Most sex educators will tell you that at least a little bit of communication about sex BEFORE you have it is always a good thing. That "little bit" may just be about safer sex negotiation or it might be a conversation about sexual desires, interests or values. There are plenty of sex conversations people have after they've had sex for the first time. One of those is about how many sex partners they've had before.
Having a conversation about "your number" can be surprisingly loaded. It can bring up your own and your partner's insecurities as well as a range of preconceived ideas about gender and sexual activity. Some people put so much importance on how many people their partner slept with before them that they avoid the topic altogether for fear of ruining a good thing.
Whether you talk about it before you have sex, after or never, there is one kind of preparation that will benefit you -- thinking through the question for yourself. Here are some ideas and tips on doing just that.
To Share or Not to Share: Is that the Question?You need to start with yourself. Would you be comfortable telling a new partner about the number of people you've had sex with? There's no rule that says you need to share this information. But if you don't want to share it, you can't expect your partner to share his or her number either.
Imagine telling your partner and how you would feel. Are you worried about being judged? If so, how do you think they'll judge you? What does that say about how you feel about your sexual history? What does it say about your partner and their own prejudices and assumptions? Here's another question: Is there some ideal number you wish you had? Again, why? What is it about that number that makes it perfect? Answering these questions just on your own can offer you some important insights into your own ways of thinking about sex. And rather than talking about actual numbers, you can talk about this with a partner.
So, first you need to establish that sharing is a choice, not a requirement. Next, think about what you would need to feel comfortable sharing. What would make you feel okay telling a new partner what your number is? This is another way of asking, what makes you feel safe in a relationship? It's good to think about this in advance. It is one way of slowing things down if you find yourself confronted with a question you don't feel prepared to answer and feeling pressure to respond immediately.
Tips on Sharing Safely
If you don't want to tell.
If someone you are dating asks you how many sex partners you've had in the past and you aren't ready to answer, simply saying "no" or "I don't want to answer that" can leave your partner with a lot of questions and little to respond to. There are other ways of responding that address what may be a genuine question and still respect your own boundaries. For example, you could say something like:
"It's a fair question, but I'm not ready to share that yet. I hope you're okay with me waiting until I'm comfortable. In the meantime, I'm curious about why you want to know."or
"We're nowhere near a place where I'm ready to share that with you. That doesn't mean we won't get there though. Let's see how things go."or
"I'm not telling you that yet. If you're asking me because you want to tell me yours, that's okay. But I'll let you know if and when I'm ready to tell you mine."
The first and third response above leave room for the conversation to keep going. The middle response feels more like someone who wants to change the topic completely. What's important about each response is that it doesn't put the person down for asking, but it makes it clear that it's not a minor question and you want to think about it before you respond.
If you want to tell.
Answering this question can be an opportunity to also share how you think about sex and find out a bit about how your partner thinks about sex too. So instead of just saying "four" or "12" you could start by asking for clarification or telling them how you're going to answer. Here are some examples:
"I'll tell you yours if you tell me mine. But first you have to tell me what counts? Are we just talking about full on sex? And what do you consider to be that anyway?"
"I've had X sex partners in the past. But I should tell you that I only include Y in my numbers."
In the first example you're using the question as an opportunity to get your partner to speak up and say what or who they count as a sexual partner. In the second example Y becomes whatever you want it to be, how you define sex. Maybe you only count people you had a relationship with. Or maybe you count everyone, including people you made out with but never got naked with.
Many of us have experienced sex that we did not want (e.g. sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment). And yet people who haven't had these experiences often don't think about it at all, assuming that they don't know anyone who has been abused or assaulted. If you trust the person you are talking to, but haven't yet told them about your non-consensual experiences, and this topic comes up, it could be an opportunity to point out how common sexual assault is, and that it is part of your experience:
"That's a hard question for me to answer because I have been forced to have sex in the past. When I think about my past experiences some of them are really positive and others are very negative. There isn't just one number I would come up with. But if you want to know more about my past sexual experiences I would be willing to share some of that with you…"
All these quotes are meant to be used as a guide for you to think about how you would say something, not to be quoted. It's important to find your own way of talking about sex, with your own words, that match your communication style. But hopefully, these examples show you how a conversation that could be simplistic and end in everyone feeling hurt or insecure can lead to greater sexual connection and everyone involved feeling as if they had a chance to share something they may not usually be encouraged to share.