Recently, I found a cocktail napkin shoved into an old journal. On it was the list of guys I'd slept with up until that point in the late '90s. I remember the night a girlfriend and I helped each other tally our totals. ("What about that usher at that wedding in Chicago?") In order to fit my list, I had to write on all four squares.
Yeah, I know. Let's just say that while the total was more than my age at the timeÃ¢â‚¬”and roughly three times my friend's numberÃ¢â‚¬”it was lower than the debt ceiling. Sure, I had a lot of fun, but in my twenties I was a premature hooker-upper, ever hopeful that sex would lead to love. Occasionally it did, but mostly it didn't. Evidently I needed to learn that lesson many times over. Still, I don't regret any of it (and the sex was always safe). I can't regret something I learned from.
The "Slut" Stigma
Many of us do this math but are not as comfortable with the bottom line. (Take, for example, Anna Faris's new rom-com, What's Your Number?, in which she plays a woman about to date her 20th guy. Freaked out by what she feels is too high a number, she sifts through her past to see if she missed The One.) "Most women are aware of the double standard they're judged by," says Sallie M. Foley, a sex therapist at the University of Michigan and author of Sex Matters for Women: A Complete Guide to Taking Care of Your Sexual Self. "A guy can brag about having a high number and it won't really hurt his standing in the future."
In fact, she says, guys are applauded for having slept with a lot of women, whereas "the culture is still not quite ready to consider women wild and interesting and powerful for having a high number." And while having a low tally carries less of a stigma, women with very little experienceÃ¢â‚¬”for reasons other than making the conscious choice not to hook upÃ¢â‚¬”might not be bragging about that either.
The idea that there's an ideal numberÃ¢â‚¬”a Madonna/whore middle ground, so to speakÃ¢â‚¬”may be one of the reasons women underestimate their total in sex surveys, while men tend to jack theirs up. (See "Are You Lying Down?") For what it's worth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent study of almost 62,000 American women (ages 15 to 44), 22 percent had intercourse with only one partner, 11 percent had two, and 32 percent had between three and six. A mere 8 percent say they had upwards of 15.
The busiest times for getting busy: the college years, and the early thirties, when women tend to peak in sexual desire and collect more partners, particularly if they get divorced, says David Schmitt, Ph.D., a psychologist at Bradley University in Illinois. Generally speaking, women who are comfortable with sex, extroverted, and feel they're attractive have high numbers. Alcohol consumption also plays a big role (you don't say!). When totaling their number, women may count anything they personally consider to be sex (from oral sex to intercourse); religion and local culture may also shape one's definition of sex, and thus affect the tally.
The Weight of Your Number
More important than what your number is? How you arrived at it and how you feel about it, says Ian Kerner, Ph.D., author of Sex Recharge: A Rejuvenation Plan for Couples and Singles. Look at the qualitative issues that number represents, not the tally itself. "Do you enjoy sex, are you comfortable trying new things, or are there negative experiences that you still bring with you?" he asks. You could have had only one or two lovers (or a satisfying relationship with your vibrator) and feel terrific; or you might have been with dozens of guys and be left cold.
The bottom line: Whether your number is "too high" or "too low" mainly depends on what your gut says when you think about your decision to hook up with partner number three or 300. "A really good reason to have a higher number would be that you know yourself and your sexual identity really well," says Foley.
"You enjoy sex, safely, for itselfÃ¢â‚¬”you're not doing it for trophies, you're not defiant about it, and you're not trying to overcome something, such as sexual assault, that hurt you in the past." If you know sex is not something you're doing to gain love or numb out, if you're not abusing substances and crawling into bed with whomever, a higher number is nothing to feel bad about. If, on the other hand, you're typically left with a what-was-I-thinking feeling, if you feel ashamed, or if you can't not have sex, she says, going home alone to reconcile your emotions with your actionsÃ¢â‚¬”and possibly seeking a therapistÃ¢â‚¬”is a wiser move.
As for women who have tinier totals, there are likewise healthy and less healthy reasons, says Foley. "Some people simply don't feel ready until their twenties," she says, in which case, not having sex is a sign that you know what's right for you. "There are positive reasons not to be sexual," she says, such as strongly identifying with a religion or culture that defers sex until marriage. A low number is worrisome if you are hostile toward sex, are avoiding it out of fear or because of some kind of historic pain associated with it, or if you are really withdrawn and have little connection with others in general, says Foley.
"Constricting your life in a way that is based on fear or anger is different from celibacy," she says. "Sex is a normal, healthy part of human relating, and an aversion to sex is different from choosing not to have it."
After writing this story, I threw away that napkin. Shortly after my friend and I made our lists, I had settled down, so I won't be setting a world record. My girlfriend has now lost count. But more important, we're both happy with who we are, and now when either of us has sex, it leaves us smilingÃ¢â‚¬”the only reason to do it, no matter how many partners you do it with.
Are You Lying Down?
It's a mathematical impossibility: On surveys, straight men claim to have had sex with two to four times the number of partners as straight women. It doesn't take a math whiz to realize these numbers should be roughly equivalent. So who's lying? Perhaps nobody: Research suggests the discrepancy has to do with the way men and women tend to recall past experience. In a study at the University of Alberta in Canada, researchers found that when men were asked about their lifetime numbers, they tended to make a rough estimate, which resulted in a rounding up, and women tended to enumerate, which resulted in an underestimation. (Forgot about Spring Break Ted?) When men and women used the same method of tallying, the numbers were a lot closer.