This Is Why Your Doctor Asks How Many Sexual Partners You've Had

Photographed by Megan Madden.
Going to the gynecologist can be a journey. It often involves cold tongs and personal questions. But it’s a necessary part of life for your health. There’s one question some doctors ask that can cause some speculum-like personal discomfort. “How many sexual partners have you had in the past?” This question can seem invasive or confusing. After all, Shadeen Francis, MFT, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in sex therapy previously told Refinery29 that the “sex number” has historically been “used as a way to shame people for having 'too few' or 'too many' sexual experiences.” Plus, as America becomes more sex positive, you may have stopped keeping track of your number — which can make for an awkward pause when you just want to get off the table and out of an ugly robe.
But there is a reason that gynecologists ask the question, according to Dr. Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist who’s spent her career researching human sexual behavior. “A person's total number of sexual partners can alert a physician to tests that might be appropriate,” she says. “For example, even sex using condoms still caries a reasonable high risk for [STI] transmissions by skin, such as HPV and HSV.” These doctors are just trying to figure out if you sexual history could put you at risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). And your doctor take things a step further, Prause says.
“Persons who have sex for money [doing sex work] tend to be in a higher risk group, so [doctors may also] ask if you have sex for money.” This sounds like an offensive line of questioning, but, in general, they’re still just asking for the sake of your health. However, Prause says physicians could usually be less intrusive than they are, because this is where the real “risk” lies: In the number of sexual partners you’ve had since you were last tested. “Typically, they are just asking you the same question they ask everyone else, but it could be more specific for your situation,” Prause says.
With that said, if you’re not comfortable with disclosing your lifetime sexual history, Prause says you could help guide the discussion with your doctor by giving an answer to their question phrased like this: "I've had X new, one-time partners that I used condoms with since my last HIV test."
However, one thing you shouldn’t do when physicians ask you about your number is lie. “Being open is the best policy,” Prause says. Instead of doubling or cutting your number in half, Prause suggests you say: "I’m really uncomfortable having my entire sex life [discussed] in every medical assessment, so I would like to just talk about the specific risks that you are helping me think about today.”
Ultimately, these doctors should just be asking you this question for your own health and safety. And if the manner in which they're asking, or their reactions, or their responses make you uncomfortable, it's probably a cue that you should find a more professional gyno.

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series