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Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008

What’s Your Number?

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My girlfriend of three months asked me how many women I had had sex with. I told her three, including her. When I asked her the same question, she said, “Eight, nine…no, 10.” At other times, she has told me that she had been with six, including me. I know of five major boyfriends before me. The different answers bother me. You have sex with an exact amount of people, not a range of people. My concern is that she has a bipolar disorder and could have had some one-night stands. I would like her to clarify the issue for me without offending her. I am not sure how to ask her but do not just want to let it go.

Let me begin this column with a confession. I taught an undergraduate seminar that used the HBO series “Sex and the City” as a vehicle to examine changing gender roles and attitudes toward sexuality in the United States. This led to the development of a savant-like ability to link almost any topic to a scene in “SATC.” I have become known among friends for blurting, “There’s a ‘Sex and the City’ about that,” in the middle of seemingly unrelated conversations.

So—do you remember the “SATC” episode about the number of people that each of the characters has slept with? The one where Miranda is diagnosed with chlamydia and has to make a list of everyone she could have possibly exposed to it? Your question made me think of this episode, because much of it deals with the social conventions that cause people to be anxious about their “number” and even possibly lie about it.

Conventional wisdom dictates that women underestimate their number and men overestimate, because of common sexual stereotypes that demand that women appear pure and virginal while men appear horny and promiscuous. These cultural myths do a disservice to men and women, since both genders are forced into roles that might not feel comfortable for them. Your girlfriend might have originally told you she had six partners because she was afraid of how you would react if she told you that she had a number of sexual partners that was higher.

In our “SATC” episode, Charlotte wishes that some of her past numbers could be erased, that they shouldn’t count because the relationships didn’t end up as she had hoped. How do we decide what “counts” as having had sex with someone? Does that drunken blowjob count if you never see the person again? What about the hot, flirty friend with whom you’ve had some intense make-out-and-mutual-masturbation sessions? If your girlfriend “counts” only her serious boyfriends some of the time, but includes a few casual hookups other times, that could explain the discrepancy in numbers.

You say that you don’t want to let this issue go. What’s behind your worry? Are you concerned that someone with a higher number of partners might have a greater likelihood of having an STI? Are you worried that your girlfriend is being dishonest with you? Do you think that she might not always be in control of her behavior due to mental health issues? You can address these questions with her in a way that shows caring and concern for you, her and the relationship by not being accusatory and by focusing not on her number, but on the real questions behind your concern.

However, if what’s bothering you is simply a discomfort with the idea that your girlfriend may have had more partners than you, or that she might not be as concerned as you are about what her number is, then it might be best to spend some time dealing with your own issues rather than worrying about hers. What’s your number? Let the world know at www.expressmilwaukee.com/ sexpress.

Laura Anne Stuart owns the Tool Shed, a sex toy store in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. She has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

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