What's Your Number and Why Does it Matter?

A popular British dating site IllicitEncounters.com conducted an online survey with over 1,000 people and asked the age-old question, “What’s the perfect number?” The study suggested that the ideal number was 10, with 38% of women and 37% of men choosing between 8-12 as the ideal range. At the ripe age of 21 I have slept with 12 partners, so you can only imagine my concern when I read this article. I had a million questions running through my head. Does this mean I’ve reached my maximum? Will I have to stay with my my current partner forever or, even worse, just start recycling through old partners as not to increase my number? Or do I just have to live with the fact that my past promiscuity will hinder my potential to be in a healthy loving relationship? The answer to all of the above questions are obviously, no. After a millisecond I quickly realised that we are in 2015, not 1912, so surely no one cares about how many people you’ve slept with anymore?

Perhaps in our parents’ generations, where birth control and condoms were scarce and there was limited education concerning their use, it made sense to ask, because sex does come at a risk. Yet, now we live in an age of sexual liberation where condoms are provided for free throughout the ANU, and birth control options are widely available for outstandingly affordable prices. We are finally able to enjoy safe sex freely without judgment and focus solely on the pleasure it brings.

At least that’s what I thought, but the numbers question still pops up in my everyday conversations, and high or low numbers are still met with some judgment. On numerous occasions I have heard comments similar to, “well I’ve only actually slept with 8 people, because those two one night stands in Europe don’t count” or “if they’ve had sex with over 20 people, I wouldn’t touch them”. It seems that even today your number of sexual partners affects how people view you in the bedroom. Too little and you have no experience and won’t know what you’re doing in the bedroom, too many and you run the risk of being considered promiscuous or “a turn off”.

Further, the ‘perfect number’ seems to change for women and men. It’s no secret that men often get away with having more sexual partners than women. There is this idea that when men have sex they’ve earned it, they’ve worked hard, bought the girl a drink, wooed her and achieved the ultimate goal. Every sexual encounter is a victory of some kind, a challenge completed. Contrary for women, the perception is that in order to have sex ‘you just have to say yes’, and there’s nothing special about saying yes. If you say yes too many times that’s not impressive, that just means you’re easy to please or that you don’t have the self-control to say no. Despite the advances we have made in equality there is still a distinction relating to the number of partners that is ok to have had, and it is intrinsically linked to the idea of the passive women and the pro-active working man. But why is this so? How come we haven’t been able to move on from caring? And why is it still different for men and women?

Firstly, it’s ingrained in our pop culture. Remember in Gossip Girl when Lily and Rufus wrote lists of each other’s sexual partners? Lily saw Rufus’ list prior to the planned ‘sharing time’ and got so stressed that hers was two pages, as opposed to Rufus’ one, that she threw out the second page. The worst part was that when Lily showed her reduced list to Rufus he was relieved. This is a show that was widely popular during its time and was essentially telling its young viewers that it does matter how many people you’ve slept with, and that it’s bad if you’ve slept with too many.

Secondly, more sexual partners is still considered to bring increased health risks, and yes, to a certain extent this remains true today. However, if you are healthy in the sexual choices you are taking – that is always wearing a condom, getting regular STD checks, etc. – then you should be able to go sleep with as many people as you want. Yet this way of thinking isn’t adopted by the vast amount of medical professionals. When I go to the doctor and they ask me if I’m sexually active, they always ask me how many people I’ve slept with when I reply “yes”. About two years ago, after having this intimate conversation with a random GP, I was confronted with a 20 minute conversation about the perils of sexual promiscuity. He urged me to take pap smear, pregnancy and chlamydia tests, even though I told him I had received all of them very recently, actually at this very same clinic. I left feeling terrible about my choices, looking back on my sexual partners and trying to debate with myself which ones I could decide didn’t count. I even justified cutting one off the list because the guy didn’t cum.

This is a ridiculous way to think however, and my new GP at SHFTPACT agrees, referring to that random GP’s behaviour as “widely inappropriate and unprofessional, thought not uncommon.” I came to see that she was right when a friend recently called me up, distressed because she went to the doctor to get a prescription for the pill and the doctor immediately asked, “so how long have you been dating your current partner?” When she replied that she was in fact single, he then proceeded to ask her how many sexual partners she’d had, and when she replied with a number above 10, he told her that she should reconsider her life choices because they could have adverse health effects.

Whilst it is true that the more sexually active you are and the more partners you have, the more you are putting yourself at risk of STD’s – if you are conscious and safe then you shouldn’t be at any further risk than anyone else. A friend recently told me that if she slept with a guy who had only slept with one person she probably wouldn’t bother using a condom. If there is one thing I learnt from sex-ed in high school it’s that it only takes one sexual partner with an STD to transmit that STD. Someone’s promiscuity should not be a determining factor in the use of condoms.

The bottom line is that we are in an age where it makes no sense to ask how many sexual partners someone has had, because if you are being safe then it is irrelevant. It’s considered rude to ask someone how much money they earn, or who they voted for in the last election, because these are personal issues. So why, given that having sex is one of the most personal things two people can do together, doesn’t asking someone how many people they’ve slept with fall into the same category?