Rewatching Trainwreck this afternoon, I was reminded of the looming question in every relationship: What’s your number? Everybody has a number. What they make of that number is subjective. Some use it for bragging, some lie about it, some insist “it’s no big deal.”
The numbers of sexual partners you have had is a big deal. Don’t minimize that in the name of tolerance. Don’t allow your friends or a convenient article on your favorite site fool you. Our sexual histories are very important.
The cultural stigma of having an incorrect number – either too high or too low – subjects you to scrutiny and judgment that may cause friction in romantic or social relationships. Assumptions we make when we hear someone else’s number are subjective, though often without basis uncoupled from context. The assumptions we make in that instant tell us a great deal more about ourselves, or at least more than the person standing in front of us, owning their sexual history. It tells us how important sex is to us, if not why then how. It tells us how we value people. It tells us whether we are mature enough to hear someone tell their story – their real and authentic story, instead of the costume piece they show to the world.
Whenever I talk about “The Number” with someone, I try to do a quick preface. I stop them before their disclosure to slow things down and express to them that while their number won’t matter to me and any reaction they imagine is a projection, that I am still grateful that this is a part of their story they are willing to share with me. Writing for The Atlantic, Julie Beck notes
In the realm of narrative psychology, a person’s life story is not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of a life, but rather the way a person integrates those facts and events internally—picks them apart and weaves them back together to make meaning.
This includes our number of sexual partners and the stories we recount of those experiences. She continues,
This narrative becomes a form of identity, in which the things someone chooses to include in the story, and the way she tells it, can both reflect and shape who she is. A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next.
My facial tics, leaning back, the way my eyes may glaze over as I look into the distance are only a way of “setting a timeline” of what I know about them and comparing their lives to my own. I do this because I feel that our number of sexual partners and what happened in those encounters are vitally important to understanding who we are. Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, along with Erika Manczak, in a chapter for the APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology writes that
Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals, and values.
Our numbers – plural – are part of who we are and how we interact with the world. Whenever someone asks me how many people I have slept with, I hesitate because, without context, the number is meaningless. The stories of those encounters, however, can be very telling. A high number may indicate whether I have experienced a degree of sexual risk and perhaps compromised my health, but it says absolutely nothing about how I make choices about my sexuality, whether those partners were emotionally healthy choices, or whether I cared for them. Said another say, there are people I have had sex with who just happened to be there. And there have also been people I have only kissed who meant a great deal to me. So why is the number of sexual partners I have had even relevant?
Why The Number Matters
Cultural stigma (too high or low) – Of course, there are stigmas around how often we have sex – how many partners we have had as well as how often – and what this supposedly says about us. This is probably the first thing that flits through someone’s mind when we talk about our number.
What the person thinks it says about themselves – Some individuals think their number is too high, some too low, and some have accepted and embraced their number and are “just right” with it. Typically, because of social reinforcement, men think their number is too low while women think their number is too high. In either case and setting aside social pressure, I think what you might be able to notice is the degree of sexual interest. Some people, both male and female, think their number is too low because they have a much higher sexual interest than they have been allowed (for whatever reason) to express. Others feel their number is too high and experience a measure of regret. Whether high or low, we begin to ascribe significance to that number and judge ourselves by it. We’re either a loser or a slut based on something so arbitrary as the number of sexual encounters. Instead of allowing the number to have control over your self-worth, again whether that means a strong sense of self or a low sense of self, it may be advisable to accept yourself as you are. Remember not just the partners, but the context. Was it consensual and enjoyable? Was it coerced or endured? Was it part of learning who you were and what you enjoyed? These are more important questions to address when determining what you think your number says about you. Candidly, I will sometimes think that my number is “too low” for someone my age and who has lived through the things I have lived through. But whenever I think that, my next thought will be something like, “But I have no regrets because each of those experiences were meaningful, consensual, enjoyable, and a great learning experience. I’m so grateful to and for those partners.” Just like that – poof! – I feel like my number is juuuust right.
What it (actually) says about this person – First off, it may very well say nothing at all. Second, I’m very reluctant to talk about sexual frequency “actually” meaning anything as though there is a capital-t Truth to be found here. It’s a bit risky to talk about what someone’s number “actually” means. So what if they have been with seven partners and four of those were at one time? Being sexually adventurous does not indicate a great deal about them as a person outside of the bedroom – what they are like at work, whether they call their parents, what their diet is like, etcetera. However, there is a difference between our thoughts or what we “think” our number means, and what our actions indicate that needs to be pointed out. Part of the reason we have so much judgement around sexual activity is because so many pioneers in sexual dialogue talked in clinical or scientific terms, as though an “actual” meaning could be recovered from the data. We imagine that, like a scientist, we can extract meaning from a number apart from context, human experience, emotions, and a host of other issues that “actually” give the number its true value.
Let me step outside of this for a moment. In parallel, we may be perfectly fine with our weight and body type, but still be at risk for health issues. When I worked with teenagers, I remember vividly having a conversation with a girl who was anorexic. Whenever she was encouraged to eat, she was very defensive. “I like how I look,” she would say. Which is great – having a positive self-image is important! Though it was clear to those of us who knew the signs of anorexia nervosa that she was not getting the basic caloric intake she needed during those important years. Another example might be a man I once knew by the name of Shane. Shane and his wife were very kind to me when I was a teenager – they would invite me over frequently to play video games, watch movies, and for a short time adopted me as their little brother. Shane liked who he was; he worked out, he ate right, he was always on time for work (that was very important to him). He was very responsible. But Shane also did cocaine and other drugs. When he lost his job a short while after we met, he was outraged that they fired him for drug use. He didn’t feel his drug use was a problem, though it “actually” was – he was an overseer at a sawmill and his drug use was discovered after an accident took place on his crew. He was too high to address the accident properly.
These stories are not shared because I feel sex is risky (though, of course, it can be). Instead, I offer them because I am a firm believer that having a positive self image is important, but part of being a responsible adult is being able to step outside of your own experience and see things apart from yourself, apart from your opinions and valuations. A higher number of sexual partners may increase the risk for STDs, for example, or may be an indicator that you “use” sex to cope with other issues you have gone or are currently going through. Having a low number may mean that you have reservations about sexual expression that are inhibiting your personal growth and relationships. These are issues that could be addressed in a counseling setting. Just like there are those of us who overindulge in sex, there are “sexual anorexics” who have been conditioned to see sex in negative terms.
Without judgement, if you feel positive about your number but have a suspicion that there may be underlying issues that need to be talked through, I would encourage you to seek out a counselor you feel comfortable with (i.e. who is sex positive and understanding of your experiences) that can help you understand not only how you see yourself, but also how you see sex in general, to help you come to a more well-rounded or “actual” understanding of what your number “really” means.
What we think it says about this person – We’re all a little judgey. It happens. Own it. I grew up in the Southern United States where, let’s face it, racism is so standard that it takes a crisis for us to even name it anymore, and well-intentioned judgement lurks beneath a smiling, “Well darlin’, bless your heart.” I know a thing or two about double meanings and how we easy it is to disguise judgement, but that doesn’t mean I understand the person judging me or that they understand me. One of the things I will challenge friends and family to do when I hear them saying horribly offensive things is to consider where their assumptions come from. Was it a personal experience, a statistic they read somewhere, the lesson of a story told by someone they respected? The Bible? And having located the origin of their negativity, is that something they want to emulate? Understanding that you’re making judgments based on incomplete information is one key to understanding ourselves, and also the person sitting across from us.
Your judgement probably comes from comparing their number to your own, without recognizing and accepting that their number probably doesn’t have context. What does a low number say about them, really? Taking a moment with that question, it probably says absolutely nothing of substance about who they are, where they are from, or where they are going.
What it says about us – I recently had a conversation about my number while on a date and what stands out is how quickly she asked, “Is that okay? Is that a problem?” She was watching me intensely to see whether I would judge her, and for good reason. Whenever we hear someone’s number, our brain will naturally try to process that information. That’s a given. If we flashed images in front of you, you would make spontaneous associations because that is how the brain works. In psychology, there are a series of “ink blots” called the Rorschach Test. The images are not as important as what we think about the images, what we think they mean, and why. What kinds of associations are being made and how do they relate to our daily lives, our relationships, and ability to socialize?
When we first hear someone’s number, whether it seems like a high number or a low one, take a moment to do some introspection and see what thoughts turn up; what judgements, assumptions, or labels are lingering just under the surface, and why they are there? I suspect that much of the judgement that we hold has more to do with our own sense of self than it does with the person who trusted us enough to share information about their private life with us.
Still, knowing your partner’s number may be driving you up the wall. You feel like you have to know, and can’t really explain why. It’s all you think about. Or it may be that “the number” is just the easiest way to ask bigger questions, like what kind of experiences they have had, how frequently they like to have sex and what their level of sexual interest is, or what kinds of kinks they could be into. Putting some of the ideas in this article to friends, a few shot back with different questions. One wrote back generally, “I would like to know why my number is relevant. Like, why is it anyone’s business and why does it matter? Why do we put so much pressure on it? It’s not that I’m trying to keep it a secret. I just think it’s irrelevant” to having a relationship, “Unless you want to use my number as a means to shame me. That seems to be the only time people seem to want to hear it.” Another felt, “You may have a high number but have only had sex with each person one time or a few times whereas a person with a low number may have bangin’ it out with wild abandon.” Instead, they offered some better questions to help you get over that pressing need to get the “dirty deets” (details) and may open up new conversations which are lighter, more fun, and could bring you closer together rather than drive you apart.
- What’s your favorite memory?
- When was it the wildest?
- When was it the worst?
- Why have you had sex in the past?
- How often do you initiate sex?
- How important is sex to you?
- How often do you like to have sex?
- Do you consider yourself adventurous?