Catherine Townsend: Sleeping Around

'Surely a little mutual deception isn't a bad thing'
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The Independent Online

My date was a very cute 36-year-old screenwriter. It was over the dessert wine at Les Trois Garcons in east London, that he dropped the "So, how many people have you slept with?" bomb. I tried to be vague, but he insisted that honesty was "very important". "No really, tell me," he pleaded, putting his hand on my knee, "I'll bet I can guess - Six?" "Add a zero to that number, honey, and you'll be in the ball-park," I smiled, raising my eyebrows. He turned white, asked for the bill and fled into the night.

My date was a very cute 36-year-old screenwriter. It was over the dessert wine at Les Trois Garcons in east London, that he dropped the "So, how many people have you slept with?" bomb. I tried to be vague, but he insisted that honesty was "very important". "No really, tell me," he pleaded, putting his hand on my knee, "I'll bet I can guess - Six?" "Add a zero to that number, honey, and you'll be in the ball-park," I smiled, raising my eyebrows. He turned white, asked for the bill and fled into the night.

When I was studying at New York University in Manhattan, I knew girls who would go home with a guy they'd slept with before just to avoid upping their numbers. Some of my friends here rely on dodgy maths as well. We've been through the sexual revolution, are free to date, and have sex, like men - so why are we still so sensitive about "The List"?

"There is a definite double standard. A woman who has loads of sexual partners is still seen as a slapper, while guys who hook up constantly are studs," says my friend Victoria, a 31-year-old who works in publishing. She should know: she's the first to admit that some of her past romantic entanglements resembled a train wreck in slow motion, yet almost every ex still describes her as the love of his life. "Personally, I don't really add anything that lasted under 30 seconds to my list." Over vodka martinis at the Electric in west London, we laughingly debate what other sexual shenanigans "don't really count". Mutual masturbation in the back of a cab? Unreciprocated oral sex? Women? It's ironic because while we feel pressured to edit out past encounters, men are beefing up their numbers. "I notice that a lot of guys claim they are nearing 'their century' - 100 shags. I'm sure that many are lying, even to themselves," says Michael, a dashing 38-year-old lawyer and self-described serial dater who "likes his space" ... "But I think that memory gets fuzzier with time, so a lot of them compensate because they convince themselves that they are leaving people out." I can relate to that. As an experiment, I once tried to write a history of my past conquests. The earliest entries are highly detailed ("1. Scott D, high school boyfriend at parents' vacation house in Georgia, late autumn, Led Zeppelin playing"), while later entries are full of holes ("24. Jon or Joe?? Photographer - Nice teeth).

But, far from being constantly on the prowl, like most women I'm incredibly picky about who I sleep with. On the occasions when I click with someone, I would rather find out on date two than date 20 that we're not sexually compatible. Then, there are the times, between boyfriends, when a night low on drama and high on nakedness is the perfect solution: like the time when an ex-boyfriend broke my heart and I found myself playing naked truth-or-dare with a boisterous group of New Zealanders a few hours later. Not an ideal solution, but a lot better than crying into my Ben and Jerry's.

Another 36-year-old friend of mine, who describes herself as "sexually conservative", puts her list at more than 100. "I married very young, but since my divorce have been single for almost 15 years," she explains. "That means if I'm lucky and average one person every two months, it still adds up to more than 90."

Of course, as my grandma says, I may regret my hook-ups later. But so might the "good girls" who abstain. Like my 27-year-old friend Nikki - now happily engaged to her boyfriend of four years. She still fantasises about a steamy make-out session with a gorgeous guy she dated shortly before meeting her fiancé. "I was very concerned with being thought of as a 'nice girl' back then so didn't go all the way, but now I wish I'd ripped his clothes off." According to Michael, the main thing that bothers guys isn't the length of The List, "It's the idea that someone, somewhere along the way may be better in bed than you." He has a point. One of my exes found out about my dalliances with a photographer known as "The Horse" - and not because of his equestrian abilities. I never heard the end of it.

A little mutual deception about The List isn't necessarily a bad thing. Tomorrow night I'm off on a date with a fellow journalist. And, mindful of the fragility of the male ego, if I'm quizzed about The List, I'll be sticking to the "more than one, less than a hundred" line. After all, I wouldn't mind a second date this time.

c.townsend@independent.co.uk

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