Sex

What You’re Really Asking When You Ask Someone How Many People They’ve Slept With

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According to a study of British college students, one in four women lie about how many sexual partners they’ve had. The survey, conducted by a British student news rag called the Tab, found that 20 percent of those ladies rounded down — to “appear less promiscuous,” presumably — while the other five percent give their count an artificial boost. And though you’d think the pressure to have the perfect sexy-but-not-too-sexy number isn’t quite as intense for men, the Tab found the difference to be marginal: 22 percent of dudes lied, too — a little more than half said they inflate their number, and the rest said they tend to subtract a few from their total count.

That’s sad. Not that we’re lying — of course we’re lying, because even in a liberated, sex-positive, Tinder-ed age, the question of how many people you’ve been with is a loaded trap. The sad part is that we’re still asking each other.

What, exactly, does one get out of knowing their partner slept with 15 people (21, if we’re counting oral)? What positive contribution does it make — to your life, to their life, to anyone’s life — to know that your ex had been with three people before you, but your current partner’s been with 26? None. Fundamentally, it does not matter. At the very best, their “number” is a moderately interesting fact about your partner, like their SAT score, or favorite fruit — a fun tidbit that adds to your ever-growing understanding of who they are. At worst, though, it’s undermining, shaming, invasive, anxiety-producing, doubt-inducing, etc. “Bad,” we’ll call it, for short. And not worth it. Whatever information we’re actually looking for? It’s not in a number. So what are we actually asking? Some possibilities:

“Are you good at sex?”

Is the real question how much fun this is going to be? Because knowing that someone has bedded 100 partners, drunkenly, once, isn’t necessarily a ringing endorsement. Neither is two. Neither is six or 12 or 504. There is one good way to figure out sexual compatibility, and it cannot be entered into a calculator.

“Are you a serious person capable of commitment?”

Is this a coded way of figuring out whether this is a casual hookup or a serious thing?  That’s a totally reasonable question — but their number can’t answer that, either. Maybe they’ve slept with a whole lot of people and are ready to be in it to win it with you. Maybe they’ve slept with one person ever — their ex — and they’re making up for lost time. For better or worse, history isn’t gonna tell you the future. Sex partners are not tea leaves.

“Are you a slut?”

Hopefully not. That is a gross question, stop asking.

“Do I matter to you or do you do this with everyone?”

Is the real question how special you are? Valid! But also, a number won’t tell you that. Everyone comes with a past that doesn’t involve you — sad (so, so sad), but true. Maybe a low number means you really matter to them! On the other hand, maybe it means you’re the only game in town. A high number could also mean a gazillion things: that they really like sex (and aren’t looking to get serious right now)! That they really like sex (and also want to marry you)! That they had a busy period junior year of college! They’re old! Wanting to know if someone will love and treasure you forever is totally understandable. Their number won’t tell you that, though.

“How likely are you to have an STD/do we need to use a condom?”

Is this a medical question? Because that’s important — you do legit need to know that someone’s been tested and/or what they’re carrying. But a number won’t tell you that either. To navigate your sexual health, you definitely need a conversation, but you don’t need a calculation.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with being curious about your partner’s number. You want to know, in the name of intimacy and transparency and the sheer pleasure of gathering facts. Me too. But “a lot” or “a few” or “a bunch” or “not that many” or “everyone” — that’s enough to get started. Maybe, at some point deep into your relationship, you’ll exchange exact counts. You’ll share your stats and tell some secrets and that’ll be a great, intimate, bonding experience. If it happens, it happens, and it will be wonderful. But that doesn’t mean you should ask. Because when it comes down to it, the details aren’t really your business. And that’s for the best — a precise count of who did what with whom (honey, are we counting handjobs?) isn’t necessarily info you need.