Is It OK to Ask Someone How Many Sexual Partners They’ve Had?
And the less common question: Why do you want to know?
In a 1996 stand-up bit, Chris Rock advises men to never ask a woman how many men she’s slept with. Why? “Because you don’t wanna know.”
He jokes, “Why do you wanna know? First of all, no matter what she says, it’s too much for you. No matter what she says. She’d go ‘two,’ [and] you’d be like, ‘TWO?!’”
The joke is one of those ‘funny cuz it’s true’ types. Even now, twenty-five years later, the joke still holds some truth to it, because there are (still!) moral undertones with the question of how many people you’ve slept with (or even what counts as sex). Too many, and you’re a slut, or sexually promiscuous. Too few, and there’s something wrong with you.
A lot has changed in a quarter-century, and even though sex is generally more openly discussed, there’s still a resistance to many conversations around sex and sexuality. It’s wild to me that the very thing that makes us humans is the very thing we have a hard time talking about as a society. I’m talking about sex, people! I don’t have a hard time talking about it — I can talk about sex until the cows come home — because I believe we need to learn how to be truly empowered in our sexual conversations.
So if someone asked me, “How many people have you slept with?” I would echo Chris Rock: “Why do you wanna know?” Or, to put it differently, “Can you tell me why you need to know, and what information you’re looking for?”
It could be that they’re really asking about sexual health history, wanting to be safe. It could be that there’s some shame around the number of people they have (or haven’t) slept with. When someone asks a question like that, without expressing the intention or reason behind it, we often don’t know how to turn toward it with openness and curiosity. We might hold some self-judgment around it. And the number of partners doesn’t necessarily represent the experiences we’ve had — enjoyable or not.
Generally, shame around sex stems from the projected morality of what we were taught about sex and sexuality growing up. Even if your parents were really healthy and open about these discussions, there’s still a lot in the culture that reinforces an unhealthy or overly moralistic lens. The purity movement, for instance, created a lot of shame for people, as does sex education that heavily promotes abstinence. I remember hearing advice that “abstinence is effective,” and yeah, it’s frickin’ effective, but it also layers on a bunch of shame around the basic fact that humans are sexual and desire is totally natural. If you’re a teenager and you’re taught that abstinence is the only option, and sex is horrible and you’re going to go to hell if you have sex (or even masturbate), then you’ll feel like you need to hide any ounce of desire. Otherwise, you’re a bad person, because only bad people feel desire. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Most of us are taught this even younger than our teens, which is why it can be hard to unlearn these beliefs. We abandon ourselves instead or put our sexuality in a box or a dark place where it’s not embraced, encouraged, or integrated. So often people feel the need to be inebriated to initiate or experience sex, so the very moment we should be most present is the moment we’re not willing to be present. Because it’s often hard for us to be in the experience of shame and connection at the same time.
What’s the alternative? How do we unlearn the beliefs that aren’t serving us and replace them with new ones that will? It starts by turning toward them. For starters, I’m always enthusiastically recommending Dr. Alexandra Solomon’s work, especially her book Taking Sexy Back: How to Own Your Sexuality and Create the Relationships You Want. Dr. Solomon is a licensed clinical psychologist and on the faculty at Northwestern University. There’s also an excellent TED Talk and book from sex educator and researcher Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. entitled, Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.
So, is it okay to ask someone how many sexual partners they’ve had? It depends on what information you’re actually looking for. Are you asking because you want to talk about sexual health? Are you asking because you feel insecure or ashamed? Are you asking because you really want to open up a healthy conversation around sex? And if it’s the latter, how can you start that conversation in a way that doesn’t make it a numbers game? Changing the conversation around sex starts with getting curious and unlearning what we’ve been taught. And it ends with a whole lotta love and connection!