The previews for the Anna Faris vehicle “What’s Your Number?” couldn’t make me want to see that movie any less if they added “Exorcist”-style projectile vomiting. The premise, if you have magically managed to miss the media blitz, is that Faris’ character realizes her list of sexual partners has one more digit than most of her friends’. She spirals into a panic attack induced by slut-shaming and spends the rest of the movie trying not to add a new guy to the list. It’s supposed to be funny, but I can’t work up more of a response than a frustrated eye-roll and a long, exasperated sigh.
Here’s the thing about counting sexual partners: context matters. A number is just a number. It gives no background on the who, what, when, where, and why. If we want to judge people’s sexual activity (which I’m not convinced we do), the qualitative matters so much more than the quantitative.
There’s an exercise in middle-school sex education classes that involves passing a piece of clear plastic tape from forearm to forearm until skin cells, hair, and assorted lint has latched on to form a nasty little mini-carpet. The instructor then describes how being promiscuous means you have to be prepared to face all the gross crap that your partner collected before you were even on the scene. Picture 25 sixth-graders issuing a collective “ewwwwwww.”
I know that there’s one person I’ve slept with who, prior to me, had slept with upwards of 30 women. My eyes bugged out a bit when he first told me, but after the shock value had worn off and we talked about it for a few minutes, I realized it didn’t bother me one bit. He’s in his late twenties and has been sexually active for ten years. There were a couple of relationships in there, and then a whole lot of casual flings and hook-ups. I know him to be a respectful, honest, generous, kind-hearted person, and I’d be willing to bet big bucks that those thirty other women would tell you the same thing.
I also know guys whose lists are safely in the single-digits and some of them are assholes. They treat sex like a game that they are desperately trying to win, and women like prizes to be hoodwinked into participating. On paper, they might look like the safer choice than my friend, but in practice I’d tell every woman I know to pass them by and line up to be lady #31 for my Casanova. Of course, there are men with long lists who are douches, and men with short lists who are decent, respectable guys. The point is, you can’t tell from the number.
Remember the rule of three from American Pie? Take the number of people a woman has told you she’s slept with, multiply by three; take the number a man has slept with, divide by three. It’s a stupid rule, but it does nicely encapsulate the differences in the pressures facing straight men and women when revealing their sexual histories. Men are supposed to stud it up, bedding anything that moves; women are supposed to resist all approaches and hold out for the ones that really matter. This isn’t fair to either gender as it makes men out to be sex-fiends whose actions are dictated by hormones, and women as libido-less drones who hold the keys to the bedroom.
We do each other a huge disservice when we hold potential partners to some sort of tiered promiscuity scale based on a single number. I’m not saying you need to ask for an itemized list with age, duration of relationship, level of intoxication, number of positions, and kinky fetishes, but understanding your partner’s attitude toward sex and their behavior towards their partners is going to give you a better picture.
I was talking to a male friend recently who told me he starts to get wary about sleeping with a woman with more than 15 notches on her bedpost.
“How old is she?” I asked.
“What do you mean,” he said, “Does that matter?”
“Well, it’s a different thing, isn’t it? Has she slept with 15 people in six months? Or in 10 years? Fifteen people in 10 years seems pretty reasonable.”
He said it didn’t matter, what mattered was, to put it bluntly, the “number of penises she’d touched.” He applied the same standard to his male friends regarding the number of vaginas they’d been in contact with. He said, “more than fifteen and things start to get ‘icky.’” I personally disagree, but everyone is entitled to setting their own boundaries where they feel comfortable. What we can’t do is penalize people for acting on their desires in safe, consensual ways.
On a last note, there are practical reasons for discussing sexual history, protecting yourself from STDs, and preventing pregnancy chief among them. Discussing is one thing, judging is a different matter. I know how much thought I put into my own sexual decision-making, and how my upbringing, values, health, and emotional state factor into how I think about my own sexual history (and future!). If I told you my number, I’m sure there are people who would say it’s too high, and some who would say it’s too low, and some who would project all sorts of fire and brimstone for reasons I can’t understand. The fact is, none of them know what they’re talking about.
I’ve never slept with a virgin before, and it’s quite likely that I’ve passed the part of my life where that might happen (although you just never know!) It feels like a safe bet to assume that everyone I sleep with from here on out has some sort of sexual history. They will almost definitely have a nice piece of scotch tape all jammed up with other people’s junk. I’m okay with that; it’s not the prettiest of things, but I have my own strip of gunk-y tape, too.
This piece originally appeared on The Good Men Project.