For years, sex therapist Vanessa Marin would often see clients who were worried about their "sex number," (the number of people they'd had sex with in their lifetime). Sometimes, the concern was over a mismatch in their number compared to their partners'. But, other times, they'd realise that their sex number was climbing higher than they wanted, and worry about what that said about them. "Then, they would get judgmental about their own sexual decisions," Marin says.
Yet, in the last year, she can't remember a single time one of her clients brought up sex numbers. Maybe that's indicative of a change in how people are thinking about sex, or maybe it's just a coincidence. But, either way, there's no question that our culture is not only becoming more sex positive, but also starting to recognise that "sex" doesn't mean the same thing for everyone. So what does your "sex number" mean in 2018, when sex is not longer well-defined? And should we even worry about keeping track anymore?
To some, the answer is that sex numbers aren't worth counting (and they never were). "People are pushing back against sex negativity in a number of ways," says Shadeen Francis, MFT, a marriage and family therapist who specialises in sex therapy. "For many, that has meant abandoning keeping track of sex number, which historically was used as a way to shame people for having 'too few' or 'too many' sexual experiences." And that makes total sense. Why keep around a practice that has been used to police people's sexuality, as well as further harmful stereotypes about race (Black women are perceived as having higher numbers, Francis says, because of stereotypes that Black women are promiscuous). In a new, more sex-positive society, the number is totally arbitrary. "You learn very little, if anything, about a person through their sex number," Francis says. "Let's say your partner's sex number is 10. Maybe they had sex with one person 10 times. Does that give you different information than imagining that they had sex with 10 people one time?"
It absolutely doesn't, because the number is just a number without any context. Yet, Marin does see value in keeping track of our sexual experiences in some way, though just counting the number of people we've slept with may not be the best way to go about it. In college, she had a friend who kept a spreadsheet of all of his sexual encounters. "It wasn't just this conquest, alpha male, kind of thing," she says. Her friend wouldn't just track names. He'd track the experience itself, and that could be incredibly useful.
Most of the time, people think about their sex numbers in a very shame-based way, Marin says. And that's not beneficial. But what if you were looking at the "data" objectively? Keeping track of your sexual experiences could actually tell you a lot about the kinds of sex you want to have, and what kinds of people you want to be having them with. "That could be really interesting, to take a look at which decisions make you feel really good and healthy and which decisions didn't end up feeling like they serve you," Marin says. Much more valuable than the sheer number of people you've slept with, are conversations about the kinds of safer sex practices both you and a new partner use, whether or not you're into monogamy, what your kinks are, and what your sexual boundaries are, Francis says. "And if you're talking about someone's sex number but not entering a sexual relationship with that person, then quite likely it isn't any of your business," she says.
So, instead of doing away with tracking sex numbers, let's take the shame out of it. "If we really want to move in a sex positive direction, then it's actually going to be talking more about our sex numbers and having it be something that's out in the open," Marin says. You don't have to stop counting unless you want to, just recognise that we can't attach any kind of value (positive or negative) to the number itself. Because it's not how many people you've slept with that make you an attentive lover, it's how much you've learned about yourself in the process.