Sam Holstein

Don’t Ask Someone How Many People They’ve Slept With

“What’s your number? Like, that you’ve had sex with?”

This question has frustrated me since the very first time I’ve heard someone ask it.

When we ask people for their number, we don’t care about their number. Rather, we care about the assumptions we can make about them based on their number. When we ask people for their number, we’re actually asking another question. We are asking…

The problem is, the number of sexual partners someone’s had doesn’t answer any of these questions. A male with a low number is probably perfectly willing to have a one-night stand, whereas a woman with a high number may hate casual sex. One person may have a high number but not enjoy a majority of their sexual encounters — and someone with a low number may enjoy sex very much and have it quite frequently.

One’s number doesn’t even speak to familiarity with different bodies, either. Someone with a low number may have been intimate with people with different bodies, whereas someone with a high number may go for the same sort of person every single time.

Numbers don’t speak to changes in attitude, either. Someone may have a high total of sexual partners because they liked casual sex in the past, but in the last year decided only to have long-term sexual partners going forward. Or perhaps someone spent most of their life living very modestly and accumulated little experience, but recently let loose. You can’t tell where people are at now based on the past.

A number simply doesn’t provide enough data to draw any conclusions.

That’s okay. Because people don’t ask how many sexual partners you’ve had to draw meaningful conclusions. People ask to make a judgment about you! If your number is “high” (whatever that means), they can make one set of assumptions, either positive (‘sexy’) or negative (‘slut’). If your number is “low,” they can make another (‘modest’ or ‘stuck-up’). These judgments determine how they treat you going forward.

What’s high and what’s low, of course, is entirely relative. High and low is determined by comparison to the social set you’re currently in. There’s no culturally understood ‘high’ or ‘low’ across the entire population. I have known social groups for whom 5 is a high number and social groups for whom 15 is a low number. And of course, people on the high and low extremes for these groups attempted to normalize to whatever number was ‘acceptable.’ Not because of any thoughtful moral position, but because that was the done thing.

Judgments about your number, therefore, can only serve as judgments about your friends. When you ask someone’s number, you’re not just judging the person you’re asking, you’re judging all your friends as well. And last time I checked, but accepting your friends instead of judging them was a cornerstone of healthy friendship.

Perhaps most importantly, the sexual partners we’ve had in the past are in the past. The past and the future are both illusions. Your number might be 5000, but if 4999 of them are history, then the number that matters is one.

Bottom line: Don’t ask someone how many people they’ve slept with. Ask what you really want to know, like “do you think casual sex is fun?” Or “Have you been in a serious relationship?”

When someone asks you your number, what do you do?

When someone asks how many sexual partners you’ve had, if you decline to answer, then people make assumptions that it’s either extremely high or extremely low — whichever one is more shameful.

Refuse to answer anyway.