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How Many People Have You Had Sex With? Why Your "Number" Is Irrelevant, Whether It's 1, 10, 100, or 1,000

Gender theorists Nicole Rodgers and Hugo Schwyzer discuss why our pre-occupation with the number of sexual partners people have had is misguided.

This article is a collaboration between Role/Reboot and the Good Men Project.

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.

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