How Many Sexual Partners Have You Had?

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“How many people have you slept with?” he asked me.

I will never forget that night. I was in college and had been exclusively dating a man I'd met a few weeks prior. That night, we'd been watching television and eating ice cream when the conversation had turned to our sexual history.

I don't remember how it came up, and the question made me feel a little apprehensive, though at the same time, it felt really exciting to violate that taboo and share so much of myself with someone else.

Six weeks prior, I'd been in my apartment – blogging naked, of course – when I'd heard a loud banging on the door. Livid at the disturbance, I'd flung my door open and demanded to know what the intruder wanted, only to find he was knocking on the door across the hall from me.

“What do you want?” I demanded, standing stark naked at my door.

“Uh...” he'd tried so hard to keep his eyes on my face. “I'm looking for Jennifer.”

“Well, she doesn't seem to be in, does she?” I asked, coldly. “I doubt knocking loudly is going to make her materialize.”

I closed the door.

Then it occurred to me that there was a gorgeous man in the hallway outside my door.

“Hey,” I said as I opened the door again. He was still standing there, facing my door like he'd been frozen in place.

“Would you like to come in?”

He had. We'd been joined at the hip since.

And now here we were, lounging and chain smoking and his cold blue eyes were on me.

“How many?” I asked rhetorically. I'd had a list in high school and remembered the number. I added the partners I could remember since then.

Then I told him.

He freaked out. Eventually, it would come out he'd only been with six women, and the first had been a sex worker with whom he'd only spent twenty minutes – his emphasis, not mine. I found that last bit fascinating: on the one hand, I had never heard a man confess he'd paid for sex, and on the other hand, I couldn't imagine a better way to lose one's virginity than to someone with experience who was there not to be pleased, but to ensure you got what you came for. It was a very pragmatic thing to do, very much like him.

Even so, that first hand was still a bit shocked. He was young and gorgeous and he'd paid for sex? And I was strange because I had slept with more people?

It was our first fight. In a way, he never let me forget it. There was something obviously wrong with me – I seemed to need sex. From that point on, sex was always held for ransom, to see how I would react, or to punish some perceived infraction.

The truth is that his reaction did make me feel a sense of shame. I didn't regret my experience, but I felt lesser somehow, like this experience made our relationship commonplace, just one more on a long list of others.

I decided something during that relationship: I would never, ever disclose the number of people I'd slept with again. To anyone.

WHAT'S YOUR NUMBER?

Fast forward a decade or so. It's a typical day in the word mines, surfing the web for content for my site Sex and the 405, when I come across a piece on Psychology Today about research by Norman Brown, a psychologist at the University of Alberta who'd found a key difference between men and women when it came to reporting the number of sex partners they'd had.

Conventional wisdom on the matter was best illustrated by the movie American Pie: Men tend to increase the number of sexual partners and women tend to lower theirs. Brown's research supports this. He found that American men report an average of 18 partners while women report 5 – but he thinks it’s more than people lying. Psychology Today elaborates:

Women are more likely to “just know,” or to have a tally somewhere, a method psychologists call “notches on the bedpost.” Women are also more likely to use enumeration (“Let’s see, Dave, Tarik, that guy from the gym…”), which produces underestimates, since people forget instances.

Men are more likely to use rough approximation (“Jeez, I don’t know, like maybe 50?”) or rate-based estimates (“Let’s see, one a month for the last five years…”)—a method that produces overestimates.

I wrote a post about it.

“I’d be interested in seeing differences in calculation based on the semantics of the question 'how many people have you had sex with?' as many people define sex differently or selectively,” responded Laura Roberts, my former editor at the now defunct sex zine Black Heart Magazine, in a comment. “Maybe you only count the sex if it was good, or if you loved the person, or if you came, or if it was done in a particular style – am I right, ladies?”

But actually, it'd never occurred to me to not count bad sex. In fact, my original tally was very liberal. I counted incidents of oral only, as well as manual sex, webcam sex, phone sex, and BDSM encounters that involved minimal or no genital contact. Basically, I counted everything that was pleasurable or meant to be pleasurable short of making out.

If I were to count again using a more strict definition, how many sex partners would I have?

I was intrigued and decided to give it a try. But before I could do that, I needed to define sex.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE SEX?

“If I'm getting paid, it doesn't count,” says Jenine, an adult entertainer, when I asked her during a phone conversation. “That's work. It only counts if I'm doing it with someone I'm actually involved with.”

My friend Bianca had another take: “it doesn't count if it's just one night, a quick anonymous thing. If you don't know their name, it doesn't count.”

The definitions got more and more varied. It doesn't count if it's not vaginal. It doesn't count if it's with other women. It doesn't count if it's just oral. It doesn't count if it's just manual. Some people counted webcam sex. Some people counted simultaneous masturbation as sex. Some said that if you came while making out, that was sex.

Far from helping me figure out what sex was, the crowdsourcing had confused me further.

I did the only thing I could do: I got in touch with an attorney.

“There are different statutes for criminal acts relating to sex,” said Michael Pilla, an attorney in Los Angeles. “These vary per state and they vary per country. Rape involves the introduction of any object into the vagina, not necessarily a penis, for example. But there are different forms of sexual contact and these are defined as they relate to statutes.”

Essentially, I was on my own.

That afternoon, I sat down with a pen and pad of paper and started writing down sex acts. When I got to oral sex, I giggled a little bit, thinking about Bill Clinton. The truth is, I no longer think of someone with whom I've only engaged in oral sex as a sex partner. Nor do I consider someone with whom I'd been in a BDSM relationship that involved minimal or no genital contact to have been a sexual partner. Masturbating while watching someone else masturbate in the same room? Not sex, either. Webcam sex? Phone sex? Cyber? Nope.

Rubbing up on someone isn't really sex. What about having someone have sex with my breasts? That's a little more than just rubbing up on me. But if oral sex wasn't sex, then tit boinks weren't sex. And manual sex? If having sex with my breasts wasn't, then manual sex couldn't really be sex, either. So does that mean that the few encounters I've had with women don't count as sex?

That's not right.

Anal sex counts, but what about the times I was the one giving it? Do those count?

I'm fortunate that I have very rarely engaged in oral sex or tit fucks with men until after I have had vaginal sex and most of the times that another object has been used for penetration on me, it was simultaneous with penile penetration. This means that either way, the results won't be too skewed.

I decided to not include oral or manual sex, unless it was an encounter involving a woman. I didn't count the time someone got me off in a hot tub with his toe. Or the time I administered a flawless footjob on a date under the table at a restaurant. I didn't count BDSM encounters, either – unless there was anal or vaginal penetration.

As for giving anal sex – I decided that was sex.

The list was down to half.

Interesting what a little redefining can do.

SCIENTIFIC MUCH?

I was going to end this by disclosing the number of sexual partners I've had, thereby moving away from those feelings I described at the beginning of this piece, and proclaiming there was empowerment in our history, and that people should take it or leave it, and so on.

The truth is, however, that the final tally I have isn't sitting with me very well. I don't like that there is no set standard by which to define the exact number of sexual partners I have had. It's too weird and arbitrary.

At the same time, this experience is eye-opening. The range of sexual experience isn't easy to categorize, but it's real. Sex or not, every encounter is something I have lived and enjoyed – or at least learned from.

So in lieu of a number, I will give you this: if we can see this far and screw this good, it is that we stand on the mountain of all the experiences that have come before this one. These experiences do not diminish how great the new experience is, but enhance it, because with each step, we know not only ourselves better, but also the great range of pleasure that is possible with others.

AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405--what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.

BLOGGIE TREATS

Men and Women Can't Agree on What Counts As Sex, by Emerald Catron: "As with other big concepts (love, date, fat-free), it seems Americans can't quite agree on the definition of sex. Sure, we can all agree on a certain classic act, but according to a recent study from the Kinsey Institute, we can't come to a consensus on what else counts as sex. The interesting part is that women are less likely than men to consider oral sex or mutual masturbation 'having sex.' In fact, only 37 to 46 percent of women consider ye olde blow-jays to be 'real sex' compared to 44 to 52 percent of men."

What Counts As Sex?, by Kristen Meinzer: "What constitutes sex and what doesn't? Fifteen years after Lewinskygate you'd think we'd all have it figured out, but it seems we don't. Teenagers who haven't had intercourse are having oral sex and calling themselves virgins. Heterosexual couples who are in the early throes of a relationship say they still haven't gone all the way even if they've heavily petted... We don't want to tell you what is sex and what isn't. But we do know this: sexual activity includes pretty much everything laid out here, and a lot more. And maybe, the best way of settling this whole argument of what constitutes sex and what doesn't would be for us to start using the term sexual activity instead of sex. Everyone, after all, knows what that is. And they know if they've partaken in it themselves."

What Counts As Sex?, by Clarissa: "Jessica Valenti's great book The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women (Seal Press, 2009) offers the following beautiful solution to the perennial problem of what should 'count' as sex: 'It isn't sex unless you've had an orgasm. That's a pleasure-based, non-heteronormative way of marking intimacy if I've ever heard one. Of course, this way of defining sex isn't likely to be very popular among the straight-male sect, given that some would probably end up not counting for many of their partners.'"

One, two, eight, twelve…I can’t count!, by Alix Billie Golden: "I wonder if my numbers are higher because I sleep with women. There seems to be a very thin line between making out and sex with women. How many times have you questioned if you just had sex? Especially when no close were taken off and spit was the only bodily fluid that was swallowed. What counts as sex? What was my point? I don’t want to answer this question. I’d much rather answer, 'When was the last time you were tested?' Why don’t we ask that question more?"

What is a sex act anyway?, by Jacky: "I would like to address the issue of sex toys. Does the use of one qualify as sex? And does it only qualify as sex when there is someone there to use it on (or in) you? Three times now, in my career as a drag king, I’ve been involved in king-on-king fellatio. Yes, on stage. And yes, with the use of dildos or strap-ons. Now, the first time this happened, it was in front of a predominantly dyke crowd. My (now ex) GF and I performed a cop and biker skit where the only way the biker (me) gets off the hook is by giving the cop a BJ. As I was on my knees in front of him doing the deed (yes, the dildo was visibly sticking out of his pants and yes I really had it in my mouth) and thinking 'wow, I’ve come a long way since catholic school and the girl scouts', the crowd went nuts and seemed to think it was incredibly sexy. More recently, at Foufounes Electriques, I was in a sexy cowboy number, again culminating with my on my knees performing the same deed. Foufs isn’t a predominantly dyke crowd. How are these straight metal heads and punks going to react to women pretending to be gay men and having sex on stage? Well, they didn’t wind up caring. Why? I *think* (I may never really know though) that perhaps it’s because in the mind of many of these people, what we were doing doesn’t count as real sex so it just wasn’t a big deal. A dildo is not a penis, therefore inserting it into one’s mouth, even if it is jutting out of someone else’s pants, is not a sex act."

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