DEAR DR. JENN,
Every time I’m in a relationship, we end up discussing how many people we’ve slept with. And every time, the guy I’m dating reacts differently. My number is on the high end, but I don’t see the big deal. Why does the topic keep coming up? And how do I get out of answering?! —Bad with Numbers
DEAR BAD WITH NUMBERS,
Most people ask a new partner how many people they have slept with for a one of a few reasons. Commonly: 1) We have been trained to do this in order to assess our likelihood of a sexually transmitted infections, which, at its core, is a good thing. 2) We are trying to learn about our new boyfriend or a girlfriend and what their life experiences have like when it comes to relationships and sex. 3) On some level, we are trying to assess how significant we are—or will be—to this person by virtue of sleeping with them.
Here's the thing: The research shows that couples most commonly have this conversation one to four months into the relationship but typically have sex after eight dates, which is usually about a month in. So most likely, the answer to this question isn't actually giving you very useful information at all.
I am not a fan of sharing numbers. Regardless of which of the above reasons leads to the curiosity, the discussion usually backfires.
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Think about reason #1: safe sex. Surveys show 18 percent of men inflate their numbers whereas 18 percent of women diminish theirs. We still live in a society that has a double standard when it comes to sex, and, as a result, getting accurate numbers from a new partner is not always possible. If you’re not sure if you are getting accurate numbers, how can you use them to assess the risk of sexually transmitted infections? You cannot. Plus, there are people who’ve had sex with one or two partners and have ended up with a STI and those who have sleep with different partners weekly but dodged a bullet, regardless of whether it was by practicing safe sex or just good luck.
The best way to protect against STIs is to take the time to get to know your partner so you can get a sense of how honest they are, ask them if they have ever had an STI, and request a blood test before having sex. I know it seems very clinical, but this is the best way to insure your medical well-being. You may be saying to yourself, “Nobody does that!” But you are wrong. Many people do. Granted, if you are not in a committed, monogamous relationship, someone's health status can change between getting a blood test and having sex. Needless to say, it is always best to use a condom if you’re not at the point in a relationship where you totally trust your partner to give you the truth. That is your best insurance against an STI.
As for reasons number two and three? It is understandable to want to learn about our new boyfriend or girlfriend‘s history when it comes to relationships and sex. We are curious to understand their philosophies, defining moments, and level of experience. But numbers don’t always reveal what we are truly looking for. It is better to ask what we are curious about directly.
Meanwhile, using numbers to figure out how significant we are to a new partner can be a losing approach. There are plenty of people who have not had many partners but who don’t consider having sex to be a big deal. A person's mindset at the time of the encounter has much more to do with how significant a sexual partner is to them than how many came before. I know plenty of former playboys who now consider sleeping someone to be a deeply emotion experience—and people who once attached a world of significance to sex and are now just looking to let loose. Meaningful conversations are much better barometers to help you understand what sex means to another person now.
The other problem with sharing numbers is that it can create jealousy between partners. I know one couple that shared numbers and the boyfriend held it against his girlfriend for the entire duration of their relationship. His numbers were lower than hers, and it triggered a lot of insecurity for him. He was so judgmental of her history that, ultimately, it ended the relationship. If you've already let the cat out of the bag and got a negative response from your partner, explore what feelings or concerns it brings up for them; sometimes addressing those issues directly will resolve the tension. If it's too much of a hot-button issue to solve alone, try a few sessions with a couples therapist.
What do you do if your new lover asks you about your number but you do not want to share that information? You have a right to have boundaries with a partner, old or new. If bae asks you this question, simply say, "I’m not really comfortable talking about that. Why do you ask?” If they admit it’s about safe sex, offer to provide them with your latest STI test. If they’re trying to get to know your romantic history, offer up bits of information that you feel more comfortable sharing and you think are more pertinent to who you are as a sexual, romantic being.
But whatever you do, don’t lie. If this relationship goes the distance, there’s a chance that at some point you’re going to have too much Pinot and end up spilling your true number. Guilt catches up with us. Better to make a boundary than get caught in a lie.