Let me start with a pop cultural mathematical axiom: the rule of three. In order to best calculate the number of people a man has slept with, divide the figure he gives by three. For a woman, multiply the figure she gives by three. Essentially, people lie about their magic number. And there are gender differences in the format of this lie.
It seems that science has uncovered some truth behind the notion. In this [unfortunately paywalled] study, the researchers made gender differences in sexual behaviour disappear using a nifty trick: the bogus pipeline methodology. In bogus pipeline studies, participants are linked up to something they are told is an infallible lie detector machine. This method has been widely used in psychology studies and seems to be consistent with the truth–for example, in drug studies, it correlates with physical measures of drug usage. A similar method was used in The Wire in the famous photocopier scene.
Thinking that a magical machine could whether they were lying, suddenly participants were far more willing to be honest about their magic numbers and other aspects of sexual behaviour. Contrary to societal expectations, there were no gender differences. Magic numbers and other experiences were the same.
It was not quite as dramatic as the rule of three would predict, but the results were clear: men say they have had sex with more people; women, fewer.
The rule of three states that this effect takes place because women don’t want to seem like sluts, while men want to seem like players, and this was largely similar to the conclusions the authors of the study drew: people exaggerate or downplay their level of sexual experience due to expectations of their gender. In general, our societal expectations of sex and sexuality is that sex is something men want and women put up with to maintain a relationship. Throw in a hefty dose of slut-shaming levelled at women and it’s easy to see why people might feel a little uncomfortable with being truthful about the sex they have been having.
On a personal level, I hate it when someone asks my magic number, because I honestly don’t know an exact total. I’ve never really bothered counting.
What exactly ‘counts’ anyway? In order to calculate one’s magic number, one needs to define sex somehow. Some consider sex with a man to count if it involves a penis penetrating something: this is heteronormative and phenomenally narrow. Sex can be mindblowing without any dick-in-a-hole contact. And what of sex between two women? There is still a pervasive view in the mainstream thar it’s not really sex, and if it is, what makes it become sex? The answer here, when I’ve asked, is generally ‘oral sex counts’. Once again, creativity is lost.
And what of group sex? Sometimes you can share a profound connection with another person, without ever touching each other.
In short, it is remarkably difficult to quantify ‘what counts’ after any shift away from the monogamous, heteronormative model of sex. So even if I wanted to, I couldn’t count my number of sexual partners.
When asked, it is almost always by heterosexual men. Often I decline to comment as it’s not a particularly polite question and its answer should be of no consequence. Sometimes, when pushed, I lie, pulling an imaginary figure out of thin air just to make the conversation stop. Only once when directly asked did I honestly answer: I don’t know. Only once was I asked by someone I felt could handle the truth.
I still can’t understand the fixation with the reducing an individual wealth of fucking and fingering and frotting and filth into a bare, basic number. It’s so much more than that.
And yet, heteronormativity adopts this approach and people share imaginary figures they think someone else wants to hear. Can we not just abandon the nonsensical concept entirely?