Nicole Rodgers and Hugo Schwyzer discuss society’s obsession with the number of people we’ve slept with.
By Nicole Rodgers and Hugo Schwyzer
Nicole: If I asked you for your number, why wouldn’t you tell me?
Hugo: Well, part of it—honestly—is that the only number I have in my head is the number of women I’ve had sexual intercourse with. But the number would be much bigger if we counted other sexual activities besides penis-in-vagina intercourse. And I had sex with a few men in high school and college. Do they go on the list too? I’m not sure what the grand total of all that would be.
But if I could tell you all these numbers, I’d worry that it would come across as braggadocio. It wouldn’t tell you anything meaningful about me. Even as a man, there’s no upside beyond the bragging of a high school locker room to having a big number.
And let me hasten to say, I’m not in Wilt Chamberlain or Mick Hucknall territory. The number is somewhere above my age and less than the number of nations recognized by the UN. That may be too much information for some, but it’s a safe admission to make for someone who is tenured, monogamous, and has a reputation for writing candidly about sex.
In my case, my number includes a large number of one-night stands and a smaller number of long-term relationships and friends-with-benefits situations. It was in those enduring relationships that I learned most of what I learned about sex. Having what is essentially the same experience over and over again with lots of different people doesn’t teach you much; having lots of different experiences with a small number of people over a long period of time teaches a lot more. That’s what I’ve learned, and it makes the real number less relevant.
Now, back at you: Nicole, why won’t you tell me your number?
Nicole: Well, for one, because my parents read this column.
Seriously though, the reason I won’t tell you my number is rather simple: I don’t think it’s any of your business. I don’t think it illuminates anything important about me or helps you understand who I am. I also know that as a woman I’m likely be judged more harshly than a man for my number and I’m not interested in inviting that judgment.
I sometimes think the downside to an access-driven, often-narcissistic Internet culture is that we’ve lost any expectation of a right to privacy in our lives. Asserting boundaries, including the right to guard our personal (including sexual) information, is the healthiest choice sometimes. In a world where our virtual lives are on display 24 hours a day, I think we can lose sight of that.
Of course, speaking personally, if we were close friends and the topic came up, I probably would be comfortable telling you my number. There’s power in combatting the “slut-shaming” phenomenon by doing the unexpected and owning my number of sexual partners without any defensiveness. Defensiveness, I might add, is different than pride. Just as I don’t believe that a number is anything to be ashamed of, I also don’t think having a lot of sexual partners is necessarily a point of pride.
Why are we all so curious about the number of sexual partners someone has anyway?
Hugo: First off, I agree completely that your number is none of my business!
As for our obsession with the “number,” I think we’re anxious to see where we compare with others. With those whom we haven’t slept with, and those of our same sex, we just want to know if we’re “normal” or not. With our lovers, we want to know the cast to whom we might be compared. (That’s true for both men and women, but it does seem men are more obsessed with their partners’ sexual pasts.) For men who are insecure, the lower a woman’s number, the greater the chance that you’ll be the “best she’s ever had.” The more lovers she’s had, the less favorably you’ll compare. Ideally, you grow out of that anxiety before you make it your partner’s problem.
Do you ask people their number, Nicole? Does your partner know your number? Do you know his?
Nicole: I’ll admit I have asked partners their numbers before (and told them mine). As I said, I don’t actually believe it’s my right to know, but that hasn’t stopped me from inquiring. My current partner and I both know each other’s numbers. (They’re very similar, which is a bit boring, I know!)
In the past, the curiosity for me about someone’s number has been about a few things. For one, how I measure up numbers-wise, i.e. have I had more or fewer partners than the person I’m with? It can also feel like a test of intimacy: will this person share something with me that few people probably know about them? And will they love me enough not to judge me (as either too prudish or not discriminating enough)? The final element of curiosity—which I am not proud of—is about how I compare with those past partners. Ultimately, it’s not the number of people someone has slept with that most piques my interest; it’s who those sexual partners are, since that enables me to make (sometimes misguided) assumptions about what turns my partner on, physically and psychologically.
When it comes to an actual number, the only ones that I find illuminating are those that are either very high or very low. If you’ve slept with, say, between 3 and 50 people I wouldn’t typically have any strong feelings about it, but if you’ve only had sex with one person or you’re a Wilt Chamberlain-type then my curiosity is definitely piqued. Of course, the Kinsey statistics on number of sexual partners always strike me as surprisingly low (for men 30-44, an average of 6-8 female partners in their lifetime; for women 30-44, an average of 4 male partners in their lifetime), so I suppose what sounds perfectly “normal” to me is still pretty far from the average, statistically speaking.
Hugo: The skewed Kinsey numbers suggest that some people are lying; the old pressure on women to downplay their number and for men to exaggerate theirs may not be as powerful as it once was, but it still clearly exerts some influence. And I’m with you—those numbers strike me as low.
But I don’t think we can conclude anything about someone based on their number. I have good friends who lost their virginities on their wedding nights and are still married and faithful; they’re in their 40s and they’re still on #1. And I have friends in the sex industry and the music business who assure me that their numbers are well into the 1000s. I have no reason to believe any of these people are lying. Averages are funny things.
I have two running buddies who I’ll call Joe and Mark. Joe was a musician in an ‘80s hair band and “lost count” after about 700 women. Mark married his high school sweetheart and has never slept with anyone else. Joe is now married too. We all live the same sorts of lives today. Joe and Mark are very curious about each other and what it would be like to have lived the other’s life. Since I fall somewhere in the middle, I get to see how similar these men really are. Joe didn’t learn so much more about life by having all those partners; Mark didn’t get an extra virtue boost by being with just one woman. In the long run, in terms of our ability to love our wives and our kids (we’re all dads, too) our three different pasts haven’t made a dime’s worth of difference. There’s neither a cost nor a benefit to having a particular number.
So, Nicole, question: If you were single, how would you feel about dating a man whose number was high? How would you feel about dating a guy who had only had one sexual partner? Which would be more uncomfortable?
Nicole: If I were single right now, I don’t think I’d mind dating a man whose number was high; I’d probably be more uncomfortable dating a guy with only one sexual partner, for two reasons. The first is that I’d assume a lack of experience and skills. I admittedly see the fallacy in this thinking. After all, one person could have had a vibrant sex life for 10 years with the same partner and developed great skills. Another guy could have had 100 sexual partners, but if they were all one-night stands, his skills as a lover would probably be very limited. So maybe it’s time I rethink this bias?
But the other issue is that I assume sex carries far more meaning to a person who’s had only one partner than it does to me (since—full disclosure!—I have had far more than one partner). Being someone’s second is basically a pretty similar concern to being someone’s “first.” When having new sexual partners is a rarity for someone, sex presumably carries a different weight. That would bring up a lot of questions for me. Does this person believe sex is a sacred act that should only be engaged in between two people in love? Do they believe sex is intended for the confines of a marriage? Does the person have a lot of guilt about sex and trouble enjoying it?
Of course, when we talk about numbers, the question for me is: how high is “high”? If I’m being honest with myself, I’m sure there is some threshold that would make me uncomfortable or give me pause. I don’t have a specific figure in mind, but if you’re my age—33—and you’ve accumulated hundreds upon hundreds of partners, then you’ve basically had to treat getting laid like it’s a job. That sounds pathological and not particularly fun. Anyway, who has time for that?
So, Hugo, when it comes to high numbers, do you think we’ve begun to move beyond the idea that women are sluts and men are studs, or does that thinking still dominate? If so, why is the double standard still so pervasive?
Hugo: I wish we were farther along! I know that slut-shaming still exists; I hear from young women who’ve been tormented by boyfriends about their sexual pasts. The pressure to lie in both directions is still pretty powerful. And what it revolves around, still, is that we judge men by their sexual prowess—and women by their purity. We claim to be beyond that, and a lot of us are, but these hoary old myths about our worth are pretty tenacious.
Nicole: I know you’ve made the hypothetical argument before that maybe we should all just come clean with our numbers rather than guard them with secrecy—a kind of radical transparency approach. Do you think that could really work? What’s the argument for that approach?
Hugo: The argument is that secrecy is what drives shame, while candor and transparency eradicate shame. That’s the ideal. I think it could work, absolutely. But the problem is that the risk is borne unevenly—straight women (or bisexual men who count male as well as female partners) are more likely to be slut-shamed than straight men for having a high number. I’m not ready to ask everyone to take that risk. And I agree with you that today, the costs of disclosure outweigh the benefits.
I think that we’ll be able to come clean with our numbers after we’ve stopped slut-shaming altogether. The truth will probably be a consequence of developing a less judgmental sexual culture, not a catalyst to bring that world about. But candor might accelerate things!