The Numbers Game

// 11 April 2008

Tags: , ,

Reporting on Kira Cochrane’s article about Nick Clegg admitting to having slept with ‘no more than 30’ partners, Dodai on Jezebel is asking whether the number of people we’ve slept with actually means anything.

Personally, I’ve always refused to count how many people I’ve had sex with. I could work it out if I needed to but it’s a number that I refuse to be defined by. In my experience, some attempt to pigeon-hole people according to how much sex they’ve had is generally the reason for the question and I’ve read plenty of articles in women’s magazines to back that up. (I recall one in Glamour featuring women holding up score cards in the street and another inviting men to judge women according to how many lovers they’d had.)

What I’m more interested in is what people actually mean when they ask the golden question. Indeed, when I’ve asked someone to clarify it, they often reveal that they’re only referring to people who I did “It” with. When I probe them further (no pun intended), they often reveal that they mean conventional vaginal intercourse. Generally speaking, if you say you get it on with the other sex, it is assumed that only so-called “going all the way” counts. Andy from South London (a respondent in Kira Cochrane’s vox pop at the bottom of her article) echoes this trend by saying he’s not sure if a couple of his lovers “count” because there wasn’t “full penetration.”

Of course, how far it goes in makes all the difference.

Comments From You

rose hasty // Posted 12 April 2008 at 1:02 am

Yeah, counting seems like a pretty strange thing to do. I’ve never understood that argument that a woman becomes loose from having too much sex. It’s untrue of course but also it always seems to be levelled at women who sleep with “lots of men” but somehow a woman who sleeps with one man millions of times is immune. What a load of crap. Hands off my sexuality!

Esther // Posted 12 April 2008 at 3:14 pm

Yeah, I get that. I’m happy to say how many people I’ve slept with, but what particularly pisses me off is how penetration is the only thing that counts.

As a lesbian, that’s obviously just absurd, but even with men, I would still include those that I didn’t have penetrative sex with, or even those where I didn’t do anything for them. Defining sex by penetration strikes me as not only being heterocentric (indeed, a lot of gay men don’t only count penetration), but also misogynistic.

Jane P // Posted 12 April 2008 at 5:28 pm

Number crunching in this instance is total bollocks. It’s quality not quantity. I remember an unfortunate one-night stand I had years ago with an older man (I presumed being older he might have a vague idea of what he was doing. No dice, it was more like his clumsiness and crap technique had become ingrained over the years). Once was enough for me.

I later heard him boasting to my now husband, with a wink in my direction (a wink that nearly dislocated his eyelid) that he’d had “hundreds of one night stands”. My fab husband replied: “Oh yeah? So none of them came back for seconds then?”


Jess McCabe // Posted 14 April 2008 at 2:21 pm

We had a reader email in, in response to an old feature about the word slut, to alert us to a debate on this very subject going on over at the Woman’s Hour message board. (I didn’t know they had one either!)

Anyway, people express lots of views about whether partners have a right to know how many sexual partners people have had.

It’s probably no surprise I find it all pretty disgusting (if there’s no value judgement placed on how many people you’ve slept with – ‘too many’ or ‘too few’ – then why on earth would anyone care?!)

Also, I don’t think that this notion would survive the demolition of the concept that only penetrative sex ‘counts’ – literally in this case, because it’s the only thing most seem to bother to keep a tally of!

Holly Combe // Posted 14 April 2008 at 2:56 pm

Interesting… I’ll check it out…

I remember someone claiming (on a message board a couple of years ago) that the numbers question is very important for gauging STI risk but, as you say, most people seem to frame the question (or answer) in a very reductive way. This means a person who could have caught something from a number of partners could easily end up giving the impression they are all-clear just because they haven’t had vaginal penetrative sex with any of them and therefore call themselves a “virgin.”

Incidentally, the guy’s phrasing did nothing to reassure me that his hard-line approach to “needing to know” wasn’t actually just him being a control freak or using his argument as a smokescreen for ease of pigeon-holing.

He gave the impression that he viewed reticence about numbers as a sign of prudishness. My reply was this:

“Perhaps the person who is defensive when asked to count their lovers is simply aware that the person asking may be looking to define their sexual profile according to a very limited scope? Perhaps they are resistant to the labelling and competitiveness that could come out of that? (Personally, I’m sick of all those magazine articles that ask “how many lovers is too many?” or “what does he think of your number?” I think they’re enough to make anyone refuse to count!)

Of course, I realise a good way of combating all that is to openly answer questions about lovers *according to one’s own criteria* but isn’t this sort of confidence and “thinking outside the box” something that comes with maturity? For example, isn’t it actually quite difficult to challenge such a system when you’re 15 and everyone’s obsessed with penetration and so-called virginity?”

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 14 April 2008 at 8:40 pm

Sigh that old, old misogynstic male-centered problem rears its ugly head again. Once again we are told ‘sex is not sex’ unless a penis is visible and more importantly, said penis has penetrated said vagina. Any other sexual act is not sex just ‘foreplay.’ We can forget about homosexuality and lesbianism and also of course female sexual pleasure. Because none of them are ‘real sexual activities.’ Otherwise why did ‘Andy’ rhetorically ask ‘if it was sex because my (penis) didn’t penetrate the woman’s vagina.’

Fellatio is not sex because despite males gaining sexual pleasure and climax penis hasn’t entered vagina so it is not ‘sex.’ Women remain virgins until such time as the magical penis has penetrated their bodies – so any woman who doesn’t want or like penetration but enjoys other non-penetrative sexual activities is apparently a ‘virgin.’

The other issue is how many sexual (that is penetrative) partners should a woman have? Answer why none of course – but then we have the sexual double standard. Men supposedly need multiple female sexual (penetratees) partners because their biological sexual needs have to be met. Never mind there is a plentiful supply of women who once they’ve been penetrated by the mighty penis are called ‘sluts’ and hence are no longer classified as fully human. Instead they are ‘sluts and slags.’ What is ignored is the fact it is not the number of sexual (irrespective of whether penetration occurred or not) which matters but whether women were able to express their sexual desires in safety and were not subjected to pressure by their male partners to undergo unwanted sexual activities. Now that would be something worth discussing, but no instead we have the same old misogynstic sexual double standard debated for the umpteenth time. Albert Ellis (an early 20th century sexologist) has a lot to answer for in defining female sexual expression as ‘foreplay!’ Another misogynstic misinterpretation of female sexuality.

sian // Posted 15 April 2008 at 5:10 pm

it’s interesting isn’t it? i can never work out how many people i’ve slept with – not because i can’t count (!) but because there are so many conflicting ideas of what “really” sleeping with someone is. penetration seems to be the benchmark, but this seems totally facile to me – as that brushes out women and men i haven’t had penetrative sex with, but had “sexual relations” with…it all gets ridiculously complicated! so i choice to count all sexual expereinces beyond kissing, because they are all valid expressions of sexual intimacy, and the idea that to acieve that i have to have penetrative sex seems ridiculous to me.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds