It comes up eventually in every long-ish dating scenario: A back-and-forth exchange of not just bodily fluids, but sexual histories—maybe by vague reference to exes or past singlehood, maybe by a specific tally. But research shows most people don’t know want to your actual number, and amen to that.
Over at the Wall Street Journal this month, Elizabeth Bernstein looks at research revealing gender-based attitudes toward discussing your sexual past, noting that in this one way, finally, people might be getting slightly smarter:
In the Singles in America study published earlier this year by Match.com and conducted by a research company with several academics, just more than half of the 5,675 singles, ages 18 to over 70, surveyed said they didn’t want to know how many sexual partners their significant other has had.
Here’s an infographic with further study results:
Weirdly, 3.35 percent of men surveyed disclosed their past sexual partners after the first date, while only 3.04 percent of women had. Mercifully, this is a low percentage across the board, because holy shit: why would anyone do this after only one hang? I understand some first dates can be incredible, time-stopping indulgences, all-night affairs where souls are connected, all is revealed, and the deepest truths come tumbling out in a wave of euphoria and connectedness. But still: No. This is advanced-level disclosure, people. You don’t go huntin’ in your underwear.
Moving on, nearly 30 percent of men and women surveyed were about equal on revealing their past partners once the relationship was exclusive. That is fine; hope that went well. But a much smarter, though smaller figure—about 22 percent—never share the number of people they’ve boned. Good for them! These people should be sent certificates for having the correct and best form of restraint around. The kind of restraint that knows that mostly no good can come from telling anyone anything, but especially how many people you’ve slept with.
Why? As Bernstein contends, this is possibly the most private piece of information about you. The number of people you’ve slept with is basically a “window into your relationship history.” That can’t be discussed lightly or understood with a simple number. She writes:
It can be a moment when new couples get closer. Of course, sex educators, doctors and friends say to discuss it as part of practicing safe sex. And of course it isn’t easy to disclose.
That’s because as numbers go, it’s so fraught in terms of reflexive, knee-jerk perception. Too high, and you’ve slutted it up for some reason you’ll need to justify. Too low, then what are you—some kind of cut-off weirdo who can’t get laid? Add to this that people delay marriage for longer and thus date more (too high), or have just come out of a long relationship (too low), and there are any number of scenarios that might easily explain what looks like the wrong number, whatever that means. Bernstein spoke with a sex researcher at Ball State, Justin Lehmiller, who sums it up thusly:
Some people are concerned with being too far above average because it will make them look promiscuous; others are concerned with being too far below average because it will make them look inexperienced.
Average number of partners, by the way, according to that above infographic, would be 14.6 for men, and 8.4 for women—but that is hella unreliable, because everyone is a liar:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study indicated that women were more likely to report having only one partner, and men were more likely to report having had more than 10. Experts believe that the men and women may have been defining “sex” or “sexual partner” differently. Or it may be that women underreport and men overreport. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that when men and women were connected to a device that they believed was a lie-detector (but, in reality, wasn’t), the differences between the sexes in the number of sexual partners became much smaller.
Nobody knows what is normal, and we all end up playing out these scripted roles about how much we’ve had sex: Men feel the need to telegraph a healthy amount of scoring, and women feel the need to telegraph a healthy amount of keeping their legs shut. It’s all stupid, and this is why revealing your actual number helps nothing.
Yes, of course, sexual histories matter for safe sex, but that’s about risk, not a specific number. Even if risk is to some degree calculated by a number of partners (in addition to their histories), the honesty that matters here is being able to say you offer a person a clean bill of health for the purposes of getting it on, or that you don’t with whatever caveats those may be. You don’t have to tell someone how many people you’ve slept with to do either.
Plus, a number is nothing without a nuanced conversation about who you once were, are now, might always be, was that one time. Sexuality is a fluid (sorry), changing thing. Your behavior sexually as a single person in your twenties may look nothing like your behavior sexually in your thirties, or forties. One guy in Bernstein’s story says he tells women he slept with about two women a year because saying he fucked 70 people sounds shitty.
It shouldn’t, though. It should sound like a number that someone who feels they can trust you could explain, without having to feel like they owed you an explanation because of misleading and erroneous cultural perceptions. The problem is, I doubt seriously that most people have the kind of insight into their own behavior to explain their number anyway. There are so many circumstances and attitudes that would explain your sexual history, so many asterisks that, without clarification, muddy your ability to get some kind of crystal ball insight into a person on a number alone.
Plus, people don’t always handle the truth so well, even when the number is low, and this is the sort of thing you can’t find out until you head down this path. A few Dear Prudence columns come to mind. In one, a man who’s been married two years to his wife that he’s been with a total of five years writes in to say he’s disturbed by images of a wild sexual past his wife recently disclosed—male strippers, aggressive sex that involved hitting, enjoyed getting choked, etc. Even though she revealed these things in good faith (not only to tell him how happy he made her, but also to show that she no longer needed these things now that she was in a healthy loving relationship) he’s driven to an etiquette column to sort this out.
In another letter, a man writes in that finding out his wife likes oral sex due to previous encounters has really amped up their sex life, only now he’s super jealous and haunted about it and can’t stop thinking about how much she must’ve liked giving hot beej to some other dude. He’s also bothered because she was doing it more than he was.
Prudie correctly tells him to lighten up, and get over it. But it’s important to realize that in the best of all scenarios, even when someone tells you their number in a loving, reassuring honest way, they might still get uncontrollably jealous and shitty about it. To say nothing of the many people who are absolutely incapable of telling you about their past in a reassuring or honest or loving way. And you can’t go back. There is literally no going back once it’s out there.
Sure, you could argue that if everybody was actually honest about how many people they had slept with, we could slowly start rebuilding our notions of healthy sexual appetites for men and women while single-handedly debunking the slut myth for everyone. But we’re talking about people here, not saints. This should only be undertaken by seasoned reveal veterans, assuming those even exist. Could be a great reality show, though.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.