paternity.”
              Got it. I understand. Different things.
              “Unless you agree that which child a mother is given to talk home is irrelevant, invalid and just a social construction.”
              Ummmm…as long as she’s a “good enough” mother, you’re right. It doesn’t matter. Anything else?
              My ideology is not backwards or illogical. It is based on science and historical facts. It is unfortunate you are threatened by it but that says more about your own insecurities as a man and a person than anything else. Enjoy your vortex of fear!
              I never defined your experience or feelings. In fact, until this message I have never mentioned you specifically at all. Now who is illogical, irrational, overly-sensitive, and emotional?

            • Black Iris says:

              Ron, you’re denying her her right to define her experience of childbirth when you call her crazy to wonder.

            • “Ron, you’re denying her her right to define her experience of childbirth when you call her crazy to wonder.”

              She saw the child come out of her own body. If she was wondering if the child was her own child having seen it come out of her own body, she was obviously having some sort of episode.

            • Ron,

              I don’t know how parenting is for you but I know for me I am constantly surprised and amazed by my children (sometimes in good ways and sometimes in not so good ways). To this day I have moments of looking at my children and thinking “these beings came out of my body?!?”.

              I thought I’d have more in common with my daughter than I do. In some ways I do but in many, many ways she is very different from me in appearance, behavior, and interests. I am still surprised and endlessly inspired.

              With both of my children, in certain parts of the world we can walk down the street and folks would think I’m their nanny rather than their mother. I know they came from my body but if I had been unconscious when I gave birth I would have questioned it.

            • Henry Vandenburgh says:

              Jeni’s likely right. Read Sex at Dawn.

            • hello
              my name is greghansom am from nigeria i anttende ambross alli university so i need a woman in my life that will make me feel like aman please if any one see my comment email with my email address i will always answer you anytime you email

  4. Randomizer says:

    Well, it rattled me for a bit when my partner told me she stopped counting at 60, but then she has been sexually active for 25 years including quite a long time in college (including graduate degrees). In the end, for me it was a combination of insecurity and envy that caused my angst. My number is much more conventional, but then I was with my EX for 23 years.

  5. The best sex partner that I had stopped counting at 100, she was 18 and I met her in her mid twenties so she was right up there. Being a female, she could access sex pretty much when ever she wanted, sometimes two or three partners in a day.

    In that case her number is a good indicator of future performance in ltr’s. She has children for various men, herpes hes destroyed one marriage … and so on. All these problems that she has had and caused others are directly correlated to her number.

    • Christina says:

      It sounds like this woman had other issues in her life that needed to be dealt with. I would look at the causes of her problems, not the correlation to her sex life.

      • Christina, she is an extreme example.

        Some men, when looking at numbers will be consciously and sub-consciously weighing up the risks. For example, this person has slept with X high number of people, judging by that there is an increased risk of my being forced to bring up a child that is not my own, her destroying the marriage and leaving me the option of being stuck in it, or facing the financial ruin of a divorce etc.

        • Christina says:

          I don’t understand the connection between the high number and the risks you described. If a woman commits paternity fraud or was unfaithful, that’s an indication of her character. If the marriage goes south, then there’s something wrong with the relationship or with her.

          • Black Iris says:

            I would look at a man who had had 100 partners and wonder if he would ever be able to settle down with just one woman. Unless he had somehow dramatically changed himself, I think a guy with that many partners would be a greater risk in terms of cheating. So I think it’s fair if a guy wonders about a woman with 100 partners before getting involved with her.

            • “I would look at a man who had had 100 partners and wonder if he would ever be able to settle down with just one woman. ”

              Right, but when men do this, all of a sudden its some sort of thought crime, according to some women.

            • Black Iris says:

              Like I said, I think it’s a fair question for a guy to have, too.

              Maybe the important thing is for people to match up with people who have similar values about this.

            • Christina says:

              Cheating is about deception.

          • Christina.

            I’m pretty sure that you understand the thinking behind that, its just that you don’t want to validate it so you are being willfully obtuse.

            • Christina says:

              I knew you were going to avoid explaining yourself.

              No, I really don’t understand it. Judging someone based on a number is lazy.

            • Christina.

              You don’t understand it because paternity fraud is something that you never have to be on guard for.

              Also, your understanding something is not the measure of its validity.

              You probably understand a woman putting a man into the not ltr material box for a variety of different reasons. Some men, put women with high numbers into that’s box too. You are correct to say that someone with a high number can quite easily stop having variety when married, the part you are not thinking through is that there is only one way to find out for sure, and that’s to get married.

            • Christina says:

              A woman doesn’t have to sleep with more than two men in her lifetime to commit paternity fraud. She would, however, needed to have slept with the other man around the same time she slept with you, which, depending on the nature of your relationship and the timing, probably meant that she cheated on you. Again, this is about her character, not her number. This is why I don’t see the connection between a high number and the risk of a paternity fraud. You’re talking about two different things here.

              What traits does a marriage-material partner have?

            • Black Iris says:

              Christina, here’s how I understand the relationship between numbers and whether or not someone would be a good future mate. Nothing to do with paternity fraud.

              If a guy told me he’d slept with 100 women, I’d think sex was something he saw as recreational, not something you save for romantic relationships. So if I would assume that he wasn’t really into having a long-term relationships. I would also wonder if he believed in monogamy. I might even wonder how high his standards were and if he was doing any of it just to make his number higher, depending on his age and personality.

              But assuming he wasn’t just trying to rack up his number, I’d be left wondering, is this someone who would ever want a long-term monogamous relationship? And if they say they would, would they be able to do it? What would sex mean to him?

        • “there is an increased risk of my being forced to bring up a child that is not my own”
          - this is a risk with any sexual partner, no matter their number. Sex can lead to pregnancy, unless precautions are taken. A person with a high number who doesn’t have any kids would, perhaps, be someone well versed in proper use of birth control and thus less of a risk for unintended pregnancies.

          “her destroying the marriage”
          - what marriage? If either party is married to someone other than their sexual partner, then I don’t see how the number is relevant — far more important is that the married party would consider sex out of marriage. If you mean that a high number would risk the marriage between this high number and her partner, then I would argue we cannot make this judgement; we would need to examine the context of those past partners. If the high number had a history of cheating then perhaps this argument holds weight, but if not, then I don’t see how being sexually active prior to marriage would then lead to an increased risk of cheating after marriage.

          • DM

            Its obviously relevant to some people, men have a different body, and a different experiences to women. You will never understand how men feel about paternity because you can always be sure. Remember, that your experiences don’t define other peoples, you dont get to define or invalidate others reality, that’s a very important thing to learn.

          • What I mean be risk of destroying the marriage. If someone is dating with a view to marriage, they might view someone with a high number as riskier and put them in the not marriage material box, like women do with man based on sexual behaviour, income, job etc.

  6. If one considers sex just another involuntary banal bodily function, it really doesn’t matter how many partners they had in the past, present, or even future.  If one feels that someone’s sexual history is not relevant as an indicator about them, then neither ate other aspects of their past, such as relationships, marriages, etc., unless there are children involved.

  7. Why is it a bad thing to want to know the other person’s number?

    We ask our partners what they do for work, at least in part to gauge financial standing. We ask about taste in music and movies to determine whether or not we have similar tastes. Asking about past experiences is one more way to figure out who this person is and whether or not we want to be with them.

    Obviously it’s short-sighted to base your decision entirely on how many people he/she has slept with. But it’s also short-sighted to say it doesn’t/shouldn’t matter. I understand it doesn’t matter to you, and that’s cool. But why knock people who do care? It’s not an unreasonable question and if you make an attempt to get some context with that number (which I’d argue is a wise thing to do), it seems to be a perfectly natural question.

    • Emily Heist Moss says:

      Aaron, sometimes I swear it seems like you read the headline and my first paragraph and then you start your comments. I clearly didn’t say that it’s a bad thing to want to know. I’m saying that making judgments based on JUST a number (no context, no history, etc.) is a silly game that really won’t tell you very much.

      Did you get as far as this sentence? “I personally disagree, but everyone is entitled to setting their own boundaries where they feel comfortable.” I’m telling anyone not to ask, or not to be curious, but I am asking that we ask (as you reinforced with your comment) for some context before we jump to conclusions.

      • Yes Emily, I read the entire article. Which is why I clearly agree with you on the context part.

        But I disagree with the fact that knowing the number won’t tell you much. You wrote “A number is just a number. It gives no background on the who, what, when, where, and why.” I disagree. It tells you how many people the other person has been with sexually, which gives you an idea of whether they’ve engaged in LTRs, one-night stands, casual affairs, etc. And I’m not knocking one-night stands either. But if the other person is looking exclusively for a long-lasting relationship, then that number does carry added weight.

        You also talk about discussing vs. judging, and encourage the first while condemning the latter. But I’m not sure that’s possible. Once you hear that number you’re going to make a judgment one way or the other. Obviously if you haul off and call her a whore that’s inexcusable and cruel. But what if you digest that information and judge that that number is too high for you to continue dating? That’s judging someone based in part on their sexual history and deciding not to be with her anymore. While you warn against that, I’d argue it’s a perfectly acceptable action.

        I’m not sure why you’re so sensitive to me disagreeing with you (and only partially disagreeing with you at that). This whole site is opinion and the point is to start a dialogue. Right?

        • Emily Heist Moss says:

          I’m not sure why my response came off as sensitive, perhaps just intonation is hard to convey in blog comment form. “Once you hear that number, you’re going to make a judgment one way or another.” Perhaps you are, but for me, I think it’s valuable to take a step back and wait for some context. Even if I do have a gut reaction, like my bugged out eyes with the 30+partnered guy I mentioned, that instant reaction isn’t immutable. We can teach ourselves to withhold judgment until we have more information.

        • SweetSass says:

          …And this is why you are sexist, DF.
          —-
          “You wrote “A number is just a number. It gives no background on the who, what, when, where, and why.” I disagree. It tells you how many people the other person has been with sexually, which gives you an idea of whether they’ve engaged in LTRs, one-night stands, casual affairs, etc. And I’m not knocking one-night stands either. But if the other person is looking exclusively for a long-lasting relationship, then that number does carry added weight.”

          You are suggest that because A WOMAN has had a history of short term flings that she cannot or will not be able to have a long term relationship. That is bollocks. And I know you’d never say that if we were talking about men.

          Why do people have short term flings? Many reasons, the most common being they enjoy someone’s company but don’t want to have a LTR with that person.

          This doesn’t mean that if they find the right person, they won’t be good at or successful at being faithful in a LTR.

      • Black Iris says:

        The headline and first paragraph set people up to expect you to be saying something. They indicate to us what the article is about and what your view is.

        In addition, the full article came across to me as saying that we shouldn’t care about the number. Your comment that people are entitled to set their own boundaries sounded grudging to me, especially since the guy who was doing it was being a little irrational. You don’t include a serious discussion of good reasons to just plain care about the number/sexual past of your partner.

        I’m sure I would be very bad at it, but I think it’s important to consider whether people’s comments reflect you writing something different from what you intended to and not the comenters reading ability.

        • Emily Heist Moss says:

          That’s an interesting point, Iris. As a writer, I’m not doing my job if my intention and meaning is getting muddled along the way. You’re probably right in identifying that comment as “grudging.” I don’t believe there are good reasons to care about the number of past sexual partners. Let me be clear, we SHOULD care about our partners sexual health. We SHOULD care about our partner’s emotional well-being. We SHOULD care about their stability, self-esteem, etc. Those things can SOMETIMES be tied to a sexual history, but the number isn’t enough to justify any of them. If one were to meet a healthy, well-adjusted, emotionally stable, responsible adult who had a high number of sexual partners, I don’t think the number itself is enough to write them off.

          One last note… I don’t know if this is where you’re coming from, but for many people, faith and religion dictate how sex fits into their lives. I’m not criticizing this. I would say that for those people, the issue with a potential partner isn’t that they’ve slept with a lot of people, it’s that their values and opinions on sex don’t line up. That’s absolutely a valid issue, and for some people, a reason for not sleeping with someone.

          • Black Iris says:

            I don’t think you should care about the number in and of itself. I do think the number can be an indicator of some of the other things you mention.

            In terms of physical health, it’s probably not a good idea to sleep with someone who has had 30 partners. They are at a much higher risk of having an STD. Of course all that really matters is whether or not they’re healthy. But how many people really see a doctor and then wait for the test results before they have sex? Even then, can you test for everything? How long has it been since we knew the connection between HPV and cancer for example? If nothing else, knowing the number might be a reason to see the doctor and wait – or to use a condom during oral sex, if you aren’t already doing that.

            I don’t think people with high numbers are emotionally unstable. Some of them are just not looking for a long-term relationship. Some have just been single for longer than other people.

            I definitely think numbers can say something about whether or not two people are right for each other. It’s not about religion, it’s that if you think sex should mean something, it makes sense to look for partners who agree with you. The number of partners is a rough way to figure out what sex means to someone. Is it just a physical activity you do with a friend? Is it something you only do in a relationship? Do you have to be married first? Is it something you do every weekend with a person you find in a bar? You want to find a partner who sees sex the same way you do.

            Sometimes, the number could be a sign of something more than just a person who doesn’t want to settle down. You don’t want to end up sleeping with a Barney Stinson or Tucker Max who just want to put you on a list or a blog. You don’t want to get involved with someone who had a horrible life and just doesn’t know how to say no.

            I think our views are very close, but I think you would say you can’t assume anything from a number, so why care about it? I would say, you can’t assume anything from a number, but it might mean something, so maybe you should ask about it.

            • Henry Vandenburgh says:

              BI, I think someone who is churning sexual partners does need to be checked for STDs frequently. But this has little to do with the total number. Both of my wives and I are (the wives were not concurrent) are >100 people. But wife two and I have been monogamous for a while.

            • Black Iris says:

              I think someone who has a low number is probably not churning sexual partners. To get to a high number, you’re going to have to have a lot of partners fairly close together.

              Someone with a high number from their past who has since settled down is less of a risk. So I think it makes sense to talk about more than just the number, but it also makes sense to want to know something about what the number is.

            • Black Iris says:

              The other things that concerns me about high numbers and STDs is that I have a hard time believing that the person actually went to the doctor before having sex every single time. You’d be at the doctor getting tested once or twice a week.

              If a guy has a high number and is currently active and having lots of partners, then he’s probably had plenty of partners since his last visit to the doctor. So his claim that he is healthy isn’t that good.

              A guy with a lower number is more likely to not have had a lot of partners recently, so his test results are more reliable.

              High number guy could have changed and become celibate recently and low number guy could have suddenly become wild, but that’s where you need to talk and put the number of context. The high number, though, is a red flag.

    • But wasn’t that kind of the point the author was making? That we should contextualize the number of partners in regards to the person as a whole, rather than relying solely on that number to make decisions about a person?

      I don’t think she knocked anyone who does care, as evidenced by the friend who has a hard cut off line.

    • GirlGlad4theGMP says:

      I just want to clarify that we ask what types of movies and music they like, NOT how many. If you’re thinking bedroom compatability, wouldn’t the questions be a better gauge if it was taste/fetish centric?

  8. I’m not sure the scotch tape analogy really works – assuming you wash and go for regular STD check-ups – but otherwise this is a great post.

    Three years ago I was having cocktails with two girlfriends (let’s call them P and S) and the subject of ‘magic numbers’ came up. S started going on and on about her number, saying ‘oh god, isn’t it awful, I’m so slutty’ while P and I sat there a little bit speechless. At the time not only had I slept with the same number of people as her but P had slept with at least double that amount. What were we supposed to make of this outburst?

    Later that summer, while on holiday in Italy S brought it up again. She told me her number which had somehow now risen to higher than mine despite that fact I knew she hadn’t hooked up with anyone in that time. Again, she bemoaned its significance but by now I was getting confused? What was she trying to prove. I said frankly I hoped to sleep with a few more people within the next year (I was single at the time). She said she always hoped the next one would be the one she fell in love with.

    Within 6 months she had ratcheted it up by three despite the fact that I knew she’d only slept with one guy in that time. I didn’t say anything but continued to be confused. She’d gone from worrying that she was slutty to seeming like she was trying to prove how cool and ‘liberal’ she was towards casual sex. In fact she was neither of these things. What she did have was fairly normal, romantic attitude towards sex… and horribly low self-esteem when it came to her own sexuality.

    All of which goes to show (in a rather long-winded way) that when it comes to sex, totting up numbers is never the answer.

    • Black Iris says:

      Maybe S’s number is higher even than you think and she’s just been testing out the waters to see if it would upset you.

      • Maybe but that wasn’t really my point. As GirlGlad4theGMP points out, when you ask about someone’s views on movies you ask about what films they like, not how many they’ve seen.

        • Black Iris says:

          I didn’t think it was your point, just a possible explanation of why the friend was acting the way she did.

          Sex is more important than movies to me. I would want to know more about it.

          • So… what? I don’t really understand what you’re saying.

            All I was doing in sharing that story was giving an example of a time when I’ve been perplexed by people’s obsession with numbers and in order to better illustrate my sympathy with the article.

            • Black Iris says:

              Sorry, my two comments in that balloon weren’t really connected, just responding to different things. No special point to my comment on your friend’s possible motives, just a thought. That comment wasn’t meant to prove or disprove anything about numbers or people’s attitudes.

              The other bit is in response to the movies and numbers analogy. It doesn’t really make sense to me. I don’t care how many movies anyone has seen. What information could I get from that number? Perhaps if they’ve seen millions of movies, I’d wonder if they ever went outside. Or if they’d only seen three or four, I’d wonder where they grew up.

              How many partners someone has had is related to how many long-term relationships someone has been in and what the person thinks about sex. Those are things that are relevant to having a relationship with someone.

              A high number of past partners can also be a sign of a higher risk of having an STD. That matters for having sex with someone.

    • Black Iris says:

      Also, going for check-ups doesn’t stop you from getting STDs.

      • No but it helps you catch and treat them, thus preventing you from moving on to your next partner with a ‘scotch tape full of junk’.

        • Black Iris says:

          Unless you can’t treat them.

          • Again, I feel like we’ve veered off topic. All I was getting it as that the scotch tape analogy is a good one to use in a classroom of pubescent students when teaching them about contraception but as an adult I don’t think it’s terribly helpful. Unless you want to approach every new sexual relationship full of fear and foreboding rather than common sense and a pocketful of condoms.

            • Black Iris says:

              I think this is very much on topic. I think you’re saying that numbers don’t matter in terms of STDs because you can periodically sort of clean off the piece of scotch tape by going to a doctor. I disagree because some diseases can’t be cured and gotten rid of.

              In addition, the only way that going to the doctor cleans the slate is if you don’t have sex with more than one person between doctor’s visits.

              A person with a really high number is probably not going to the doctor after every new partner, unless they’ve changed their behavior from the past. So knowing someone has a high number relative to their age and relationship history is a good reason to want to find out more about when they last went to the doctor, etc.

  9. In full agreement Emily – numbers are data and data is not information without the context.

    Sidebar: why are you so much better at writing on these matters than Hugo?

    And he has the doctorate in gender studies….

  10. I love this article. I’m 26, and I have had 2 partners (the first I only slept with once, six years prior to my current partner.) My girlfriend has had… she never counted but did say a lot.

    On the other hand the girl I dated between the two was a Catholic virgin and was disgusted by my one sexual encounter from a previous relationship which led to 4 years of psychological torture.

  11. Regarding the scotch tape exercise: If they’re doing that at my son’s school I’ll be really irritated because I’ve already spoken with his Health teacher and she says they won’t be covering condoms until the 8th grade (he’s in 6th). Honestly, if there’s anything I want imprinted on his brain about sex right now it’s that the only way it happens is with a condom. Sigh.

  12. Black Iris says:

    I don’t think your number is any of my business, but I think when you’re getting into a relationship with someone, their history is a fair thing to consider. As you point out, caring about the exact number is silly. What’s the huge difference between 14 and 16 partners? How long did it take the person to build up their number? Did they grow through a wild time in their life and then change?

    On the other hand, how many people someone has slept with is relevant. First because of STDs. Yes, you can get sick from just one time, but a person with 30 partners is at a much higher risk of having an STD. It just takes giving oral sex to six people to increase your risk of cancer.

    The other thing about a person’s level of sexual experience is that I think it tells you something about them. Do they think sex is something to do for fun or do they think it goes with love? Have they had long-term relationships and stayed faithful to someone? Do they see sex as an accomplishment? Do they drink a lot? Did they go through a difficult or crazy time in their life and then change?

    Someone might be a great person and a good friend, but you still might not want to sleep with them if you think they see sex as a more casual thing than you do. Or, you might have a higher number and decide that someone would be a bad match for you because their attitudes are more traditional than yours.

    It’s a very difficult issue because women feel labeled as being a different kind of person because of their sexual past. That’s not fair or right. It’s just that if you’re actually getting into a romance, it makes sense to talk about your sexual history and what it meant.

    • Henry Vandenburgh says:

      BI, can you make clear the oral sex-cancer connection? This is new.

      • Black Iris says:

        They’ve found that women who have more than six partners for oral sex are more likely to have oral cancer. They think it’s related to HPV, but they haven’t made a direct connection yet. You can google it. It came out in the last year or so.

        I think they also found something similar for guys having oral sex with women earlier.

        So I’d make a pitch that every adult should ask their doctor about getting the HPV vaccine or being tested to see if they’ve been exposed.

        • Black Iris says:

          And if you’ve been exposed, get your pap smears and find out if there are ways to screen for oral cancer.

        • Yes, I’ve heard that they’re thinking that HPV can also lead to throat and anal cancers in men…especially men who engage in homosexual activity. As far as I know, there is no standard of testing men for HPV and many times they are asymptomatic so they unknowingly spread it around.
          It’s part of the reason why I advocate vaccinating both girls and boys for HPV while they’re young.

  13. Oh, my! How did I teach sex ed for 4 years, and never do the scotch tape activity?! Oh, how I wish I could do that one!

  14. Numbers mean everything to me. I couldn’t handle anyone having more than 3 partners before me. It grosses me out to see people fornicating freely w/o thoughts on what they are doing, safe or not.

  15. A surprisingly well balanced and thought-out article here.

    Numbers shouldn’t matter, but we all know that they do. Double standards abound, and while I personally don’t agree with many of them, I do understand why other people do. There are many perfectly valid reasons to care about your partner’s number. I just try to not let it affect me too much.

    I think most people, especially those in their twenties and early thirties, underestimate just how competitive the dating market is. In 15 years of dating, I’ve personally met thousands of women, made some move toward intimacy with close to a hundred of them, and can only think of two that I would seriously consider marrying based on what I know of them from my relationships with them. I have no idea what their numbers were, but I imagine they were high. Both were kind, intelligent, physically attractive, fun to be around, and incredibly sexy. And above all, they both knew how to speak to me in ways that were motivating and inspiring… in ways that made me feel like a man, even before I knew what that meant. In my mind, that made them both highly sexually desirable, and I know that many others came to the same conclusion. That made it highly likely that 1) they’d been approached by many more high-quality men than less attractive women, increasing the likelihood that they’d had sex with some of them and 2) if I did allow myself to get worked up over a number, I’d quickly lose them to an equally attractive guy who didn’t have such qualms.

    Some might see that view as somewhat pessimistic, but the reality is that really attractive people are always being presented with new sexual opportunities. I’ve just learned to mentally prepare myself for the possibility of a high “body count” rather than remain ignorant and allow myself to be blindsided if the discussion ever came up. In the end, I consider myself extremely lucky to have been with these women, and I’d never want to soil that experience with concern over something so silly as a number.

  16. Transhuman says:

    I have numerous bodily functions that I do not count; sex is one of them. In the 21st century we are still so wrapped up in Victorian thinking. The idea that “virginal”, of either gender, is linked to purity is puerile. Regardless of the stated number of partners, make sure you practice safe sex to minimise the chance of STDs and get regular checkups. The rest is just details.

  17. With so many articles like these on this site advocating fornication (and adultery which isn’t too far away), I am reminded that ‘good’ is only a perception.

  18. Of course you don’t article writer; you have zero self-respect given that you yourself have engaged in the same promiscuous behaviours that you have now learned nearly all women have engaged in (albeit not with you). Congratulations on understanding women are human beings, too.

    • That you use the word “fornication” is telling. Excessive masturbation makes one blind and casual fornication gets you a boarding pass on a rocket ship to hell.

      Is that about right?

  19. What about those men like myself that don’t have a “double” standard, but simply a standard? I completely agree that it is hypocritical of any man that has had casual sex to write off a women as a potential LTR partner based on partner count. However, what about men like myself that have purposely kept a low partner count? What if I value sex far more than just a basic bodily function, and I want a woman that feels the same? By trying to push casual sex as the norm, you are essentially taking away choices for men like myself.

    But that is OK, as we all know feminism is all about WOMEN, even if it is at the expense of men. After all, we oppressed women for so long, we deserve it. Right?

  20. Black Iris says:

    I think when it comes to STDs, numbers matter.

    Look at the advice public health officials give out on how to prevent the spread of STDs.

    The best way to avoid getting an STD is to be celibate or have sex with a faithful, uninfected partner. It’s not about morality, it’s just the way biology works.

    The next best thing to do is to know your partner well, ask them if they have an STD, look at their genitals to see if they’re telling the truth, and

    Limit your number of partners!!!!

    You’re supposed to get screened before starting a new relationship.

    Going to the doctor regularly to see if you have an STD is not prevention. It’s a public health measure to find sick people and keep them from infecting more people.

    Granted, whether someone has a low or a high number, you still have to get tested before you have sex and use a condom. The question I have is, are people really doing that every time they have sex with a new person? Because if they aren’t, numbers matter.

    And, if you’re sleeping with someone who has a high number, you’re going to want to ask, when was the last time you were tested?

    • Yes, Black Iris, you are correct on all counts. It’s a matter of getting tested regularly and always using safer sex practices. If you know you have an STI, it’s important to communicate that to all your partners before you have sex with them. In those cases, you should either choose not to engage in sex until the infection clears up or be very strict about preventing fluid exchange.

  21. From a medical and biologicial sence, your middle school teacher was right. Look, I’m 57 years old and have had one partner my entire life. Now I know that sounds pretty sad to you people who sometimes have several partners in one week. That’s just the way it worked out and I’m fine with it. The point is I don’t have to worry about STD’s. I do however, have a single Daughter and Son. And I worry for them. Just some numbers from the C.D.C.for you to think about; 1 in 4 teenage girls are infected with a STD, 50% of women can expect to come in contact with an HPV in their lifetime( and guys, if you think it’s only a female problem, there’s been a 36% rise in the rate of agressive oral cancer in young men linked to the HPV16 virus). And 1in 5 women can expect to become infected with Genital Herpes.

  22. “I’ve never slept with a virgin before, and it’s quite likely that I’ve passed the part of my life where that might happen (although you just never know!) It feels like a safe bet to assume that everyone I sleep with from here on out has some sort of sexual history”

    I’m curious how old you are – you don’t seem older than mid-twenties? There are plenty of people who are still virgins then, and I think it’s important for sex-positive people to not dismiss/inadvertently embarrass folks who are still virgins by choice or luck.

    • Thank you for you commentary. I had the same exact thought.
      I’m almost 25 and still virgin, not by choice, probably because of some unkown fear in me.

  23. I agree with this post. I actually wanted to see this film recently but something has always come in the way of me going. –Maybe it’s a sign, who knows! Honestly, I I’ve had my share of people in my life. I once dated someone three years back who had sex with several women and I felt icky about it and I accused him of “mistreating sex” –those were the exact words I used. I didn’t want to be around him when he told me. Today, I’ve overcome this weird feeling and quite frankly, I don’t care about the person’s past anymore. What matters is where they are currently and where they plan to be.

    You can lose more by judging than by understanding the person.

  24. To me, the use of a single piece of tape passed around the room to represent the effects of multiple sexual partners is an odious and insanely inaccurate metaphor typical of abstinence-based miseducation.

    Is the message to young people supposed to be “You don’t wash between partners”? “You don’t know what a condom is”? “You’re incapable of having a check-up or an STD test”? “You can have only one kind of sex, and it must be high-risk”? “Everybody else carries sexually transmissible infections”? “Nobody is aware of or honest about their sexual health”?

    I continue to be startled at one crucial missing piece of perspective around considering the number of one’s partners’ sexual partners: Odds are good that after boinking the first fifty folks or so someone is getting better at sex. This is likely to include getting better at the communication, protection, self-awareness and seeking out of quality information regarding sexual health that actually lead to a reduction in STI transmission. Not to mention that we’re way more fun in bed…

  25. S.Gonzales says:

    EEll what do you think of this.I am 65 and I recently met an attractive but pretty sexually provocative women(we used to call them PT) in high school who was a model at one time and hung around with artists and drinkers all the time.She told me,but I could guesstimate,that in her 50 years,she probably had slept with between 1000-2000 men.Is this normal(unless you are Mick Jagger)or threatening to most folks.What think you of that???

  26. “I don’t understand the connection between the high number and the risks you described. If a woman commits paternity fraud or was unfaithful, that’s an indication of her character. If the marriage goes south, then there’s something wrong with the relationship or with her. ”

    Yes, you are correct. You do not understand why high numbers and the risk mentioned are a huge concern for men. This is why men should never take dating and relationship advice from women.

    In this era of high rates of frivolous divorce and paternity fraud a woman’s high number of sexual partners has a direct correlation to these failed marriages and relationships. Search for dalrock.wordpress and when you get there search for sexual partners and frivolous divorce. I cannot remember the title of the article which has the research concerning this.

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