HER: ‘What’s your number?’ This may be a typical pick-up line in a bar, but when the conversation is about sex, everyone knows what ‘number’ we’re talking about. For men, the higher the number of partners, the better. It’s a simple equation: more conquests equals more prowess.
HIM: I remember when Wilt Chamberlain’s book ‘A View from Above’ came out in 1991, in which he claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women in his lifetime. It was a big story at the time. His number transcended the merely sexual in comic book fashion. It was more like a curiosity of nature.
HER: See, I hear that and think ‘ick.’ I am not interested in a cock with that much mileage.
For women, though, the relationship with our ‘number’ is a little more complicated. The sexual double standard may be changing, but I think it’s still a factor in how many women view themselves in relation to sex and how men view women who enjoy sex.
HIM: Well, let me say, I have very uncomplicated feelings about women who enjoy sex: I approve whole-heartedly. In fact, I admire them for having to break through some cultural taboos just to allow themselves to pursue pleasure for its own sake.
HER: For myself, I grew up a good Christian girl who got all the way through high school with my virginity (technically) intact. I had a serious boyfriend for the last two years, and we vigorously partook of everything but actual intercourse. I had a long time to perfect my manual and oral techniques, which is something my future partners have benefitted from. But I bought into the idea that the act of putting that thing inside me was wrong and I should respect myself enough to hold out as along as possible.
Even today, I’m strangely proud of my low number. We’ve done a lot of playing, but I’ve only had actual intercourse with four men. The thought of jumping into the world of full-swap swinging has been a little daunting for the simple reason that I don’t want to rack up the numbers. It’s a strange paradox to begin thinking of myself as a swinger while still worrying about something like this. I guess my reluctance could be a deep-seated throwback to my religious upbringing, or the influence of ‘the patriarchy’, or maybe part of me likes that I’ve only ever slept with men I came to love. I don’t think I want to have so much sex that I forget the names and faces of my partners. It feels disrespectful. I want to keep the act itself special.
HIM: I find that word ‘special’ problematic. I think of it almost like a code word from our sex-negative culture, designed to keep women from fully enjoying their sexual potential. Couldn’t ‘special’ be interpreted as ‘apply sparingly’, or ‘use only in a socially-sanctioned manner’? Now, I know that’s not you. If you applied your sexuality any less sparingly I would need medical assistance.
I guess I’ve always thought of sex like a conversation. You can have a brief exchange with someone in an elevator that is surprisingly gratifying, even though you never learn their name. Somehow, a connection is made. And even if you have dozens of conversations in a day, and most of them are trite or worse, they in no way take away from the pleasure you get talking with someone who really knows and loves you. Now, I’m not saying you should have sex as often as you converse, but I think the range of possibilities is very similar. A conversation can be quick and playful, or deep and life changing. One doesn’t take away from the other, and no one thinks ‘I’ve been talking to too many people – I should respect myself more.’
HER: Ok, but do you remember that couple at Hedo who seemed to be on a manic mission to fuck as many people as possible that week? We saw them with two or three different couples a day, and as soon as they found out we weren’t ready to jump into bed with them, they were dismissive and quickly moved on. You were just as turned off by their attitude as I was. What was going on there for you? Was it just the pushiness, or was there something else that you didn’t like?
HIM: Well, first of all, they weren’t really our kind of people. That always sounds kind of snobby, but really everyone has the same standard. We all want to be with people we have something in common with, where the rapport is effortless. I actually have nothing against their pursuit of many different partners, it’s just that that approach doesn’t work for me. If I like a food, I want to resist the temptation to have it twice a day, every day, so I don’t tire of it too quickly.
HER: So, what you’re saying is you want to keep the food special? That if you had too much of it, it would lose some of its value? Isn’t that the same thing I was saying? I think we both want to attach a significance to sex – we understand that it’s an act to be valued — but we’re coming at it from slightly different angles. I attach value through only giving it to partners I care about enough to receive my ‘gift,’ and you attach it through the ability it has to give you pleasure. Would it be accurate to say, then, that I am other oriented and you are self oriented?
HIM: Hats off to you – that was a nice little rhetorical twist! But no: not accurate. I’m a giver – just like you – and I like making other people happy. That’s central to who I am. Of course, I pursue pleasure – again, just like you – but in the end, I am only interested in having sex with other people when it works for them, and when it works for you. For us.
HER: Fair enough. So, enlighten us, please. What is your number?
HIM: My number is not that big, actually. By the age of 30 it was still one; better than yours at the same age, when you were already at a scandalous three! But just to be certain, and to show you I’m taking this seriously, I sat down and made a list. At the max, my number is 17 – and that’s if you assume there are two I can’t remember.
And let me say this: because we keep track, I know for sure that I’ve had more sex with you in our four years together than with the other 16 women combined in the previous 26 years.
HIM: Yes. And it’s not really close. That’s where the ‘number’ shows how truly unhelpful it is. Every partner counts as ‘one’ whether you made it with them one time or one thousand times.
The other problem is that there is no ideal number. What’s the cut-off? Is ten good but eleven bad? Or thinking back to our old friend Wilt Chamberlain: would 1,000 sexual partners be better than 20,000 in any meaningful way? In his absurd universe would 500 seem conservative, even puritanical?
HER: Ok, ok. So maybe numbers are too simplistic (or too complicated) a measure. My worry about having sex with too many people isn’t so much about the number but about the strength of the connection. It’s the old quality over quantity value statement. But I know you also want a quality connection. If we respect our partners enough to only fuck them if we actually feel that connection, then we avoid becoming manic bed-hoppers and we both get what we’re looking for.
HIM: And Wilt Chamberlain (God rest his no doubt weary soul) gets to keep his place in the record books without worrying too much about us.