Arielle Pardes | What's your number?
The Screwtinizer | I'll tell you, but I might be lying
December 4, 2013, 3:35 pm · Updated December 5, 2013, 11:51 pm·
Arielle Pardes | DP
Just before I slipped out of my dress and splayed my bare legs, she asked me for my number. I was perched on the cold plastic chair in my gynecologist’s office, wincing just slightly in anticipation for my annual check-up, when she asked: “How many sexual partners have you had?”
I didn’t mean to, really, but I may or may not have conveniently “forgotten” a few of my past partners. It’s not that I’m ashamed of any of my sexual experiences, and my gynecologist is a lovely, trustworthy woman, but counting the tally in my mind, I panicked and blurted out a foreign number.
There’s a troubling sense of being trapped when it comes to “the number.” Evaluating sex quantitatively ignores the flesh-and-bones experience — making it easier to equate a high count with promiscuity or a low count with prudishness. When one’s entire sex life is described by one number, it’s too easy to slip into the virgin-whore dichotomy or make false assumptions about what that number means.
So instead, we lie.
In surveys that quantify the average number of sexual partners, men report an average of seven partners while women own up to an average of four.
But the thing is: That’s statistically impossible.
“Surveys and studies to the contrary notwithstanding, the conclusion that men have substantially more sex partners than women is not and cannot be true for purely logical reasons,” said David Gale, an emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, when he was asked about the phenomenon in a New York Times article.
In 2003, a study published in the Journal of Sex Research revealed that when hooked up to a polygraph, women report higher numbers of sexual partners and men report lower numbers than they do on a non-polygraph survey. Earlier this year, the study was repeated — and the results were identical.
“Despite much greater sexual freedom for both women and men, it is still the case that women’s reputations can be hurt if they are perceived as being too indiscriminate in their sexual activity, while young men do not face the same penalty in most quarters,” Robin Leidner, a professor of sociology at Penn, explained.
When we lie about our numbers, we simply reinforce those tired gender stereotypes and the problematic binary that establishes women as either promiscuous or prudish.
I asked a friend of mine, a senior in the College, about her number. After she told me, I asked if she counted sexual acts like oral sex within her grand tally.
“Oh gosh, no! That would, like, triple my number.”
Her immediate horror at the thought of tripling her number reminded me of my inexplicable knee-jerk reaction to reduce my own number. Disregarding partners with whom they didn’t go all the way, women report a lower number — while men, to boost their count, are more likely to report all partners.
But is the number metric useful at all in explaining sexual experiences?
It’s hard to imagine placing so much emphasis on quantifying the other things that we enjoy in life: “I’ve been to Hawaii three times, but I’m really trying to cap it there” — or weirder yet, “I once had a layover in Hawaii, but I count it as one of my visits to the island.”
So what’s in a number, anyway? If we’re not going to own up to our number in a consistent or accurate fashion, maybe it’s time to ditch the quantification altogether. After all, it doesn’t count for much: Having a “low number” of partners doesn’t equate to a clean bill of sexual health, and having a “high number” doesn’t make a person wanton. Numbers only tell a fraction about a person’s sexual life — a futile metric for defining experience.
As the Bard would have it, a rose by any other number would smell just as sweet.
As for my gynecologist, I suppose she deserves to know the truth. My reluctance to be honest with her represents its own kind of self slut-shaming, and there’s no room for shame in something as hollow as a number.
Arielle Pardes is a College senior from San Diego. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her @pardesoteric. “The Screwtinizer” appears every Thursday.