Self-esteem & Bullying / Sex & Relationships

Owning Your Number: Being Honest About Promiscuity

dancingWhen a man tells you his number of sexual escapades, half it.  For a woman, double it.  Or something like that.

According to the CDC, the median number of total sexual partners for heterosexual men aged 25-44 is 6.1, while for heterosexual women of the same age it is 3.6.

But this is mathematically impossible.  Every time two heterosexual people have sex for the first time, each person’s number increases by one.  Thus, the total sex number of all men added together must equal the total sex number of all women added together, and consequently their averages must be equal.  This is a well-known problem, and the most likely cause is bad data – i.e., old-fashioned lying.

But why should anyone care about one’s sex number, and why do we go to such pains to decide if, how, and when to disclose it?  And should we outright lie?

In Sex at Dawn, Drs. Ryan and Jetha argue that in promiscuous species (like bonobos and humans), sperm competition is a significant or even primary means of gene selection for future generations.  In other words, the winners, from an evolutionary standpoint among promiscuous animals, are males who can insert the most sperm the furthest into the female’s vagina, not necessarily males who excel in other ways.  Promiscuity does not necessarily mean indiscrimination; males might still have to be sufficiently healthy and attractive to even get up to bat.  Contrast this with the gorilla, who has the tiniest genitalia of the great apes, but with his massive size he uses brute force to eliminate his competition and assemble his personal harem.

From this point of view, one might make the argument that a man has a better chance, statistically speaking, of passing on his genes with a woman who, by her own choices, limits his competition.  Why waste time romancing a promiscuous woman when there are plenty of modest others who will provide more exclusive access to the Holy Grail?

(I would be fascinated to discover if there is a correlation between a man’s penis size/sperm count and his predilection for promiscuity in women.  If the authors’ thesis is correct, then larger men would be less likely to care about promiscuity, as they are better – ahem – equipped to successfully compete.)

But notice that this is all bullshit.  I think it’s probably correct that our current feelings about promiscuity have an explanation in sperm competition and social and biological evolution.  However, the explanation is more or less irrelevant today.  Future generations are not really determined by sperm competition; they are mostly determined by decision-making humans who have access to all kinds of information and contraception that prehistoric humans did not.  A smart, sex-positive woman can have sex with hundreds of men but choose to get pregnant when she’s ready by the man she selects.

In other words, I think a person’s sex number means essentially nothing de facto.  But that doesn’t change the feelings evoked.  It is a difficult but potentially very rewarding task to undo some of this detrimental hard-wiring.  I would love to live in a world in which promiscuity was no longer taboo, in which people could feel free to connect in whatever way and to whatever depth they desired, without worries of being judged, ostracized, and emotionally abused by others for their decisions.


Photo by Danny Clark

I’m not just saying this because I think sexual connection between humans is a good thing because it increases the quantity and quality of human bonding.  I’m also saying this because I think people are already promiscuous – some have argued that humans are the most sexual of all mammals – but stigmatizing our nature only makes it more difficult to connect, to feel accepted, and to love and be loved.

Brene Brown, of TED-talk fame, points out that fitting in is not the same as belonging.  For example, when a woman lies about her sex number simply to fit in with her girlfriends who might otherwise think she’s slutty, she does herself a disservice by not being authentic and allowing the other women the opportunity to accept her as she is.  Dr. Brown also suggests that the ability to let down our guards and be honest and vulnerable is courageous, not cowardly, because it is the only way that we can ultimately connect with and feel loved by others.

Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about the sex number altogether.  We’re human.  We connect.  That’s what we do.  Time to stop stigmatizing it.

  • My question for women: Have you ever not had sex with a man that you really liked simply because you were worried about increasing your sex number or other people judging you?
  •  My question for men: Have you ever been really into a girl but then decided to cut it off when you discovered that she was more promiscuous than you preferred?

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One thought on “Owning Your Number: Being Honest About Promiscuity

  1. No and I can speak for my partner and he would say no too. Even though, he did admit that he never wanted to be with a girl as promiscuous as me, but he loves me for who I am and not my past. When I was in high school the number seemed to somewhat matter but since I was unable to use self control with that part of my life I just stopped keeping track. Good questions. 🙂

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