When I was younger, if a guy asked how many partners you had, it was assumed that a woman would knock a few numbers off. I remember one guy I’d been dating for a few months asked me about my “body count,” as he called it. I told him I’d had five partners. He raised an eyebrow and said: My dad told me that whatever number a woman tells you, multiply it by 3. I thought his response was presumptuous and insulting and I told him so. What I didn’t tell him was that, at least for me, his dad was absolutely right.
I’m now 42 years old. I lost my virginity the night before my 16th birthday so my sexual history spans over two decades. Some of those years, I was in a committed monogamous relationship. Other years I was...well, I was a heavy drinking twenty-something in New York City with a glamorous job at a well-known magazine. You do the math.
I don’t often think about the actual number of sexual partners I’ve had. But I do know I would never tell anyone the truth. Not even my closest confidantes. Why? Well, two reasons. First, I know my number is way higher than any of my friends and I don’t want to be judged. And besides that—I actually have no idea what the number is.
There’s a part of me that-slut shames myself when I think about the fact that I can only come up with a ballpark guesstimate of my sexual partners. (More than 30, less than…say, 70.)
I know I’m not the only 40-something woman who has no idea how many sexual partners she’s had. But the folks in that club aren’t revealing their status.
From the time I lost my virginity up until my early twenties, I kept a careful record of my sexual partners, reversing the spelling of their names in case anyone stole my journal. (Because writing Kcaj from Brooklyn would totally fool anyone who snooped.)
But by my mid-twenties, I lost count and gave up trying to keep up. It didn’t seem necessary. Once I’d crossed into the double digits, I couldn’t even remember why I’d initially thought it was important to keep track. What difference does it make, right?
Well, there’s nothing like having an 18-year-old daughter to make you cringe at the idea of not knowing how many sexual partners you’ve had.
My daughter Lauren has been sexually active for about two years. We both lost our virginity around the same age—which is why I’m freaking out. I’d had five partners by the time I was 19. And I don’t want Lauren’s number to be that high.
Yes, I know. I’m a hypocrite. When I think about my first five sexual partners, I don’t necessarily regret any of them. But I do know that for most of them, my intentions were misguided. With my first two partners, I was only looking for intimacy and settled for sex when intimacy wasn’t an option. And I never communicated to any of my early partners what I wanted sexually. Partly because I still didn’t even know what I wanted.
I’m sure that Lauren has a much healthier attitude toward sex than I did at 19. I worked hard to make that happen, starting when she was very young. My husband and I encouraged her to be as open and honest with us as she felt comfortable doing. She came to us when she was ready to get on birth control pills, before she’d actually had sex. And while she didn’t make any grand announcements, I knew it happened at some point during the end of high school.
Lauren’s now a freshman in college. She hasn’t had an official boyfriend since 11th grade, so there’s really no way I can gauge how many partners she’s had.
And really: does it matter? Would a low number mean she was more discerning and careful? Would a high number mean she was being careless or endangering herself? And what was a low number? Three? Five? What was a high number? 10? 20?
Welp. Only one way to find out. Just for you, dear reader, I took a deep breath and called Lauren to discuss body counts, slut shaming and how many is too many.
First question: did you set a standard for yourself before you were sexually active? Did you give any thought to the number of partners that would make sense for you?
Absolutely. I planned on having something like five to eight partners over the course of my entire life.
Where did you get that number range from?
I have no idea. Maybe my friends? Or maybe society as a whole?
Did that number change once you become sexually active?
It did. When my friends started to have sex and began to have multiple partners, I started thinking differently about what an ‘acceptable’ number would be.
What’s your current opinion on the numbers of sexual partners a person has had? Does it matter?
I don’t think it matters at all. Especially if I don’t know a person’s situation and how their number came about. I can’t make any judgment calls. Because I don’t think the number of partners a person has had can tell you anything about a person.
So if someone is your age, 19 years old, has had 50 partners—
Well, yeah. I guess I’d be interested to know how that came about. But that’s what I mean. It would have to be a pretty wild number for me to question anything.
You’re a first year student at a super-duper liberal school for fine art. What do your peers at school say about having a high number of partners?
My circle of friends here at school has the same feelings I do—they agree that it really doesn’t matter. But I think my friends from home are much more conservative and uptight. I’d imagine many of them would judge a person based on their number of partners.
So. Your number of sexual partners… I want to ask. But I don’t know if I want to know your number.
That makes sense. Because I don’t know if I want you to know my number either!
Okay, tell me.
Are you gonna put this in your column?
I am. But I use pseudonyms for both of us.
Mom, are you sure you want to know?
You say that like I need to brace myself.
You probably do.
I’m ready. Tell me.
Okay, so the number is…
[Here, Lauren tells me the number of sexual partners she’s had in the two years she’s been sexually active. I’m opting not to share the number here—primarily because my husband might read this, and this is not something Lauren would share with him. Let’s just say, her number is higher than mine was at 19. And my initial reaction was that the number was much too high for an almost-19-year old who has been sexually active for two years. I did my best to continue the interview with Lauren without dissolving in “where did I go wrong” tears.]
So. How do you feel about that number?
Honestly, I don’t feel any way about it. I feel fine with it. I don’t have any feelings toward it. I might have a different feeling about it if I wasn’t in this environment. I’ve sat around with my roommate and my friends and compared numbers. I certainly don’t have the lowest number. But I don’t have the highest either.
So you never question whether or not you’ve had too many partners?
Well, sometimes I think, is that a reasonable number? But mostly, I think it’s normal.
You have an eight-year-old sister. How would you react if, at your age, she had the same number of partners in the same time frame?
I’d be like…wow. I don’t know how I’d respond.
If she wanted your opinion on the number of her sexual partners, what would you say?
I wouldn’t focus on that. I would want to know who these people were. And I would need to know the how, when and where of these experiences. I’d need that information before I could say this is okay behavior or not okay behavior. Also? I’d ask her. Is this something you think is healthy?
Have you ever told a potential sexual partner how many partners you’ve had?
No. But no one has asked. That’s not the kind of information I’d volunteer.
Do you think there are some potential partners that would be concerned or perhaps even uninterested in pursuing a relationship with you because of your number of partners? How would you feel about that?
Let me think. Okay. So if someone has religious or spiritual beliefs that make them uncomfortable with my number of sexual partners, I’m totally okay with that. I wouldn’t be offended. But if someone thinks I’ve slept with too many people because of some arbitrary idea they have of what the right number should be… that’s not okay.
Devin Anderson is a writer and author from New Jersey. She’s written professionally since 1998 and currently works as a full-time freelance writer for various outlets. She’s also written five books, three non-fiction and two novels. The name Devin Anderson is a pseudonym. The writer is changing her name to protect the innocent, the guilty—and her mom.
Illustration by Jim Cooke