What’s your number? Gender differences in Fuck #s
How many people have you slept with?
For many this can be a completely terrifying question. For others, it can be a source of pride or can elicit a wide array of emotions. I think of that scene in Friends where Monica’s boyfriend asks her how many people she has been with after telling her his number is two (including Monica!). Following this Monica is embarrassed to share her number, thinking that she will be judged. Similarly, in a real life example I have a female friend who got dumped because her partner found her little black book. Apparently, he didn’t want to be with a woman who was so “experienced.” It certainly seems that there is some judgement (often from men?!) based on how many sexual partners folks have had. But what is the “right number” of sex partners? And how does that judgement change depending on one’s gender?
A great way to assess how a society feels about a phenomenon is to ask them to self-report their behavior and see what they lie about. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles in Britain asked people about their lifetime number of sexual partners. They found that straight Men reported a mean of 14.14 lifetime partners where straight women reported 7.12 opposite sex partners. Logically speaking, if this is a study of straight sexual encounters and if all encounters involve actual human beings, then men and women's numbers ought to be roughly the same. The fact that men’s number is TWICE as large as women's suggests that men are overestimating their number of partners, women are underestimating their numbers, or what is most likely, some combination of the two.
The results of this study says a lot about our attitudes towards sex and gender. Although a lot of us consider ourselves to be modern women and men, there is still a reminisce of an outdated understanding of gender. Specifically, it appears that to some degree women still want to be perceived as less experienced and on the extreme even “virginal,” whereas men want to be perceived as having been around the block. Of course, what we think about sexuality is hugely impacted by religion. Louisiana residents reported an average of 16 lifetime sexual partners (wooooo Mardi Gras!), whereas Utah, which is very religious, reported an average of 2.6 partners. It certainly does seem that less religious communicates are more sexually open in general, and I hypothesize that the gender difference in self reported sexual activity may decrease in liberal, non-religious communities.
When asked about their level of truthfulness, a study found that 41% of men and 33% of women admitted to lying when asked their number of life-time partners. Indeed, men were more likely to overestimate their sexual experience, whereas women were more likely to underestimate their sexual experience. When asked why, both parties admitted to feeling pressure to have a “normal” number of partners.
So what is a “normal” number?
Although the median number of (reported!) lifetime partners has been estimated to be between 4-6, there is a lot of variation. However when we are thinking of larger numbers, only 2% of heterosexual women, 3% of heterosexual men, 2% of lesbian women report having been with more than 50 people. Interestingly, gay men are the exception here, with 30% reporting having more than fifty partners. There have not been any studies assessing queer folks pressure to lie about their number of sexual partners. My hypothesis would be that, as queer folks are still raised in communities where there are gender norms regarding sex, perhaps they experience similar pressures of men to overestimate their numbers and women to underestimate their numbers. Queer folks reading this, in terms of sexuality did you feel pressured to overestimate or underestimate your experience? How did this relate to your gender identity?
Despite all the research on the topic, there is no right or wrong number of sexual partners. The benefit to having a lot of partners is having novel and exciting experiences and expanding your sexual repertoire. In terms of sex with someone new, a lot of sexual experience does not alter a penis or a vagina. Women ``getting loose” is not a thing, as the vaginal muscles are super elastic. Of course, if you have more partners you may have a slightly higher likelihood to have STI’s. However, if you get tested regularly this risk goes away. Also, most of the risk depends on your level of safety, so the number itself isn’t telling. It is more dangerous to have sex with one person without a condom than 20 people with a condom, so knowing someones number isn’t really telling about their safety.
How do I discuss my number with my partners?
Sharing your number can make you feel vulnerable as fuck. As a result, if your partner asks you how many people you have been with, you should not feel like you have to share. You can ask your partner why they are interested in knowing. Oftentimes it has to do with sexual health. If so, you can talk about getting a test together so both partners know that they are STI free, without getting into the nitty gritty. One reason to share your number would be to assess your partner's response, if it is anything other than word good for you, then this person isn’t worth your time!