The Numbers Game

Maureen Dowd’s column Saturday riffed off “The Taming of the Slut,” which Jill wrote about here.

For centuries, men divided women into good girls and bad girls. The madonna-whore bifurcation is imbedded in American culture, from Betty/Veronica to Mary Ann/Ginger to Charlotte/Samantha.

In the 1960 movie of John O’Hara’s “Butterfield 8,’’ Elizabeth Taylor plays Gloria Wandrous, a bad girl about town. When her married lover gets mad at her for purloining his patrician wife’s mink coat, he immediately downgrades her to a “tramp” who has been working her way through New York’s Ivy League men.

“You’re a joke, a dirty joke from one end of this town to the other,’’ he sneers at her.

Later, she admits to her mother: “Face it. I was the slut of all time.”

Dowd notes that, even if the word “slut” is somewhat defanged nowadays, with some young women embracing it and premarital sex not quite the reputation-killer it once was, there’ s still a limit to how much sex is acceptable before you cross the line from virgin to whore. Or, more specifically, how many partners:

That men are counting those spins around the block is a fact that’s not lost on women. The late-night comic Craig Ferguson dryly observed that women often get back with their exes because they don’t want their total number to go up.

One 24-year-old Washington reporter agreed that “redos” of previous partners can keep your number below the slut threshold, defined by two of her male friends as “less than 20.” She thinks she is “chaste’’ with a number of six, but admits she sometimes subtracts one or two when telling a guy her romantic history. She said she kept dating Mr. Six after she’d lost interest simply because she didn’t want to up the number to Mr. Seven.

Okay, this is what I don’t get: why, why, why are these people sharing this information with their friends and/or dates? Why is it a romantic interest’s business how many partners one has had, assuming that number is more than zero?*

There’s no reason to have the “numbers talk.” Your sexual history is your own. Even if you have an STD that needs to be discussed, there is no reason whatsoever to divulge how many previous partners you’ve had. If someone is asking you for a specific number, that’s generally a good indication that that person is insecure, or judgmental, and that there’s a good chance that any information you give will be thrown back at you. God knows I’ve had my sexual history thrown back at me even when it was something that had to be divulged — in that case, I found out I had an STD, and my boyfriend at the time held that reminder that I’d had previous partners against me later on.

That the STD was acquired without my consent didn’t change things. I was still a slut.

God knows, it would be much, much better if we could all be free to express our sexuality without judgment, without shame, but the fact is, we live in a patriarchy, and any deviation from the patriarchially-approved cultural script has consequences. And when someone you love, or at least really like, plays the slut card, it can be really devastating.

But one of the things about patriarchy is that it has so thoroughly co-opted us that even when there’s no outside shaming, we provide our own inner critic. If you’ve ever beaten yourself up for, say, going to bed with someone a little too soon, someone who hasn’t called you yet, you know that you can tear yourself up fretting that the person you’re waiting to hear from thinks you’re trash because you hopped in the sack with him — even though, logically and rationally, there should be no reason to worry because, after all, that person also slept with you. The patriarchy, however, does not follow logic or rationality — fear and shame are its tools.

There’s also the little matter of certain heterosexual sex acts — like, say, blow jobs — being fraught with all kinds of patriarchal implications.

However, even in a perfect world, with no shame attached to having prior partners, regardless of the number, I still wouldn’t share that information with anyone. There are some things that belong to me alone, and what I’ve done in bed is one of them.

— ——-

* You may very well want to inform your partner that you’re a virgin, especially if you’re afraid it’s going to hurt. And certainly, there are rare people who can handle knowing about your sexual history in detail, but they tend to be more secure than your average bear.

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56 comments for “The Numbers Game

  1. July 16, 2006 at 9:43 pm

    I find it surprising that the number thing bothers people anymore. I cannot remember that last time someone thought a woman had too many. Again, I run in rarefied circles. I do remember a few years ago that a friend of mine in her 30s was fretting about having too many (it was a pretty low number for someone never married and her age, I thought), but I hear people fret about it nearly never. If someone is easy to shock, I would find it fun to tell him or her how many so they can be all awed at what a libertine I am.

  2. July 16, 2006 at 10:04 pm

    Hell, I never thought it counted unless it meant “How many at one time?” And that’s just for braggin’ rights.

  3. July 16, 2006 at 10:20 pm

    Like Amanda, I’m more disturbed that people are so uptight about the number of people you’ve slept with than I am that people are fessing up to it. My partner and I have talked a lot about our sexual experiences before dating each other (though they’re not too voluminous, since we married at a pretty young age). I would be bothered if a guy was jealous enough that he couldn’t stand to think of me with another guy, or nonsensically judgemental enough that he put some sort of sluttiness limit on who he could date. I still value (some of) my pre-husband sexual experiences, and I’m glad that he can understand that.

  4. kate
    July 16, 2006 at 10:24 pm

    I have heard my daughters, in junior high and high school go on about this ‘whore and slut’ and that one. Fact is, this dichotomy still exists and is real in the minds of many females, especially younger ones.

    It serves not only for men to pick and chose mates and use others for play, it also allows women to establish and function within exactly such a heirarchy.

    The whole welfare reform debate had everything to do with racism coupled with sexism ; the dirty whore bitch whose having a million kids because she’s screwing a million guys and shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.

    Women experience the fear of rejection and often the actual experience of rejection based on false or imagined information or rumors and thus learn early on that a women’s sexual behavior is a hot topic and a hot button to push. Especially when said woman wants to get another out of her way — push ‘eject’ and there goes the enemy, out of orbit and out of the way.

    It is disappointing to think that a woman would allow herself to fear such a construct into her adulthood. But then again, I’ve seen and heard repeatedly, adult women use the whore label over and over again upon those women they wish to show superiority or gain power over.

    Either she’s a lesbian or a slut, either way, the patriarchy has determined that neither are a women and therefore, such persons must be removed from the legitimate social sphere; they are a threat. The patriarchy rewards women who play along and serve as the enforcers of the rules.

  5. zuzu
    July 16, 2006 at 10:36 pm

    I think these number-focused people are pretty young, generally — once you get past a certain age, it makes less sense to ask about it or to stress about the number.

    For one thing, with age, you start accumulating more partners even if you’re not sleeping around right and left. Someone in Jill’s slut thread mentioned that the WHO definition of “promiscuity” is having more than two partners in a year. Let’s say I’ve been sexually active for 20 years now (I haven’t, but it’s a nice round number and has the added benefit of making me feel old). I could be non-promiscuous and still have 40 notches on my bedpost.

  6. July 16, 2006 at 10:48 pm

    Quite so, Kate. The ‘number’ thing isn’t usually an affirmation of heatlhy female sexuality, it’s a chance for others to judge them.

    Not to mention the fact that the number is totally subjective as a gauge of how MUCH sex you’ve had, or even how much you’ve enjoyed it. Some people meet their spouse at a young age, but have a healthy, enthusiastic sex life despite not having had a variety of different partners. A woman could’ve married the guy she met at 18 and been having sex with him on average three times a week ever since. Another woman could have 10 different one-night-stands in the course of the average year, but she’s actually having sex less than once a month, even though her total number is much higher. And between those two extremes, say a woman who becomes sexually active at 18 has, say, one relationship per year. By 28 she’s already in the double-digits even if all the sex has been in serially monogamous relationships. And I know plenty of women who’ve had more than one boyfriend per year and would sure as hell not consider themselves ‘slutty’.

    The only example I can think of in popular culture where the ‘number’ is used in a way that isn’t a punishment, and where a woman is allowed to have a significantly higher number than her male love interest, is in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. Andie McDowell’s character is portrayed as happily reminiscing about past sexual relationships, and not being ashamed of them.

  7. piny
    July 16, 2006 at 10:59 pm

    I think these number-focused people are pretty young, generally — once you get past a certain age, it makes less sense to ask about it or to stress about the number.

    Well, or you just lose count.

  8. July 16, 2006 at 11:16 pm

    There are two reasons why I never give a number, actually. One was that giving a number requires saying what counts: Am I really supposed to only count who I had sexual intercourse with? That feels like cheating. But if I’m counting everyone I did anything remotely sexual with, and everyone else is counting only intercourse, then that doesn’t seem right either. And, second, it seems too revealing of other people’s business. Does anyone really need to know whether I “went all the way” with the boy friend who died? It’s kind of private to him.

  9. mral
    July 16, 2006 at 11:26 pm

    There’s no reason to have the “numbers talk.” Your sexual history is your own.

    Personal privacy seems less important here than the fairly negative light in which women’s sexuality is being viewed. Where are all the sex positive feminists who think a engaging in a wide variety of diverse sexual experiences is a good thing?

  10. Sarah S
    July 16, 2006 at 11:58 pm

    There’s no reason to have the “numbers talk.” Your sexual history is your own.

    I can see where you’re coming from, but doesn’t refusing to give that info out just kinda perpetuate the idea that women having too much sexual experiance is bad (by making it kinda unspeakable)?

    If I’m interested in really dating someone (aka not just a one night stand) I try to give them a bfrief overview of my sexual history because it lets them know a lot about me and who they are getting involved with. I’m bisexual. I’ve had a lot of threesomes and foursomes – but rarely with penetration. I’m a bit of an exhibitionist. I have had open relationships for most of my adult life and I have no interest in compulsory monogamy. There are a select few things that I don’t do (anal is one) for reasons that I am willing to make clear if someone wants to know. I don’t tell people my “number” because it is really hard to calculate my number (it depends on what we are counting as what – how do you count threesomes? does oral count?) and after a certain point it all becomes kinda moot. I also have never dated anyone who was afraid of a number – I have dated people who have been scared off by the…. lets say breadth of my sexual experaince.

    I feel like it is only fair to let someone I am dating know that:
    1) I’ve been around the block
    2) I enjoy going around the block
    3) I’m looking for someone to go around the block with me, so if you’re the type to judge people who do so, then we are fundamentally not going to work out.

    But maybe I’m just misinterpreting this because I am really freakin tired.

  11. July 17, 2006 at 12:05 am

    There’s a flip side to this: I’ve met women who react very negatively to men whose “number” is too low — they seem to take it as an insult that someone less experienced (and insufficiently masculine) is wasting their time.

    However, I’d consider it dishonest to try to conceal my relative inexperience — particularly since it’d be noticeable fairly quickly, anyway. Also, I really don’t want to get involved with someone whose got severe hangups about gender roles, anyway.

  12. July 17, 2006 at 12:43 am

    It’s kind of ironic that I have a small number- one that any guy who hates a girl who’s been sexual would adore- and yet, who have I boinked? Nothing but manwhores, as it were, who had much higher numbers than me.

    So, what does that make me, if “whoever you’ve slept with, you’ve slept with whom they’ve slept with?” I guess that also makes me a slut?

    Hell, it’s not even that I’m more holier-than-thou about my sexuality. But when you find someone attractive enough to boink once every few years, you can’t rack those numbers up high enough, dammit.

  13. Screamingasshole
    July 17, 2006 at 2:04 am

    The numbers game is a very interesting discussion. A very close friend of mine, taught me long ago when my number was still 1 that you never tell anyone your number. Her advise was that you should get mad whenever anyone had the audacity to ask such a thing because it is never any of anyones business, man or woman.

    This is some of the soundest advice I’ve ever received from her. I don’t give numbers for a couple one very simple reason. It is none of anyones business. I will tell you that I am HIV and STD free, but otherwise, why would anyone need to know how many people you have slept with? The problem is that whether the number is deemed to high or too low, their is a level of judgement that comes from anyone asking that question. If the number seems low, then they think that you are inexperienced and you get deemed as soft and virginlike…… but if the number is high, then clearly you are an immortal unscrupulous whore who isn’t worth respecting.

    Giving the number could be a revolutionary act against the sexual repression of women, I suppose, but what does speaking the number actually do to change the mind of people with preconceived ideas of what that number means? What could possibly be gained by everyone on the planet discussing their # of lovers. And if there was something to be gained, who is creating the definition of what counts? I choose silence as my revolutionary act.

    Men can never figure out if I am a virginal or a whore. For whatever reason, I initially strike many as the sort of woman who cooks casseroles for women’s group in church (I’m agnostic actually) but after listening to the sorts of the things that I have to say, and I’m not shy about sex at all…..I tend to be somewhat of an anomaly. I prefer to keep it like that because the truth of what I and every other woman on the planet is lies on neither side of the very limited whore/virgin dichotomy. I like to keep dumb people guessing.

    I am not ashamed of my number. I am actually quite proud of how I have grown sexually through the years, but I stay silent as a protest to the fact that the answer to the question means anything to anyone. I choose not to entertain stupid questions.

  14. July 17, 2006 at 5:55 am

    I think this is one area where my “inner critic” might be asleep on the job. I’ll admit that I am very, very far from being a high-numbers-girl, but I am a have-sex-on-the-first-date-girl and lots of other things that might earn a person the slut label.

    I like the idea of discussing past sexual history with a significant other. I don’t think our sexual histories define us but they are a significant part of our lives. I really do want to know my husband’s sexual history, not so I can judge, but because I am extremely curious about every aspect of his life and experience. It’s a function of my interest in him and a desire for closeness with him. Unfortunately, he is a bit more coy, but I actually wish he were more curious about me and my past experiences and what they were like.

    If I thought for an instant that a significant other were going to hold my “number” or the speed with which I agree to sex (or initiate sex) against me, that would be a major red flag. I have no tolerance whatsoever for that kind of thing.

  15. July 17, 2006 at 7:52 am

    Forget the numbers game. I wanna know where I can buy a full slip like the one Elizabeth Taylor wore in BUtterfield 8! When I find one, I’m gonna put it on, and then get to work raising my “number.” Heh.

  16. July 17, 2006 at 8:53 am

    Hedonistic, go to your local thrift store. I have about a dozen of those and I wear them to bed every night. Used vintage lingerie is delightfully trashy.

  17. zuzu
    July 17, 2006 at 9:03 am

    I can see where you’re coming from, but doesn’t refusing to give that info out just kinda perpetuate the idea that women having too much sexual experiance is bad (by making it kinda unspeakable)?

    Yes and no. I’m all for being open about having had sex, about liking sex, about liking certain acts, etc., since they are all things that inform who you are and how you got there. But I really, really don’t see the point in answering someone who asks you how many people you’ve slept with. What’s the point of that? What real difference is there between six and seven (or thirty and forty)?

    The best response, I suppose, is, “What’s it to you?”

  18. Thomas
    July 17, 2006 at 9:38 am

    Am I really supposed to only count who I had sexual intercourse with?

    Yep. The whole thing is narrow hetero- and penetrocentric nonsense. Like Liz, my “number” of penis-in intercourse partners is very different from my number under a broader definition (I prefer “reasonable attempt on the part of at least one participant to produce orgasm in at least one other”).

  19. July 17, 2006 at 9:39 am

    My husband and I talked about our past history in terms of knowing something about each other’s ex-boy friends and ex-girl friends. So I know, for example, about the woman he was engaged to, before me, and he knows about the boy friend who died. But turning that experience into a number? I wouldn’t; I dislike the whole “what’s your number” question, for men or women.

  20. July 17, 2006 at 9:45 am

    Can I quote myself from a long post on this subject last year?

    On the subject of one’s sexual past, I’ve become a great believer that no one should ever ask — or answer — the question “So, how many people have you slept with?” (Let me clarify: I don’t mean one shouldn’t tell one’s good friends — just not one’s partner.) Answering a request to reveal one’s number rarely turns out well, especially for women. For more conservative (and insecure) men, any number higher than “zero” will be too high; whether it’s five or fifty or five hundred, she may pay a high price for answering truthfully! To be fair, some women are also going to be unnerved by what they may regard as an “inappropriately high” number. The only rational response to such a query from a current or prospective partner is a gentle, loving “Tell me why you really want to know, and tell me what you’re going to do with this information once you have it.”

    I recognize that we’re all curious people. Folks like to talk about “the number”; I’ve posted on this before. But I’m a very strong believer that we all have the right to have had a past, and to have that past without apology. Mind you, this is not an argument against pre-marital chastity! Those who, for spiritual reasons, choose to remain virgins until the wedding night do not deserve our scorn. In certain instances, they may even merit our admiration. But those who, for whatever reason, have not “waited” deserve not to be shamed by their current partners.

    It is possible to have a loving, honest relationship without disclosing every detail of one’s sexual history to one’s current partner or spouse. Indeed, I suspect it’s a sign of high maturity and self-confidence not to ask for details of one’s lover’s past! A true lover can say, “Before there was an ‘us’, there was a ‘you’ and a ‘me’, and I will never use what you did in the past against you. I honor your right to have lived the life you chose to live before we were together, and I ask that you honor my right to my past as well.” True love focuses on the joy of the present and a shared commitment to the future; it seldom dwells on the past. There are times when a focus on the past matters; a history of abuse or molestation can have huge ramifications for one’s future sex life, as can certain sexually-transmitted infections. But with those caveats, I think it’s safe to advise a policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue.”

    Sorry, zuzu, if that’s too long.

  21. zuzu
    July 17, 2006 at 9:50 am

    No, it’s perfect.

  22. July 17, 2006 at 10:13 am

    On the flipside, I recently wrote a post on my website about someone’s negative reaction to learning I am a virgin, as if virginity is taboo.

    I find it interesting that people are still having issues with “numbers” of sexual partners considering all of dating shows, blogs, and the rest of the media culture that seems to be promoting promiscutity, especially in young people.

  23. jodie
    July 17, 2006 at 10:41 am

    I lost track after 5. I really have no clue at this point (I’ve been sexually active for 30 years), nor do I care, since I don’t find it important. Most of my friends can come up with a ballpark figure for their experience, but I did have one acquaintance who knew exactly how many partners she had AND had a list rating all of them.

  24. July 17, 2006 at 10:47 am

    I always figured “less than my IQ,more than shoe size” was a reasonable response.

  25. July 17, 2006 at 10:48 am

    Whoops, more than my shoe size.

  26. zuzu
    July 17, 2006 at 10:51 am

    And you know what they say about men with big feet…

  27. July 17, 2006 at 10:59 am

    “Okay, this is what I don’t get: why, why, why are these people sharing this information with their friends and/or dates? Why is it a romantic interest’s business how many partners one has had, assuming that number is more than zero?”


  28. Thomas
    July 17, 2006 at 11:18 am

    men with big feet

    They wear big shoes.

  29. July 17, 2006 at 12:01 pm

    I remember seeing the SITC episode where Miranda finds out that she has chlamydia, and tallies her total number of life sex partners. It came to 36 or something like that. When I did the math, I calculated that that came to approximately 2 per year, assuming virginity loss at 16, which is really pretty low, especially for a woman who has 1) never been married, and 2) is relatively attractive and outgoing.

    Of course when I shared this revalation with a friend of mine, she expressed shock at how high the number was, and said that the character was obviously “slutty.” And I made a simple note to self: never EVER share anything about sex with this uptight friend. Now when I encounter someone who talks about how slutty other people are, I assure myself that they are just jealous. They just wish they COULD be that slutty, but so sad, no one will have them.

  30. nik
    July 17, 2006 at 1:33 pm

    Why is it a romantic interest’s business how many partners one has had, assuming that number is more than zero?

    I’m pretty surprised by the consensus on this. Getting people to discuss their sexual history with their partners has been central to safe sex education and AIDS activism for more than a decade now. People absolutely have a right to raise the subject. I really don’t like the insinuation that the questioner in behaving inappropriately because it’s something people would rather they didn’t have to deal with.

    That aside, I think people do have a right to ask a romantic partner about their history. I just seems perfectly appropriate that you should want to know about your partner. To me it seems very strange to propose that your willingness to form a relationship with someone should be unconditional on how much you know about their past.

  31. zuzu
    July 17, 2006 at 1:40 pm

    Nik, I think you misread the comments. There’s nothing at all wrong with discussing sexual history insofar as it relates to sexual health, and certainly volunteering information is a damn sight different than having a partner demand it from you.

    But how does knowing that your partner has had 6 previous partners, or 14, or 52, really matter when what you really need to know is whether the person is healthy? If someone is disease free, does it really matter how many people they’ve had before you? Even if the person has an STD to disclose, do they really have to recite the name of every last partner?

  32. Rex Little
    July 17, 2006 at 1:50 pm

    Apparently, the “slut” stigma still exists among young people. My teenage stepson quit seeing a very nice, very pretty girl after one date because she had a reputation. (Trust me, he didn’t get that attitude from me or his mom.)

    I was puzzled by this from Dowd:

    The madonna-whore bifurcation is imbedded in American culture, from Betty/Veronica to . . .

    Betty/Veronica? I grew up reading Archie comics, and I couldn’t tell you which one is supposed to be which in that dichotomy. One’s blonde, the other’s brunette; one’s rich, the other isn’t; but neither seemed more sexual or promiscuous than the other. Certainly if you use “voluptuous” as a proxy for “slutty”, they’re tied.

  33. July 17, 2006 at 2:08 pm

    I always figured “less than my IQ,more than shoe size” was a reasonable response.

    Is “more than my shoe size” actually guaranteed to be considered a non-slutty number for a woman? My shoe size is 8 1/2, maybe even 9.

    Betty/Veronica? I grew up reading Archie comics, and I couldn’t tell you which one is supposed to be which in that dichotomy. One’s blonde, the other’s brunette

    … and there’s your key. Obviously, Veronica is the slut, because the darker your complexion, the less pure and chaste you are.

    Besides, Betty’s hair is in a pony tail, while Veronica’s hangs loose, so Betty has to be more innocent than Veronica.

  34. July 17, 2006 at 2:21 pm

    zuzu, is there an answer that would satisfy you when you asked “What’s it to you?” I imagine my perspective here is kind of slanted, being that I have only been romantically (or sexually) involved with one person since high school and my “number” can be counted on one hand, but I have never felt like I needed to censor my sexual past with anyone I’ve been with. I’m getting the impression that I’m in an unusually communicative relationship in that regard.

    On the other hand, if you can’t stand brutal honesty then you probably don’t want to hang out with me anyway. Maybe I filter out the people who might be alarmed at learning the gory details of my sexual past that way.

  35. July 17, 2006 at 2:24 pm

    Aside from the sexual health issue, there’s also wanting to sort out whether you have compatible views on sexuality and relationships. It’s not so much that you’d need a precise number, and that number alone would be misleading without knowing the duration of those relationships, and even those two things together could be misleading without knowing what sort of relationships those were and what your prospective partner wants now, which may be different from what your prospective partner wanted in the past.

    I wouldn’t demand to know a prospective partner’s number, but I’d be likely to ask in a conversation about our past relationships, and I’d definitely want to have that conversation at some point early on.

  36. zuzu
    July 17, 2006 at 2:26 pm

    zuzu, is there an answer that would satisfy you when you asked “What’s it to you?”

    Not really. But then, “What’s it to you?”, like “Who wants to know?” is not really a question that asks to be answered.

    I mean, can you think of a good answer for that question? A good reason why knowing the actual number of previous partners is important?

  37. July 17, 2006 at 2:36 pm

    Aside from the sexual health issue, there’s also wanting to sort out whether you have compatible views on sexuality and relationships.

    Now that I’d want to know (if I were still single and on the market). Also attitudes toward abortion.

    I’m glad that online dating services now ask openly about such attitudes when matching people. I didn’t get the impression dating services did that, when I was young, and it made them seem kind of pointless, because what’s the use of getting handed a pool of people who share my superficial interests if most of them have radically different sexual values from me?

  38. frumious b
    July 17, 2006 at 2:40 pm

    Sexual health issue? my friend in high school got herpes from the first guy she slept with. lesson: you can’t tell someone’s sexual health status from the number of people they’ve had sex with.

  39. July 17, 2006 at 2:41 pm

    I always figured “less than my IQ,more than shoe size” was a reasonable response.

    Is “more than my shoe size” actually guaranteed to be considered a non-slutty number for a woman? My shoe size is 8 1/2, maybe even 9.

    That’s fair, zuzu. It’s another kind of male privilege that allows me to make that remark flippantly with the confidence that it will have relatively few repercussions.

  40. July 17, 2006 at 2:44 pm

    Well, it’s not all that important to know where your significant other went to elementary school or how long they’ve studied tap dance, but it’s a part of their life you might want to familiarize yourself with. I understand why you’re hesitant to tell a partner, but I don’t get why it would be insulting that a lover would want to know how many people you’d slept with. It seems that when dating it might be more useful to devote your energy to finding someone who doesn’t attach any insulting significance to your sexual past than to keep it out of your conversations.

  41. nik
    July 17, 2006 at 2:46 pm

    I’m just assuming that after a meaningful discussion of your sexual history with someone they’re going to know, at a minimum, the rough number of people you have slept with. I just can’t see how if could be considered a discussion worth basing a decision on otherwise. I do think your partner has the right to ‘demand’ that information before engaging in sexual activity. Though if it gets to that stage chances are it’s a moot issue, as they’re not getting an answer or sex anytime soon.

    If someone is disease free it doesn’t matter healthwise how many people they’ve had before you. But that’s a pretty big if. Very few people have been tested for everthing, I’d be surprised if you can be tested for everything. Number of partners isn’t unrelated to someone’s likely health status.

  42. zuzu
    July 17, 2006 at 2:49 pm

    I don’t get why it would be insulting that a lover would want to know how many people you’d slept with.

    Sara, read the Dowd column, and the quotes from the men and women who are focused on numbers. It’s insulting because it can be used as a weapon — if your number’s “too high,” you’re a slut.

    And let me ask you: what purpose do you think it serves to even ask? What possible benefit is there in knowing the number, vs. just knowing that the person has a history?

  43. July 17, 2006 at 3:43 pm

    There’s an easy way to see that the “numbers question” is horribly sexist.

    In every other human endeavor that requires any skill, experience is prized because it means the person is more likely to be able to perform the task well and without having a substantial learning curve. So one would think that sexual partners WITH experience would be valued. (Indeed, men with such experience probably ARE valued somewhat.)

    It’s only because of this stereotype of female virtue, and the idea that rather than gaining valuable experience, a sexually active woman gets “used up” that causes this issue to be viewed differently. In this respect, we seem to still be living in the 1950’s.

  44. Linnaeus
    July 17, 2006 at 4:15 pm

    There’s a flip side to this: I’ve met women who react very negatively to men whose “number” is too low — they seem to take it as an insult that someone less experienced (and insufficiently masculine) is wasting their time.

    As a man who became sexually active later than most people, men or women, do (and not for lack of trying, let me tell you), I’ve definitely observed this and even experienced it a bit myself.

    Women seem to be caught in this strange trap of either being too “slutty” or too “virginal” depending on who’s doing the judging. For men, the sexual expectation is, I think, more straightforward: you’re supposed to have sex early and often. If you haven’t (with some allowance made for you if you married early in life), there’s something “wrong” with you. I’ve heard (a few) otherwise feminist women claim that there’s a “sell-by” date after which someone who hasn’t had sex is no longer appealing; they’re of course free to make that distinction when choosing their own partners, but I disagree with the rationale.

  45. July 17, 2006 at 4:18 pm

    zuzu, I think I basically already addressed your question, but to clarify, I understand that your partner can use the information about how many people you’ve slept with against you. My understanding of your point was that you think it is unconditionally not information that your partner should feel they can be trusted with, even if they won’t make any kind of value judgement about how many people you’ve slept with.

    And the reason I think it’s a relevant question is the same reason I think it’s relevant to find out when my lover lost his virginity or whether he’s ever done sexual act x. His experiences go into making who he is, and his sexual experiences inform his sexual character. As someone who is interacting intimately with his sexual character, it’s a nice thing to know what his experiences have been and how they’ve shaped who he is today. It’s not the most important information that can pass between two partners, but I don’t see why it should be verboten.

  46. pmoney
    July 17, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    Wow. I’ll take it a step further… Not only do I not see my “number” as a source of guilt and shame, I want to know why I’m not expected/allowed to bask in it? Of course, it’s a bit immature, but when my best friend and I were younger (i.e. college) we used to love comparing numbers and notes on all the dudes we’d picked up. If that makes us sound like frat boys, well… so be it. We often went out carrousing together and if we met guys we were attracted to and got along with, we’d often go home with them. We didn’t do this MERELY to jack up our numbers, but we did enjoy the variety (both in sleeping with different types of guys and in our respective individual experiences).
    Perhaps I’m a freak but I am completely mystified why any woman would want to keep her ‘number’ artificially low (obviously if it’s just low b/c you WANT it that way, then Rock on!). I’m sexually attracted to many different types of people and like variety… this is a pretty simple idea, and yet it’s still forbidden for women. It is the prevailing attitude of men (or so says the conventional wisdom at least) and frankly, it resonates with me. And the fear of being called a slut (which I’m sure I have been behind my back) was simply never a concern to me. I don’t mean to sound insensitive or obnoxious or whatever, but it seems like the whole “I don’t want people to think I’m a slut” paranoia is manufactured to a large degree (at least in the context of my priveleged life, i.e. an educated, professional adult). The only effect it seems to have on grown women is scaring them into beleiving NO ONE WILL MARRY THEM (god forbid, right?).

    Now, I’ve been in a monogomous relationship with my current partner for several years. At some point (after we’d been dating and cohabitating for a long time), ‘numbers’ came up in conversation and he suggested we compare. I didn’t find anything offensive or weird about the question and I answered truthfully- completely unashamed and unapologetic. I think he was a bit surprised by the number, but he certainly didn’t try to SHAME me or call me a whore. (And since we’ve since gotten engaged, it apparently didn’t dissuade him from marrying me) But even if he did…. whose loss is THAT? Should I NOT answer the question out of fear that my mate will think I’m a whore? Please.
    p.s. I usually lurk, and I find 99% of the posters here to be very thoughtful and sensitive; I really hope I didn’t offend or step on any toes.

  47. Thomas
    July 17, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    People talk about what sex partners have a “right” to know. I’m not sure that’s the right way to conceptualize it.

    If (and this is a counterfactual assumption) we were in a world where people were free to make rational choices unconstrained by patriarchal norms and could always ask what they wanted to know and walk away from any partner, then I would say nobody has a right to know anything, but nobody has a right to have sex with a partner either, and anybody who doesn’t get an answer to a question they need an answer to can walk away. In that much better world, there’s no need for an affirmative disclosure of, say, HIV status. Everyone would either ask and get an answer, or take precautions as though each partner were pos.

    We don’t live in that world, and in patriarchy, what we all (and expecially women) can ask of and say to a sex partner are very much socially constrained. In that context, I think that some things are safety issues and come with an affirmative obligation of disclosure. Disease status is one of those things; though we could nitpick over the level of disclosure and the timing, and over the nature of the trigger, all day.

    Sexual past is one of those things that I’m not willing to say raises an affirmative disclosure obligation. The information that we all conclude is must-know is disease status: what the person knows zie has been exposed to and what testing zie has had. Past activity, it has been pointed out, is a terrible proxy for that. The rest is not critical in the same way.

    I may want to know general attitudes about sexuality and relationships before I have sex with a partner, and that conversation may even be necessary to a solid relationship; but I don’t think I can demand it. I may say, “you’re not the partner for me,” but that’s a decision I can make for any reason or no reason. Likewise, partners are free to reject me because I’m a lawyer, because they don’t like how I wear my hair or because I won’t tell them what I do when I’m topping my wife.

    What we need to know to have sex with someone is highly dependent on not only who we are but what we plan to do. If a woman wants to fuck me with a dildo, all I really need to know is whether she’s okay with my wife watching (otherwise it’s a nonstarter), whether she’s experienced penetrating people anally with dildoes, and whether she’s got a condom. I don’t need to know if she has had lots of partners, if she is HIV positive or if she’s transgendered. I don’t need to know those things because what we plan to do does not implicate her bodily fluids or her genital anatomy. Other folks might want to know all of those things to be intimate with someone.

    Certainly, if I’m going to engage in BDSM play with someone, I’m going to have to have a much longer conversation about consent, limits, experiences and expectations. If someone is not willing to have that talk, then they can simply say they don’t want to play with me. If I’m going to have non-BDSM sex with someone, I still want to know what my partner likes. And if she’s not comfortable talking frankly about it, I may not be interested. But this isn’t truth or dare, and if she doesn’t want to talk about it, then she doesn’t have to talk about it. That probably means she’s not the right partner for me; but I’m not deriding her demand for privacy.

  48. July 17, 2006 at 4:31 pm

    Why assume that the number has anything to do with values, proclivities, health or libido? You could have 20 notches on your belt at 40, and only had sex one time with each person because you only want to do it once a year. You could have a number to rival Wilt Chamberlain’s and still be the most boring, unadventerous lay ever. You could really only like missionary-style sex while your prospective SO prefers kinkier sex. You could have been with one person and engaged in stuff that would have made Larry Flynt blush. You could have been with only one person and still gotten an STD. (If you’re worried about STD’s, wrap it up.)

    The number isn’t relevant. The attitude around it is. An ex I met up with seven years after our breakup praised me for having (at that time) a small number (because women’s vaginas are like sweat pants–don’t ask) and then bragged that his number was in the eighties because he and his friend had a bet to see how many women they could fuck. He then proceeded to slag the women he had sex with. Needless to say, my loins were on fire. Where do I sign up?

  49. nik
    July 17, 2006 at 5:15 pm

    Very interesting post, Thomas. But I’m not sure can get around the ‘right’ by saying if you don’t get an answer you can just walk away. Short of an affirmative disclosure obligation we can have a not a right to be given the information, but a right not to be deceived. What happens if you don’t walk away because someone lies about their sexual history? Has your right been violated?

    There’s a big recent case going on in California at the moment. A woman claims to have been infected with HIV by her husband, who she claims misrepresented his sexual past by claiming he was hetrosexual and monogamous when, in fact, he had sex with men before the marriage.

    Lots of very deep issues are raised, but at the heart of it is did she have a right to be told the truth about his sexual history and that by lying about it (if that’s what he did) did he commit a tort?

  50. Thomas
    July 17, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    Nik, in my view, that’s duty, breach, harm and causation. I took for granted the options were disclose or remain silent. I think people have the right to decline consent to sex under any circumstances, for any reason or no reason. If follows that if they set certain conditions and ask if partners meet those conditions, they are relying on the truthfulness of the answer in acting.

    I think “what’s it to you” is acceptable, but just reducing the number is fraud.

  51. Thomas
    July 17, 2006 at 5:50 pm

    To clarify for the lawyers, I started thinking about this as a negligence/duty to disclose issue. Some of this stuff may be that, especially if it’s about history. But then I realized that most of the information we’re talking about is stuff that will be intentionally, not negligently, misrepresented.

  52. Sara
    July 17, 2006 at 6:48 pm

    Gods, reminds me of Dante’s flippin’ out scene in Clerks after Veronica tells him that she’s only slept with three guys, but she’s given head to thirty-seven of them (including Dante). I still love the movie, but any wry affection I held for Dante’s character immediately went down the tubes during that scene. What kind of guy gets his dick in a knot over the number of previous cocks a girl’s sucked? Yeesh.

    But I figure you could always use the number as a sort of litmus test. If they freak out and leave, they probably weren’t worth your attention anyway.

  53. KnifeGhost
    July 17, 2006 at 7:24 pm

    As Veronica said when she broke up with him, “I’ll put the whores in Time Square to shame with all the dicks I suck now.”

    Dante’s a whiny punk. At least half my enjoyment of that movie is in Randall giving him shit all the time.

  54. Julie
    July 17, 2006 at 8:50 pm

    I guess to me it depends on how it comes up…. for instance, I know how many people my husband has had sex with. I never asked him outright…. I just pay attention when he talks and we have had several conversations about past relationships. We both know the age at which the other lost their virginity, the number of partners each one of us have had (although mine was sort of not able to be hidden, he knew he was the first guy I had sex with… that’s what happens when you start dating one of your best friends), the details of past relationships, hell he even knows when I got my first kiss and the circumstances under which it happened. I know some of the things he’s tried with other people and doesn’t like, and his past relationships have taught him a range of experiences that have had a positive effect on our relationship. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest that he’s been with people other than me and the exact number never made a difference to me, I didn’t know an exact number until we had been together for awhile (and it actually turned out to be lower than I thought). I don’t know that I would say I have a “right” to know his complete sexual history, but I do like the fact that I know it and vice versa. It’s a part of who he is and it has had an influence on our relationship, just as my past is a part of me. At the same time, I don’t think the exact number is the most important issue and it wouldn’t devestate me if I didn’t know it, as long as I knew his general sexual attitudes (birth control, abortion, STD protection, testing, etc…) and he was upfront and honest with me.

  55. rain
    July 20, 2006 at 6:30 am

    If someone is asking you for a specific number, that’s generally a good indication that that person is insecure, or judgmental, and that there’s a good chance that any information you give will be thrown back at you.

    When I was very young, my now-ex-husb-then-bf asked the numbers question, the how many who and what did you do question. He vaguely alluded to some number of previous partners greater than one. I naively answered truthfully. He then venomously told me that he had never been with anyone but me but had said otherwise to get me to tell. It was thrown back at me in every arguement over the next couple of decades. No, I can’t explain in any rational way why I went ahead and married him or stayed married so long. Yes, I’m sane now. 8-) and happy.

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