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LET’S UNPACK THAT

How many sexual partners is too many sexual partners?

It may be 2024, but many of us – regardless of age or gender – still attach meaning to the number of people we’ve slept with. But is worrying about it or even keeping track of it just exacerbating underlying insecurity, asks Olivia Petter

Tuesday 27 February 2024 06:00 GMT
‘The feeling of shame associated with sleeping with too many people often stems from arguably outdated societal norms, cultural values, and gender stereotypes,’ says psychologist Louise Goddard-Crawley
‘The feeling of shame associated with sleeping with too many people often stems from arguably outdated societal norms, cultural values, and gender stereotypes,’ says psychologist Louise Goddard-Crawley (Getty)

Numbers define our lives. How many bedrooms we have in our homes. How many times it took us to pass our driving test. How many husbands we’ve had. And so on. One stat apparently means far more than any other, though: how many people we’ve slept with. To many, this may seem like a juvenile figure to monitor (even though plenty of grown adults keep a list on their phones). But regardless of whether it’s something you officially track, I’ll bet you’re familiar with your number. Because for many of us it’s a number to which we still attach a substantial degree of meaning.

Over the weekend, a woman wrote into “The Midults” advice column in The Daily Telegraph expressing concern at the number of men she’d been with. “I wish I hadn’t slept with so many men,” she wrote. “I am in my mid-forties and have been with a lovely man for many years and I am suddenly haunted by all the bodies I have encountered, particularly as most of the sex was very unsatisfying. I don’t know why I’m suddenly bothered by it.”

In the response, writers Annabel Rivkin and Emilie McMeekan ascertained that this woman had “partied hard” in her youth. They also assured the correspondent that societal expectations should not lead her to prescribe any amount of shame to her sexual past. Indeed, they shouldn’t. But it’s often not that simple, particularly for women. “We still have such an archaic view of how we approach this topic,” says Emma-Louise Boynton, founder and host of Sex Talks. “It feels like there’s so much judgement placed on women for having a so-called ‘higher body count’ whereas for men it’s a sense of pride as opposed to something to be ashamed of.”

This discrepancy is as old as time. It’s the Madonna-whore complex to a tee: women who have the audacity to have a sense of themselves as sexual beings fall into the latter category, while those pretending not to fit neatly in the former. It’s something we’ve seen play out most obviously on ITV2’s Love Island, the reality TV dating show. Season after season, the show has featured a variation of the same game that would see the male and female contestants guess how many people one another had slept with. In textbook fashion, the men who’d slept with many people were rewarded with laughs and jeers. The women with similar “body counts” were highly scrutinised, and often in those terms (“I can’t believe her body count”) – which served only to exacerbate the violence of their judgement.

“The feeling of shame associated with sleeping with too many people often stems from arguably outdated societal norms, cultural values, and gender stereotypes,” says psychologist Dr Louise Goddard-Crawley. “Historically, women have been more heavily stigmatised for engaging in multiple sexual relationships compared to men. This double standard perpetuates the notion that women should be sexually modest and reserved, while men are encouraged to pursue sexual conquests. Consequently, women who deviate from these expectations may internalise feelings of shame or judgement, impacting their self-worth and psychological wellbeing.”

It can take an inordinate amount of unlearning and self-development work to navigate through those feelings of shame, which inevitably will affect how we approach sex and dating more generally. “It’s such an arbitrary thing,” adds Boynton, “because if you’ve been single for most of your twenties, you’re going to have been with more people versus those who’ve been in a relationship. It’s not something that I would ever worry about, because I’ve done a lot of work to disconnect myself from the shame associated between women and sex. I do have a list on my phone but it’s mainly to jolt my memory.”

Too much?: ‘How many times a month is considered normal? How many sexual partners is considered normal?’ (iStock)

You’d think that in 2024, these would be cultural scripts we’d have long moved away from. But they persist, with people fixating on their respective “number” and wondering what it says about them. “As a clinical sexologist working with women, some of the key questions I get from my clients touch on this,” says sex coach Marie Morice. “How many times a month is considered ‘normal’? How many sexual partners is considered ‘normal’? This question may mean ‘Am I socially acceptable?’ or ‘conventional’? And my answer to them is always that, when it comes to sex and erotic pleasure, there is no ‘normal’.”

It’s not just women asking these questions, either, and feeling regret and shame when they don’t get the answers they want. “I think coming of age in the early Noughties – a time when, pop culturally, men were put on a pedestal for having lots of sex with multiple people – messed me up quite a bit,” says Mike*, 39. “I was at a school that was full of toxic masculinity and sleeping around suddenly got me status and validation.” Besides, he adds, it doesn’t exactly lead to that many memorable experiences. “I can’t name half the people I’ve slept with,” he explains. “It makes me feel gross and is off-putting for the people with whom I have proper, meaningful relationships.”

You’d think that in 2024, these would be cultural scripts we’d have long moved away from. But they persist, with people fixating on their respective ‘number’ and wondering what it says about them

There are levels to all of this, too. Not only do some people fear that they’ve slept with too many people, others fear they’ve slept with too few. “I often worry about how little sexual experience I have,” says Mia*, 31. “Women my age are supposed to be entering their sexual prime. But I was in a relationship for most of my twenties and am still working out who I am, sexually speaking, outside of that. So, if anything, I feel ashamed that I’m not having enough sex with enough people.”

Perhaps the fixation on such an ostensibly meaningless matter speaks to a wider problem with how we talk and think about sex. Surely the fact that we place so much importance on something like this highlights just how warped societal perceptions around sex really are, and how little we still speak about the subject openly. “We have this perception that everyone else is having much better, more frequent sex than we are,” says Boynton. “It creates an unhealthy comparison culture.”

Regardless of how many sexual partners you have or haven’t had, comparing your sex life to others is only ever going to amount to unhelpful mental chatter, building a negative narrative that feeds into an underlying insecurity you’re harbouring – either about yourself, your body, or your sexuality. “It just shows how we aren’t speaking vulnerably enough about sex,” adds Boynton. “And until we are, we aren’t going to be able to counter these perceptions.”

*Names have been changed

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