In Praise of Forgetting Your Sexual Tally

I’m Kate, I'm almost 24, and right now I don’t know the exact number of people I’ve slept with

Feature by Kate Pasola | 31 Jan 2017

I mean, I could easily figure it out. Gimme a minute or so to cast my mind over eight years worth of sexual history – the lovely time spent with deserving men, the emotionally traumatic run-ins with sociopathic bastards and the underwhelming chaff between, then sure, I could have my ‘number’ for you right away. But, quite frankly, I’d rather not bother. Sorry Mum, if you’re reading this.

...Although, really Mum, you should be on my side with this one. I’m not even sure why I’m apologising. You’re probably regretting having opened this article, your mouse hovering over 'Close Tab' at this very moment. But, as much as that’d be the easy option for both of us, don’t. Just put your Woke Mom hat on for a couple minutes and grit your teeth. You’ll be on my side soon.

Back to the point at hand. Sex numerics. Relation calculations. Bonk tallies. Before I explain why they’re useless, arbitrary and fraught with societal pressures, I’d like to do away with one massive preconception. You might be assuming that only someone who’s slept with boatloads of people could possibly ‘forget’ their number. However, losing count (deliberately or otherwise) isn’t a phenomenon limited to frequent shaggers. And I have the personal experience (and juicy psycho-mathematical theory) to prove it. Let’s break it down.

The complications of counting

The brain counts in a fascinating way. For very small numbers (four and below), it is able to ‘subitize’ – to make a confident, rapid judgement based on some inherent feeling about the number of things to be counted. Let’s use a nacho analogy (if there’s one thing that makes maths more bearable, it’s lashings of cheese and guac). Imagine three or four tortilla chips on a plate. Hold that image in your head.

As the number of objects to be counted increases beyond four, it becomes harder to judge the number without making a conscious effort to count. Imagine a handful of extra chips being chucked into the mix. Not so fast now, are you? You could tot them up pretty quickly, or even just estimate – but that’s exactly the point. You’re now consciously counting, rather than just... knowing.

Intrigued (and definitely not paranoid) about where my tally stood compared to the rest of my generation, I checked out some recent research in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. The average Millennial has had around eight sexual partners (for Generation X-ers the number is 10, and Baby Boomers absolutely slam-dunk it with a total of 11). Now, if we can take anything away from our nacho counting exercise, it’s that keeping track of eight, 10, 11 or more partners probably requires a little more admin beyond an inherent ‘knowledge’ of one’s tally. Ergo, losing count isn’t restricted to the Tribbianis of this world. Convinced? Let’s move on.

The benefits of losing count

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to launch into some sort of rally cry to run amok, developing sexual amnesia and shagging yourselves into a state of administrative mayhem. Nor am I suggesting you lose track of your entire sexual history, throw caution to the contraceptive wind and land yourself with a tasty cocktail of STIs. Let’s be real. Be careful. Get consent. Use a condom if there’s a penis present. Keep track of your sexual health. That’s all stuff you should be stressing over. If you’ve slept with few enough people to inherently know your number, that’s cool. Likewise, if counting brings you comfort or a sense of control, awesome. Keep doing what you’re doing.

But what I mean is this: for some people, when asked about the number of people they’ve slept with, they’d have to count it on their fingers (and for some on their toes, or even with a pen and paper). Now, not only does this process cause some people anxiety due to shitty societal expectations and gender norms, but the expectation that we count and compare leads to all kinds of fights, prejudice, grudges and pressures in relationships. It begs the question: why on Earth do we bother?

We don’t count much else in life

... At least not so militantly. Do you, for example, know how many phones you’ve owned in your life without a quick tot-up? Have you kept a detailed history of how many people you’ve been on holiday with, or how many first dates you’ve ever been on? How about the number of people you’ve told you miss, love, hate or need?

Do you count the times you’ve been naked in front of strangers, or vomited in public, or had an orgasm? What, exactly is it about intercourse that makes it so very necessary to count? Could it, just possibly, have anything to do with our historically repressive and moralistic attitudes to sex? Just wondering.

It’s restrictive

I’ve known people (mostly women) to deliberately deny themselves sexual experiences they’re keen to have, simply because they were worried about adding to their ‘number’ and the subsequent societal punishment. I’ve also known people as young as 15 engage in sexual experiences simply because they felt it necessary to lose their ‘virginity’ and keep up with their pals. WTAF, society. Sort it out.

It’s subjective

What’s too little according to society is probably far too much for my grandparents. What’s too vanilla to consider covering within this very Deviance section might cause lasting trauma to readers of The Telegraph’s hilariously barren Sex section (at the time of writing there’s a single panic-piece about The Sexting Youth and about fourteen million articles about midlife midriffs). When it comes to sexual behaviours, it seems you can’t do right for doing wrong. So just do whatever the hell you want.

The parameters and criteria aren’t even properly defined

Even if you did subscribe to the idea that a given number could determine your value as a partner and your morals as a person (ha, get a grip), it’s a pretty rudimentary system. I don’t think we’re even sure what we’re supposed to be counting. Must both a penis and a vagina be present? Are we just gonna ignore oral sex? Is handsy stuff excluded from this definition? If so, see below.

It’s heteronormative as fuck

Because the patriarchy has determined that the world (quite literally) revolves around the schlongs of mankind, ‘sex’ is often defined a solely penetrative act. a) That’s pretty heteronormative and trans-exclusionary and b) I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY I’M EXPECTED TO COUNT THE NUMBER OF DICKS I’VE SEEN IN ORDER TO BE CONSIDERED A VALID AND MORALLY SOUND HUMAN. But mostly a).

It’s also gendered as fuck

One time, back in 2013 I told a guy I wasn’t sure of my number and that I preferred not to count. After his relentless curiosity I acceded, telling him I was certain it was under ten. He was aghast and subtly slut-shamed me for ‘losing track’. He, after all, remembered all four dozen of the encounters he’d racked up by the age of 22. Well, not exactly by name. And he was drunk a lot of the time. But it’s totally fine, because he’d COUNTED them. Yeah?

It’s also pretty SWERF-y

SWERF stands for Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist. If we’re making moral judgements based on a person’s sexual history, where does that leave people who sleep with others for their income? Does their number count? Does it make them any less of a person? Might you only count only the unpaid experiences? Why? It’s an unnecessary rabbit hole that’s just not worth following. D’you know what’s a hell of a lot easier? Chilling the fuck out.

So there you go. Whether you seriously can’t be arsed with arbitrary sex norms or feel hassled by the thought of counting your experiences and justifying that number to curious, judgemental dickheads, maybe it’s time to stop counting. After all, if I can convince my own mother it’s a good idea, you might get something out of it too.