It was the first time we’d slept together, and we were lying there in that post-coital bliss when he turned to look at me.
“So, how many people have you had sex with?” he asked casually, calmly, as if it wasn’t the biggest F**K OFF question in the world.
Red flag officially raised.
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How dare he, my feminist mind growled to itself, utterly flawed that in this day and age a man could have the audacity to even think that such a question was appropriate. I'm 32 for God’s sake, ARE WE REALLY STILL DOING THIS?
But through my shock and horror, I quietly reasoned with myself. Flying off the handle would surely only indicate a guilty conscious. And in the throes of our first night together, I didn’t want to figuratively rock the boat.
And, I suppose if I am truly, positively honest with myself, I didn’t want him to judge me either.
Because that’s the thing about this line of inquiry.
Not all is fair in love and war.
“The question just stinks of sexist vibes,” 34 year old Verity tells Mamamia, “because we all know that men and women are treated differently based on their body count – the amount of people they’ve slept with.”
“Asking for a number is just an archaic idea rooted in misogyny and purity culture, and is almost always used to shame women for their sexual history. Most men who ask have this weird idea that it somehow determines a woman’s value.”
And she’s not alone on that point.
“In my experience,” Sarah, 28, says, “it’s a certain type of man who asks that question, and nine times out of ten the information is then used against me.”
“Now as soon as a man asks, I start to lose interest and check out of the whole situation.”
My mind reeled as I lay in bed with him that first night, debating what the “correct” answer would be and why he was even questioning me. Then it landed on that scene from American Pie 2, where Stifler says: “When a girl tells you how many guys she’s slept with, multiple it by three and that’s the real number.”
Fantastic, I thought to myself, swiftly cutting my figure in thirds. And when he began to suggest brackets (yes, really), I jumped at the first range.
Does anyone really want to know, anyway?
I once read that asking about your partner’s sexual history is a lot like watching a scary movie through your fingers. You want to know what’s happening, but you also don’t really want to know.
So, while open communication and transparency are key to any healthy relationship, it has to be asked: do we actually need to know how many people our partners have gone to bed with?
For 23-year-old Georgie, it’s a hard no.
“I don’t think discussing it is needed at all,” she tells Mamamia, “because it has absolutely nothing to do with your current relationship. It doesn’t provide any information that would be relevant, whether you’ve slept with two or 22 people.”
Shannan, 28, agrees.
“It’s of absolutely no consequence. I’m with them now, so why would it matter how many men I’ve been with before. I just don’t understand the need to ask the question. And I’m not sure what type of knowledge people think they’re going to gain. All they need to know is that I’m safe from any Sexually Transmitted Infections and what my preferred protection method is.”
“Your relationship is about the future. And you can't do that looking behind you.”
Besides the pointlessness of it all, there’s also the potential that opening up about your sexual history could create problems in the future. From unhealthy comparisons to insecurities, judgments and presumptions. Not to mention, feelings can be hurt.
“At the end of the day,” 30-year-old Ellie says, “it’s better to leave those things in the past where they belong. It’s none of my business now how many people my partner has slept with, and I think there are many other ways to discuss boundaries and attitudes towards sex without needing to know a number.”
So maybe instead of focusing on a figure or an extensive list, discussions should centre around past relationships. When was their last long-term partner? Have they ever been in love? And, most importantly, what are they looking for now?
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But are there any benefits in knowing?
While there are those who believe some things are better left unsaid, there is an argument that getting down to the specifics with your significant other could actually improve your relationship.
“For me, it builds trust, and honesty is my core value,” 37-year-old Beth tells Mamamia. “It’s a discussion I have in every new relationship that is more than just casual sex. Because I’d rather know their number than feel like something is being hidden from me.”
“Sure, there is the risk of being totally shocked, but it really just invites a deeper conversation.”
Taylor, 25, is on the same page, and says it felt completely natural talking to her boyfriend about past experiences.
“I’m a pretty transparent person and I enjoying having relationships that are open to discuss anything.”
“There’s also lot of silliness involved with sex, so it’s nice to find someone you can laugh about it with.”
But beyond the benefits of bringing you closer together, could reliving old flames actually help educate you about your current lover?
“The advantage of knowing about previous partners, is understanding what they are like with other people, and what they like or don’t like in relationships,” 36-year-old Melissa says. “Knowing a person’s 'body count' can also give you a more well-rounded idea of their life and experiences.”
“Ultimately all of this can help you maintain a strong and healthy relationship.”
Sounds pretty reasonable to me.
So what do men want?
When it comes to why men ask the question, I have to ask, is it all in the name of spite, curiosity, or something else?
For 25-year-old Pete, there are no secrets in his relationship.
“My girlfriend and I tell each other everything, and it’s this openness that makes me feel comfortable about her past. She’s also said the same thing about mine. And once you’ve established those boundaries and expectations, you shouldn’t hold their past against them.”
Vince, 34, agrees.
“I think if someone is comfortable to be open about previous experiences, that’s a good sign for an overall positive and open-minded attitude towards sex, which I value a lot. Discussing these things openly can also help us learn more about what our partner likes or doesn’t like – both in and out of the bedroom.”
Which brings me to another point. Swapping sexy stories can be a huge turn on (so long as both parties are happy to hear them).
28-year-old Nathan explains.
“Just listening to things my partner has previously done can be really hot and exciting,” he tells Mamamia. “For me, it’s both a very intimate relationship thing, and a fun way to get off. There’s also a chance I’ll learn something about what they’re into.”
But on the other side of the fence, it’s important to remember that sexual insecurities also exist. And not all men want to know.
“I would never ask a woman how many people she’s slept with,” Paul, 26, insists, “because I know the answer would give me anxiety no matter that the number is. Then I would obsess over it forever. Some stones are best left unturned.”
For 39-year-old Connor, he says we’ve all got stuff in our past that we’d rather forget.
“I would hate for people to judge me now on decisions I made as a 20-year-old. That guy was an idiot. While obviously our past contributes to who we are, if I’m looking at a possible relationship with someone, I’d rather look at their behaviour now as an indicator for what’s in our potential shared future.”
But what do we really have to be guilty for?
The truth is, at 32 years old with a single-spell lasting the majority of the last six years, I’ve racked up my fair share of bed notches. Is my tally high? Yes. Did I have a lot of fun? HELL YEAH. And you betcha I don’t regret any of it.
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So why did I lie?
I know my sexual history doesn’t define me or who I am as a person. And I know it’s not a sign that I am not going to be a good partner, in or out of the bedroom. It’s just all part of my journey. And maybe that needs to involve a little more self-acceptance.
“I don’t really care about keeping this kind of thing a secret,” Celeste, 33, tells Mamamia, “since there’s nothing shameful about it. I think some people feel threatened when they hear the number, so I’m not sure why they ask. I’d prefer if no one asked unless they were going to be chill about whatever number it was, because promiscuity-shaming is boring.”
“But to be honest, if they can’t handle the truth, or are hung up on numbers, I don’t want to be with them in the first place.”
At the end of the day, it’s important to go with what you feel comfortable with.
But, always, always know your worth. And then multiply it by three.
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