What's your number?
If someone asked you this on line at a deli, the question would have a simple answer -- look down at your hand and read it off the paper you're holding.
If a friend asks while talking about sex, it's a bit more difficult. You have to decide what you count as sex and how you want to be perceived by others. If it's not a close friend you might start to feel the ways that your age, gender, class and race impact how other people judge you. You know that whatever you say, people are going to react based on all these and so many other factors.
And if the person asking the question is a sexual partner (or a potential sexual partner) even more goes into your answer. How will this influence your chances of sex with them in the future? Will it create pressure or disappointment? Is it okay to lie? And if you're going to lie, do you make the number bigger or smaller? So many questions about a silly little number.
But when it comes to sex it's never just a number. In part because few of us are taught how to think critically about sexuality and our own thoughts or desires, most of us rely on numbers. How many times do you have sex a month? Have you ever had a threesome? How old were you when you first had sex? And how many people have you slept with?
Telling the truth about the number of sexual partners you've had to date can be complicated, difficult, and scary. Consider just a few of the aspects to counting up our sexual partners.
What's in a Number?For starters, who and what do you include in your number? Do you include women you made out with once? What about someone you met online and masturbated with but never talked to or saw in real life? Does it only count if you were naked or if your genitals touched? Does one part have to go into another part to be considered sex? Defining sex may seem like a theoretical exercise but here it's all practical. You may assume that people only include sex partners where intercourse, or oral sex happened. But we know from survey research that there are people who consider more than that to be real sex, and others who don't consider oral sex to be sex at all.
Do you only include sexual experiences you choose to have? So many of us have non-consensual sexual experiences (what we call sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape). These are not pleasurable sexual experiences, but they absolutely have an impact on our lives. And they can certainly influence the way we have sex. Most people probably wouldn't include non-consensual experiences because a conversation about sexual partners is probably about pleasurable sex. But some people might. How do you decide?
Which brings us to the bigger question; what is this number supposed to tell us?
Big number = better in bed. Do you really think someone who has had bad sex with 50 people is going to be better in bed than someone who has had mind-blowingly-awesome sex with two people? Does anyone actually think that quantity and quality are always related? Practice may make you better at speaking a new language, but it doesn't actually make you a better communicator. There are musicians who are stunningly adept at playing their instruments, but whose music bores you to tears.
The bigger the number the greater the risk. Public health researchers talk about people with multiple partners as being "high risk." This makes some sense when you are talking about populations, but at the individual level, someone who has had anal sex with 20 people and always used condoms, lube, gloves and good communication is at less risk than someone who has had unprotected anal sex just once.
Big number means pressure, small number means boring. Many people assume that if you've had sex with a lot of people you're going to be better at it AND more likely to compare one partner to another. As a result some people experience an increase in sexual performance anxiety when the number goes up. The flip side of that is an assumption that if you haven't had many sexual partners you're going to be less choosey and probably more boring in bed. Both of these assumptions are false. Simply knowing that someone has more sex partners doesn't tell you anything about what that sex was like.
Which brings us to a final consideration in the mathematics of sexual partners. How does it make any sense to count sexual experience by number of partners alone? What kind of math would have us consider a single act of, say, intercourse during a one-night stand (which may not have been very good) to have the same weight as a five-year, live-in relationship where you may have had sex a few hundred times. Do each of those really just count as one in the equation of how many sex partners you've had? What sense does that make?
Sex Number CrunchingSex researchers also care about your number, although not for the same reasons. Researchers want to know about sexual behavior so they can figure out how to minimize things like unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases which can be the outcomes of unprotected sexual activity.
The problem is that they don't always ask the same question, and they have a habit of dividing us humans up based on their needs (and funding priorities). So there's no universal average number of sexual partners you can say that people have. The longer someone lives the more partners they are likely to have, so the number depends a lot on the age of the people you are asking. To give you an idea of the range, a 2010 paper summarized results from four studies as follows:
- Canadians had an average of eight sexual partners in their lifetime.
- Americans had an average of four.
- In France, the average was seven partners.
- In Britain the average was highest, at 10 partners.
The latest numbers in the U.S. come from the National Survey of Family Growth. Broken down by gender, women ages 15 to 44 reported an average number of lifetime partners of 3.2. Men reported 5.1 sexual partners; 21% of men and 8% of women reported having 15 or more partners. These numbers are much higher than those from a survey of Spanish women ages 18-70, where 6.4% reporting having more than five partners in their lifetime.
So averages range from a low of four to a high of 10 partners, and only a small minority of people have had more than 15 partners. If you look to the marketing/survey research conducted by for profit companies, like the often cited Durex Global Sex Survey, the numbers are higher. They put the average number of sexual partners at 10, and individual country numbers are all significantly higher than those listed above.
Reading Between the Numbers: Race, Class, Orientation and GenderYou may think the number is what matters, but as you've been reading through these statistics you may have noticed that your attitude is influence by more than just numbers. Gender has a lot to do with how we think about people's numbers. So much of how a person's number is read has to do with how their gender is read. If you are a straight man and you find out a woman has had sex with 50 guys your response is going to be different than if you learned about a guy friend who has had 50 female sex partners. Social rules about who is supposed to have a lot of sex is connected to gender expectations.
The same is true for sexual orientation, race, class and embodiment. Women of color, particularly black women, carry the weight of the Jezebel stereotype, which heavily influences how their sexuality is read by others (and experienced by themselves). Someone who is visibly disabled may be cheered on for having a lot of sex partners because the pity model of disability tells us that disabled people can't be sexual, and if they are, they are being brave and triumphant. Poor people are often stereotyped as being hyper-sexual and judged more harshly for having "big numbers" than middle class and rich people.
The way we understand and respond to people based on these things is complicated. But what seems important to point out here is that when we talk about "your number" we aren't talking about abstract math. These numbers have meaning and the meaning isn't just about the number. Our beliefs and prejudices impact our reading of numbers as much as the numbers themselves.
The premise that the number of people you've had sex with "says" something simple or complete about you is flawed, and needs to be rejected. Without details about intentions, desire and experience, knowing the number of people a potential partner has had sex with tells you much less about them then your response tells them about you. If you want to know what you're getting into with a potential partner, or if you want to know something about a current partner's past sexual experiences, start by asking yourself why you want to know. And then if you still really want to know, consider sharing your sexual stories with each other.
Chandra, A., Mosher, W.D., Copen, C. et. al. "Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States: Data From the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family Growth" National Health Statistics Reports. No. 36. (March 3, 2011). Accessed online, October 9, 2011.
Sanjose, S., Cortes, X., Mendez, C., et. al. "Age at Sexual Initiation and Number of Sexual Partners in the Female Spanish Population: Results from the AFRODITA Survey" European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology Vol. 240, No. 2 (2008): 234-240.
Artzrouni, M. and Deuchert, E. "Do Men and Women Have the Same Average Number of Lifetime Partners?" Mathematical Population Studies Vol. 17, No. 4 (2010): 242 - 256.