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‘Most of mine don’t have actual names’: The unlikely trend of listing who you’ve slept with on your phone

Is tracking your sexual encounters strange or integral to self-development? Asks Olivia Petter

Saturday 23 March 2024 06:00 GMT
To-do list: a detailed log of your sexual past may prove useful if, say, you develop an STI
To-do list: a detailed log of your sexual past may prove useful if, say, you develop an STI (Getty)

Of all the random lists we have on our phones – groceries to buy, books to read, drunken poetic epithets to re-read in the morning – there is one more private and personal than all the rest. At least, there is if you’re a millennial woman: a list of names detailing everyone you’ve ever slept with. Sometimes, the names will be chronological: first followed by last and in the order in which they came, so to speak. A little like a death registry. Occasionally, though, the list will be more chaotic, with orders and monikers according to your memory (think: “leather jacket guy from AllSaints” followed by “Jennifer something but definitely not Lopez or Saunders”).

As juvenile as it may sound, this is a surprisingly common practice, one fastidiously observed by almost every female friend I have, as I discovered last week when the conversation came up over dinner. I subsequently asked my Instagram followers if they, too, keep a list. Many did – and were eager to explain why.

“It’s a reminder of my past mistakes and my recent glow-up,” one woman replied. “I do it to keep track and remember funny stories and important lessons,” added another. Many explained they kept a list as a self-development exercise: “It reminds me how far I’ve come,” said one woman. Another quipped: “I like to keep one in case I ever want to do a Tracey Emin-style tent”, referencing the artist’s infamous installation with the appliquéd names of everyone she had ever slept with.

Keeping a list could genuinely be a helpful exercise, reminding you of self-worth in low moments and identifying unhelpful patterns, argue some relationship experts. “It allows you to see any trends that emerge,” says dating coach James Preece. “For example, is there a high percentage of partners who were already involved with someone else? How many turned out to be averse to commitment? This kind of analysis is extremely useful when mapping out a dating strategy, to give any future relationships the best chance of success from the outset.”

For some, there’s less thought behind it. “Most of mine don’t have actual names,” replied one person. “I write little adlibs next to them as a way of reminding myself that dating and sex can be fun and not to take it too seriously,” added another. Many said they liked to keep a list so they could sporadically whip it out at the pub for comedic fodder. “It’s fun to reminisce with my mates,” explained one person. Others likened it to keeping a diary: “It’s like an easy-to-maintain memory prompt. Like, oh, that’s what I was doing that year.”

As some people will know, especially those who’ve watched Sex and the City, there are also logistical benefits. A detailed log of your sexual past may prove useful if, say, you develop an STI – remember the episode when Miranda gets chlamydia and has to call up all of her recent bedfellows? It may also serve a strangely sentimental purpose. “I forgot I used to have a list,” says Anna*, 31. “I’m engaged now and I’ve just seen that it was last updated in 2020 after my first date with my now-fiancé. So you can see the date went well!”

Miranda (left, played by Cynthia Nixon) has to call her sexual partners in ‘Sex and the City’ (©2021 WarnerMedia Direct, LLC. )

If you do keep a list, it does beg the question of how you use it when you aren’t adding more names. “I don’t look at it often,” says Jess*, 30, who started keeping a list after her first relationship ended a decade ago. “I’ve been in a long-term relationship for a year now, and haven’t looked at it more than once since. I’ve definitely referred to it during GP appointments though, when a doctor asked about my recent sexual history which allowed me to give a more informed response.”

Some people monitor it more regularly. “I look at it around once a month,” says Kirsty*, 26. “It’s usually because it’s come up in conversation with friends and I’m trying to remember the name of that guy that was obsessed with golf, or how many women I’ve slept with, or whether I slept with Jon before I ever met Andy.”

It’s an odd thing: keeping track of one’s sexual escapades in a manner not too dissimilar from writing a list of the five people you fancy on the back of your hand (did anyone else do this when they were at school?). Frankly, I was surprised how many people outside of my friendship group confessed to doing this.

“I wonder if there’s something in making sure you remember them all so you seem less slutty,” ponders Anna. “I think there’s a shaming undertone driving it for some of us. Because God forbid a woman doesn’t know how many people she’s slept with.” Indeed, when it comes to how many names are on your list, there’s no doubt that there are still distinctly different societal standards for men and women.

“Some of this list-keeping will be down to social conditioning and gender stereotypes, and whether we value having a high or a low number of sexual partners,” says counsellor Georgina Sturmer. For some people, this is the very reason they don’t keep a list. “I don’t want to be confronted by how many people I don’t remember,” says one woman. “I think it would be disrespectful to my current partner,” adds another female anti-list advocate.

For me, it’s a reminder of the experiences that I’ve had, the people that I’ve met, and even just where I was during that part of my life

Carl*, 34

These don’t seem to be thoughts that preoccupy the men I know. “It’s weird,” says a male friend. “Who needs a list of people they’ve shagged? We aren’t at school anymore where you get popularity points for banging someone hot. Also, who’s that list for? Is it to remind yourself that you do occasionally sleep with people?”

That’s not to say there aren’t men out there keeping lists – and not necessarily doing so with the best intentions. “I had an ex-boyfriend who did this and scored people to work out the best average,” says one woman. “He wouldn’t tell me my score.” One man says he keeps a list because it feels “important to acknowledge a meaningful interaction”, while another replies that he doesn’t “because three people isn’t a list”.

“I have a list on my phone of people I’ve dated since I moved to London in 2015,” says Carl*, 34. “Having been in and out of relationships since then, the list has ended up fairly long. I don’t take any pride (or shame) in that, nor do I see it as any kind of scorecard or use it to track who I’ve slept with. For me, it’s a reminder of the experiences that I’ve had, the people that I’ve met, and even just where I was during that part of my life.”

Despite now being in a long-term relationship, Carl still finds looking at the list a positive exercise. “I think I’ve met some great people, and made some good and bad decisions. Ultimately, all of the experiences have helped me to reinforce things about myself and actually what I love so much about my girlfriend, and why I think we’re so compatible too. I’m also quite forgetful, so it probably helps with that.”

‘Leather jacket guy’: Does keeping a list of sexual partners bring a sense of permanence to an otherwise flimsy dating landscape? (Getty Images)

In a dating landscape that can feel so disposable, when you can swipe right, meet someone and ghost them within the week, perhaps having a list brings a sense of permanence to the whole, often flimsy feeling, charade. “It reminds you that these experiences actually happened,” adds Carl. “Like, they matter in some tiny way and those people have some kind of relevance to you if you want them to.”

Amid the proliferation of casual sex culture, the pursuit of looking for meaning in our sexual encounters could also carry more value than ever before, if only on a personal level. “Just because we have slept with someone and not entered into a relationship with them, it doesn’t mean that we don’t feel any sense of fondness about our encounter,” says Sturmer.

Whether it’s a life lesson, a memory jolt, or even just a straightforward laugh at the pub, these lists evidently have the capacity to provide a lot more than naysayers may think. After all, what better way is there to understand where you’re at in your life and who you are at a particular moment in time than by looking at who you were – or were not – having sex with? Although you might want to give it a different label just in case your phone gets pinched; I’d advise against “to-do list” or, for the pedants among you, “have-done list”.

*Names have been changed

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