"I tried to match cute little symbols to each man on my list. For example, there was one guy who was an abysmal kisser, so I drew a St. Bernard next to his name." So writes Samantha, one of 109 respondents to my request for details about how people curate the details of their sexual pasts. While the discussion about "the number" (and when and whether it should be disclosed) is a familiar one, there's considerably less public conversation about how, where, and why we keep "the list."
Recently, one of my mentees, Kevin, told me that his girlfriend had discovered his list tucked carelessly into a desk drawer. She'd been enraged, less by the modest number of names than by the fact that one of them was a mutual friend to whom Kevin's partner had always compared herself unfavorably. "Only someone who was still stuck in the past would keep a list," she told him, an accusation that Kevin instinctively rejected but still wanted to discuss. As it turned out, he came to visit me the same week that XoJane ran a story from a woman who called it off with a potential beau because he took too much pride in remembering his own relatively high number of past partners.
Inspired, I put out a call on social media for stories about how people archived their own sexual pasts. I wasn't interested in learning the exact number my contacts had; I cared less about how many they remembered than the tools they used to remember them. I eventually got replies from 78 women and 31 men, many of them very detailed. Several people sent me photos of their lists, and two sent me the Excel files they used. (Understandably, none were made available for publication.)
Most (22 of 31 men, 50 of 78 women) kept their lists in computer files. Many noted that their original lists had started in bound journals, and at some later point been transferred to a digital archive. Though several people mentioned that they were familiar with sites like NOOKist, which bills itself as a "safe, secure, and confidential place" for people to store their sexual histories, I only heard from one person who actually trusted a third-party app enough to use it.
About half shared their actual "numbers;" measured by extremes, I heard from people with lists as small as three and as many as 640. Though the hefty majority of responses were from folks listing heterosexual partners, I heard from many people who had recorded details of same-sex encounters as well.
Not only did I get many more responses from women, but -– perhaps stereotypically — women were much more likely to record details beyond names and numbers. Samantha, the same woman who drew a St. Bernard next to the name of a slobbering one-night stand, put a tiny stopwatch next to a lover who came much too quickly; other respondents reported using similar clever symbols to record a few pertinent details about their hook-ups. While 29 of the 31 men only listed the women with whom they'd had penis-in-vagina sex (PiV), more than half of the women had a system for distinguishing sexual encounters that didn't include intercourse. Francesca kept a list of names using "an ellipsis for second base, asterisk for third base, and an exclamation point for a home run." Kristine was similar: "one asterisk next to their name means there was some form of sexual contact. Two asterisks means there was intercourse. It gets confusing sometimes, because a one-asterisk man sometimes becomes a two-asterisk man six months later and it really throws things off." Others wrote pithy little summations of their encounters. Megan explained that she includes two or three word descriptions after the names of the men she's been with, like "excellent," "disappointing," "puked on his porch" and "married."
One of the most sensitive issues around numbers and lists involves how – or whether – to integrate non-consensual sexual experiences onto a list. Several women mentioned that they deliberately left those incidents out of their archives, while others made a separate category. "I have two assholes on their own ‘rapist' list," one woman wrote; "I won't include them with everyone else, but I can't forget them either." Another put "rapist" in parentheses after a name, which she nonetheless included in sequential order on her spreadsheet.
I was also curious to hear why people kept lists. I heard the same common refrain from men and women alike: "I don't want to forget my past." A few talked about the list as a source of pride or shame. One woman wrote that she began to keep a list at 16, when she had two names to record. She numbered eight more blank spaces, telling herself that she was "allowed" to get to 10 names on the list before she got married; "I decided, totally arbitrarily, that I could get to 10 without being ‘slutty;' I numbered the blank spaces as a way of rationing myself. It seems silly now that I've long since blown by that number." As expected, I heard from both men and women who remembered reaching certain milestones – 10, 25, 100 – with pride. "I know it's juvenile, but when I got that 50th name written down," one man wrote me in an email, "I felt this huge sense of accomplishment."
For others, the list was as much a document of self-acceptance as a tool for sustaining memory. "I feel like my transition from the more timid, afraid-of-being-slut-shamed girl I used to be into the much more sexually assertive and confident woman I am now has informed this desire to have a tangible "collection" to look back on," June told me. She shares her number and her list with new or potential partners as well as friends: "it's a good way to weed out judgmental assholes before I get too close to them." I heard similar things from dozens of other respondents, who mentioned that the list served not only to jog their memories but, as several put it, to serve as a testament to a hard-won emotional growth of which they were genuinely proud.
I have no list. Many years ago, a girlfriend of mine found a notebook in which I'd recorded the details of my own sexual past. I had two lists, one for the women I'd slept with and one for the men with whom I'd had fleeting sexual encounters in high school and college. Like Kevin's partner, she demanded I throw it out, making the classically false claim that true fidelity requires a willingness to erase the record of the past. I gave in, and after a few abortive attempts to reconstruct the list after that ex and I had separated, I gave up. I don't know my exact number, and I certainly don't remember the names.
I should be grateful that I don't have to worry about my children finding an enumerated record of everything their father did before he married their mother. Yet someone who is fond of lists (I have a list of every airport I've flown into or out of, and a roster of favorite restaurants at which I've eaten), I feel a genuine, albeit mild sense of loss. I'd like to have the names, if nothing else, of the people who in some small way helped make me who I am. Judging from the responses to my query, I'm clearly far from alone.
[Image via Shutterstock]