Down With the Count

Karyn Bosnak, author of 20 Times a Lady
photo: Courtesy of Karyn Bosnak

I've probably slept with more people than you have, if you judge by the most recent statistics. The 2005 Durex Global Sex Survey, which questioned over 317,000 people from 41 countries, found the global average to be nine sexual partners; in the U.S. it's 10.7. I'm well over 10.7, but I don't know my exact tally and simply don't care anymore. There was a time when I feverishly tracked this number as if it were all-important; by my college graduation in 1996, it was five. But somewhere along the way, the count became less important than the act.

Thinking about sex solely in terms of numbers negates the very personal experience each sexual encounter can be. It conflates someone you've screwed 100 times with a one-night stand, as if they could possibly be equivalent. It puts the person you fell in love with right next to the quickie in the bathroom with what's-her-name, the multiple-screaming-orgasm producer with the two-minute ejaculator. Worrying about a number dehumanizes sex; instead of seeing our partners as full-fledged human beings, we reduce them to a series and put ourselves well on our way to being either macho studs or a dirty sluts. Those who care fervently about their number (or other people's) invariably attach a judgment to it.

Karyn Bosnak (of fame) was so put off by Durex's reported average, she wrote 20 Times a Lady, in which Delilah Darling, having reached her self-imposed limit of 20, goes back and tries to reconnect with her past lovers, hoping to find a match who won't push her to the dreaded 21. (Resurrecting exes is common practice for the number obsessed.) When a friend heard this, she snorted, "20? You don't even know if you're doing it right!" While Bosnak will only admit to having a number around 20, she had to tally it. "I thought my number was lower than it was; it's probably five higher," Bosnak recalls.


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Counting gets complicated once you take into account various definitions of sex. What qualifies? Oral? Anal? Manual? I stopped counting around the time I started sleeping with women. If lesbian sex counted, that threw my number off balance. Did oral sex count with a woman but not a man? What about the threesome where my friend let her boyfriend put his finger up my ass but wouldn't let me near his cock? There's something OCD about fixating on your number, like a dieter calculating how many calories celery contains. I prefer Bosnak's philosophy: Just do it. "When I'm 70, I don't care if I've fucked 70 people. I want to look back and say I took every chance I could," she explains.

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People fixate on numbers because they seem easy to control—if I can quantify sex, it will make sense. But the beauty and agony of sex are that it doesn't always make sense. A feverish attraction may fizzle once you reach the bedroom. A perfect date and night of hot sex for one person may be torture for the other. Sex doesn't conquer all, and hiding in the safety of numbers won't make you whole or happy. Just as you aren't your salary or your address, you're not your number of sex partners. In and of The number is meaningless by itself; we need the details for your sex sum to make sense. You may have slept with two people because you were drunk, and regret it, or 200 because you were eager and aroused. Think of a gangbang versus an orgy, a hookup you barely remember versus a one-night stand you can't forget. What about the cyberlover who tapped into your deepest fantasies but never met you in person? Numbers don't account for any of these nuances.

Men and women approach their numbers very differently. We women tend to keep ours secret (many Bosnak queried lied to her), lowballing when we do divulge, but men inflate their numbers, bearing them with pride. A guy I know bragged at a party about how many women he's banged. I don't care whether your number is one or 100, it's not necessary to broadcast it, as if that alleged fact alone makes you more of a man.It doesn't. Without details, the number rings false. I care much more about your reasons—because she smiled a certain way, quoted your favorite author, or had great tits.

My number's higher than 20, but that's all I'll say, because even I'm not immune to the potential judgment around this issue. I don't want the future parent of my children, or even my next fuck buddy, to discount me off the bat because of my lurid past. For Bosnak, who explores in her novel various reasons a girl might take a tumble, there's no room for regrets. "[My sexual partners] make me who I am; I've learned lessons from all of them. Rather than thinking of all the reasons I shouldn't have slept with them or wishing I hadn't, I look back and say, 'You know why I did? He was the best dancer or I was on this guy's motorcycle and it was so fun, I just went for it.' "

Pinning my sexual history down to a statistic doesn't do justice to the full experience. There was the guy I lost my virginity to when I was 17, the summer between high school and college—he was 31, and to my mind, oh-so-worldly. There was my first girlfriend, in college, who made me feel glamorous and sophisticated. There was the San Francisco girl who gave me my first fisting. There was the phenomenal long-distance phone sex that turned out only so-so when we tried it in person.

I'm fixated on the future, not the past—my next lover, not my last. I wish my number were smaller, if only to have spared myself some recent heartache, like the seemingly "nice Jewish guy" who got "freaked out" by our first-date sex, but all I can do is move forward and try not to make the same mistake again. As Bosnak puts it, "You've got to protect your own feelings. If you think you've slept with too many people, be more cautious. If I ever tried to hook up with my ex, I know I'd end up getting hurt, so I won't. With somebody else, I'm still gonna be impulsive and take chances. I won't let a number stop me."

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