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.
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.