He was my first sexual partner and I wanted to know how many partners he’d had before me.
“No, we shouldn’t do this.”
“Why?” I wanted to know.
“Because the last time I did this, I found out my girlfriend had a higher number than I did and it really messed with my mind.”
I argued that telling me wouldn’t make me think any differently of him. I told him it wasn’t a big deal. I pressed and pressed.
“Fine.” He sighed. “17.”
“Well, it’s under 20.”
Yes, it was under 20, but I kept seeing 17 people lined up, 17 people who’d slept with other people. That sexual health line about sleeping with everyone your partner has ever slept with kept echoing in my mind.
Fast forward years later to a conversation with my current boyfriend and our numbers. This time, I knew that what that first boyfriend said was right: you should never tell your number. This time, my boyfriend was saying as I had then, what’s the big deal?
And really what is the big deal? Does the number matter?
Now, those 17 partners of my first boyfriend seems quaint. I’ve had friends who’ve had 150 partners. One friend who said as long as it was less than her age, she was good. Or friends who stopped bothering to count years ago.
I became sexually active later than many of my friends. At one point, I was waiting for marriage and then when I started to think that the age I might get married was more distant, I wanted to at least wait for love. So, I did.
When that first boyfriend and I broke up and my daydreams that we would get married began to dissipate, I realized my number of sexual partners would, at the very least, be higher than 1.
Stil, all the lessons I’d learned sitting in church pews, from women in my family, and from popular culture told me that good girls kept their legs closed. I was, according to those who argue to wait for marriage, a gift that had already been unwrapped. Or from the show Jane the Virgin, a crumpled flower.
I couldn’t uncrumple the flower, but at least I could keep it from being made into mulch. When I began dating someone new, I was aware of the count, slowing things down when necessary and turning down another date if that’s what it took. And of course creating barriers to nakedness: unshaven legs, dingy panties, zippers that always got jammed. Modern day chastity belts, you could say.
Then a gay guy friend told me that he counted all sexual encounters, absolutely any involvement of genitalia and it went on his tally, which gave me and my girlfriends a entirely new number to track.
Of course what I had sometimes kept less track of was what I actually wanted. After a few months of dating someone (or to others a few dates) and there were expectations to be met.
In being beholden to someone else’s ideas of my sexual life, whether men’s about when it was “time” to have sex or culture’s about what number kept a woman a good girl and what number made a woman a slut, I often wasn’t choosing based on my own desires.
I did share my number with my boyfriend, but I also told him that the number only makes us feel knowledgeable. A number though doesn’t tell the whole story, of those who were loved and those who were convenient, those who never made the count and those who probably shouldn’t have.
I also told him that whether he thought the number was too low or too high, I had no shame about any in my count. No regrets. Not mostly anyway…
But, I think it’s still better to keep your number to yourself.
What about you? Do you tell?