The number dilemma

Sex on Tuesday


In every relationship I’ve had, the conversation at some point turns to talk of “the number.” As I’m sure you all know, this is the infamous number of sexual partners, a number not only used to determine your sexual prowess but also used to judge whether you’re a slutty vixen or a panty-droppin’ dude.

Partway through my senior year of high school, my then-boyfriend and I had the number talk. Although we were happy with each other (and our sex life), we both got insecure. My insecurity manifested itself in the form of wanting way-too-detailed knowledge. I quizzed my boyfriend on the names, order and places in which he’d slept with other women.

At one point, I told him that I wished he’d been a virgin when we’d met. This jealousy was directed at women he hadn’t spoken to in ages, some of whom lived across the country and were in no way a threat to our being together. For some weird reason (psych majors, feel free to weigh in), knowing all of this extraneous detail made me feel better about his number, which was higher than mine.

What is “high” or “low,” anyway? One survey puts the average number for women at  four and the average for men at seven. I’d venture a guess and say those figures will be higher for current college students, mostly because of our “raging” hormones and the Van Wilder-esque hook up culture.

The way the number fits into our sex lives is bizarre. First off, there’s this weird double standard. If women have numbers that are too low, they’re either considered prudes or are accused of lying (talk about a serious Madonna-whore complex). If women have numbers that are higher, they’re seen as slutty or easy. Men have it the opposite way. A high number indicates sexual cunning while a low one screams, “I’ve got no game.”

We’re so aware of this stigma that it changes how we calculate our number. Women tend to under-report their number, while men exaggerate theirs. Why do we care so much? It’s not like one little number reveals any real information.

It doesn’t influence whether or not you have a sexually transmitted disease. There are plenty of people in the world who ended up getting an STD from their first sexual partner. (And on the other end, it’s very possible to have had many partners and be totally clean).

It’s not like your number is actually an indicator of how good you are in bed. Case in point: I once slept with a guy who was known as a ladies’ man. But he couldn’t have found my clit even if it had a flashing neon sign and multiple arrows pointing to it.

Nor does having a high number mean you’re promiscuous. If you start having sex at 17 and have one partner a year, by the time you graduate college, your number’s at five. If you’re a woman, that’s already higher than the average. But having one partner a year seems fairly tame, especially compared to those whose life motto is “Get-Money-Fuck-Bitches.” Similarly, having a low number doesn’t mean you’re pure or inexperienced or pretty much anything at all.

Your number is just that: a symbol that indicates how many sexual partners you’ve had. Society has absolutely no reason to be making normative claims about your sex life. Anyone who tells you that you should be at some predetermined number by whatever age is just being close-minded.

Not only that, but all this numbers talk is simply a way for us to play the comparison game. Your number doesn’t need to match that of your friends. It shouldn’t be dictated by your gender. It doesn’t matter if it’s higher or lower than your sexual partner’s. More often than not, knowing your partner’s number just leads to anxiety or jealousy (or, in my case, anxiety masked as curiosity).

The best answer I ever got to the numbers question was from one of my roommates during sophomore year. We were giving each other a play-by-play of our previous and current relationships, and I asked her what her number was. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “I can’t really answer that. Some were one-night stands, others were people I was with for years. It’s too simple to make each partner correspond to one notch on my bedpost. It completely overlooks my history with each of them.”

If none of the other reasons is compelling, I hope that one is. Whether you take those words to heart and keep your number under wraps or you share the digit freely without fear or shame is irrelevant. The choice is yours. What we should make sure of, however, is that we’re focusing on the quality of our sex lives, not the quantity of our partners. At the end of the day, your number ain’t nothin’ but a number.

Contact Elisabeth Bahadori at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @lisabaha.

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