Sexual Math: A Small Number of Partners Does Not Add Up to Happiness
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I'm not going to tell you exactly how many people I've slept with, partly because I don't know, partly because I stopped caring long ago, and partly because it's none of your business. But I will tell you it's more than French First Lady Carla Bruni's reported number: 15. Way more. I share that information to make the point that how and why we choose our sexual partners differs for everyone; there's no single perfect number that will make you: a) happy and b) not a slut.
But to read Virginia Ironside's recent tirade against Bruni's perceived promiscuity is to think you've landed back a few centuries. Any hint that we might have come a long way, baby, that there was ever such a thing as feminism, let alone the misguidedly labeled "do-me" feminism, is forgotten as Ironside leaves us with such gems as more than fifteen lovers means you're "starting to demean sex itself" and "it's no longer something special that you do only with the chosen few."
Ironside has a lot to learn about sex. I believe that sexual decision-making should be left up to the individual, based on their own desires and values, not some random standard based on what other people think. If your goal is to not be labeled a slut, and you're a woman, well, good luck. Have even one partner, wear a skirt too short, make out on a street corner and be ogled by a particularly nosy, nasty neighbor, and you're a slut, plain and simple. Reputation has little to do with actual sex acts and everything to do with perception.
Further, Ironside assumes that the only reason a woman would sleep with many lovers is for "experience," presumably meaning some kind of sex acts she hasn't done before. "It's unlikely Carla will ever be thinking: 'What might have been.' She's been there, done that and got the nightdress. But what would be the point of Carla -- or anyone else -- accumulating more lovers?" This viewpoint is what truly dehumanizes sex, turning it simply into a robotic, mechanical movement of bodies rather than a complex set of impulses, attractions and acts driven by all sorts of motives.
Your number of partners and how "special" the sex is are not necessarily related. To me, sex is special when it takes me somewhere I can't go alone (and I don't just mean orgasm). When I'm with my boyfriend, I'm certainly not thinking about my past bedmates, and I highly doubt he is either. If you're doing it right, you're fully in the moment, swept away, as it were. Sex is as special as we want to make it, and for some people, that means exclusivity, for others, casual sex, and for many, some amalgam of the two.
Ironside, like many casual sex detractors, needs to place sex within marriage or committed relationships above more temporary affairs in order to bolster her sense of her own morality. I might go that far -- 12, 13, 14 or, well, okay, 15 lovers -- but 16, and no man will ever want to touch you again!
During the fifteen years I've been sexually active (with some pretty long dry spells in between), I've been in monogamous relationships, been single, had one-night stands, threesomes, and hookups. I've slept with people I loved, and people who I'd just met. Some trysts were amazing, some were forgettable. But isn't that the same with everything we do?
I can tell you that one of the best lovers I've ever had was during a one-night stand. I was hopelessly besotted with someone else, so much so that I thought about him all the time, thrilled when he said hello to me, and was so locked inside my fantasy life I couldn't see my way beyond it. This other man sweetly propositioned me, and I turned him down, explaining my crush. "Maybe I can help you get over him," he suggested. And that's exactly what he did. We had a torrid night in his apartment, and he drove me home the next morning and shared some of his own heartbroken moments. It was hot, but also sweet.
The notion that there is one right number for everyone (and by "everyone," we're usually just talking about women; men seem to be granted immunity from the numbers discussion) crops up every few months, as if to remind women not to take our perceived sexual freedom for granted. I wrote about this topic in June 2006 for The Village Voice, and praised an excellent novel (and fun summer read), Twenty Times a Lady, by Karyn Bosnak. In the book, the heroine backtracks to find her former lovers so that her number doesn't get too high for her comfort. I quoted Bosnak as saying, "When I'm 70, I don't care if I've fucked 70 people. I want to look back and say I took every chance I could."
I agree wholeheartedly. I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish my number were lower, but not because I have some artificial limit on how many lovers I think is acceptable. Rather, there are plenty of people I've bedded where, looking back with the power of hindsight, I see how wrong they were for me. But even those experiences have taught me things about myself, and my sexuality, and have informed my future choices.
To Ironside, women are reduced to nothing more than our number of partners; not our sexual comfort level, sexual satisfaction, or any other indicator of sexual health and happiness. It's the number, not the people informing that number, that matters. That tally becomes the sum total of our sex life, regardless of what we got out of it. It's possible to try everything under the sun with one person and be completely content, or sleep with 100 people and still feel unfulfilled.
Further, her notion that men are so fragile that they'll be tortured by the idea of a woman's prior experience is hopelessly outdated. Sure, some men long for the chaste virgin, but others want a woman who knows what she likes, and doesn't like, in bed. My fellow Huffington Post blogger Jenny Block explores this conundrum in her book, Open, suggesting that men who hold onto the ideal of the virginal women aren't always that thrilled once they get her into bed.
Basically, Ironside is saying that if you've screwed more than 15 people, you're a big slut who should hardly dare show her face, let alone expect to date or marry. Bruni is not only showing her face, but proudly claiming her past paramours. So am I, and if you want to call me a slut, go right ahead. That urge says more about you than it does about me. Some, like Ironside, are happy to cast aspersions, make ridiculous proclamations, and pretend they know best for everyone. If that sounds like you, have at it. I'll be busy doing you know what.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is an author and editor of over a dozen erotic anthologies, most recently Hide and Seek and Crossdressing. She hosts In The Flesh Erotic Reading Series and is a former sex columnist for The Village Voice.