We’re questioning a lot of things since lockdown and the virus.
Which is no bad thing.
One tired, constantly rehashed question I’d love us all to kiss goodbye to is the ‘How many before me?’ one, the thing most people trot out around one to three months into a relationship.
It’s designed to establish whether the person you’re seeing is worth taking a chance on. Thinking being if their number of lovers is high, they’re in it for the sex and not interested in a serious relationship.
Fact is, it’s never – ever – been a reliable way of figuring this out.
Here’s five reasons why the magic number matters even less now (if, indeed, it ever did).
It’s a generation thing
Most of you will be eagerly scanning to find some statistic you can compare with your personal tally.
Statistics mean nothing (more on that later) but here’s the only statistics that make any sense.
Just as frequency of sex should always be pegged to the age and stage of a relationship, so should the total of lovers be identified with the generation we live or lived in.
It’s logical: you’re going to have a different number of lifetime lovers if you’re 19 in 2019 or were 19 in 1890.
The most recent, reputable study I could find threw up these figures.
It showed baby boomers – aged 54 to 72 – had a lifetime average of 10.7 lovers.
If you’re Generation X – between 38 and 53 years old – you’ve apparently racked up an average of 13.1 lovers (16.1 for men and 10.1 for women).
Millennials – thought of as people aged between 23 and 37 – have already clocked up an average of 11.6 partners (10.8 for men and – higher for women – 13.4).
Generation Z – people born after 1995 and in their early 20s – have had an average of 5.6 sexual partners (7.6 for men and 2.6 for women).
Interesting reading – especially the increase then decrease in number of partners for women (possibly due to the general lack of interest in sex in general for the youngest generation).
But even these stats are irrelevant because…
An ‘average’ means nothing
Most of the statistics we’re fed are averages.
This means someone has surveyed a certain number of people, usually of all ages, added up their answer and divided it by the number of people surveyed.
The 18-year-old who’s just discovered sex, the 55-year-old who married at 18 and has never been unfaithful, the 88 year old who will die a virgin: all their answers of how many lovers they’ve had are lumped in together.
Then there’s the fact that most people lie in sex surveys.
Researchers tell them time and time again that they are the only ones who will see their answers but lots of women still won’t tick the box that’s at the far end of the number range they’re given.
Men automatically tick the highest score, even if their grand total of lovers is one.
Is it any wonder most of us look at the average and think ‘What?!”
It reflects hardly any of us because it’s not actually an effective way of working out what MOST people do.
Far more reflective of reality would be to base findings on the median – the middle value in the numbers if you were to list them – or the mode, the number that occurs most often.
In the whole time I have been writing about sex – about 35 years – not once has a report on the number of lovers people have had, been calculated this way.
Statistics DO lie.
So what!, some of you will be thinking, it’s pretty easy to guess someone’s number once you get to know them.
No-one’s ‘number’ is what you’d expect
No-one post 30 asks friends (God forbid family) how many people they’ve slept with…unless you’re me.
I can be as nosy as I like about people’s sex lives because it’s my job to find out what’s really going on.
I’m not a lover who’s asking, or a friend who might judge. I also guard sexual secrets with my life – what’s told to me, stays with me and me only – so I like to think I get honest answers.
What I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t predict.
Some people – the sweariest, most gregarious, sex mad and less moral – do live up to expectations and own up to multiple partners that seem consistent with their lifestyle.
But not all.
Plenty of people you meet and secretly think Bet they’ve been round the block a few times turn out to be in the single digits: you just happen to have known them at their ‘busiest’ (ahem) time.
True, more conservative, quieter friends are more likely to report more conservative, modest figures – but again, not all.
One woman I know who estimates her lifetime total to be more than 80 (she’s in her 60s) is highly educated, deeply respected and been married for more than a decade.
She just turns out to have had – and thoroughly enjoyed – a wildly experimental decade, from 20 to 30, that you’d never credit her with now.
You can’t judge a book by its cover and you certainly can’t predict the number of lovers someone’s had, even if you know them very well.
But wait – there’s more.
What is ‘sex’?
Just as you can’t define a ‘date’ anymore in today’s world, it’s always been difficult to define ‘sex’.
Does sex mean intercourse? What about people you’ve had oral sex with or heavy petting sessions? Do they get added to the total?
Some people’s lifetime lover number includes one-night-stands, other people edit those out and just include relationships. (Often, it’s done subconsciously: who wants to remember an awful, drunken one off with someone you’d normally cross the street to avoid?)
Most say they include partners they’ve had intercourse with.
But your partner could have had a hugely significant, intensely erotic sexual relationship with someone without ever having had penetrative sex with them.
One woman I know had an affair without the man touching her once. He’d read her erotic poetry over the phone while she masturbated.
Does he count as a sexual partner? Her husband most certainly counted him as one when he found out.
It’s the stories around sexual relationships that tell us about the person who had them, not the amount of times their genitals have penetrated or been penetrated.
Less partners doesn’t mean safer sex
If you’re asking a prospective partner their number to calculate whether sex is going to be safe, you need to rephrase the question.
It’s not the number of sex partners you want to know, it’s the amount of times your partner had unprotected sex.
The person who slept with 50 people and used a condom every single time is a way safer sex bet than someone who’s had sex with five people and never used protection.
Those five multiply: you’re indirectly exposing yourself to all the other partners your lover’s partners have had sex with, if they didn’t wear condoms with them either.
And if they went ‘bareback’ with your partner, why wouldn’t they do the same with others?
A few years ago, a pharmacy (Lloyds) published an online sex calculator that computed the number of indirect partners we have based on the number and age of actual sex partners we’ve had unprotected sex with.
Someone who has slept with nine people (without condoms) potentially has around 2.6 million (yes, million) indirect sexual partners.
Try confessing that as your number to the next person who asks.
So, is it worth even asking?
Our upbringing, early sexual experiences, friends we hang out with, how judgemental our partners have been, whether we’ve cheated or been cheated on – a myriad of factors contribute to who we are sexually today.
Hang out with your partner for long enough and you’ll hear the stories around the influential factors and experiences that shaped them into the person they are today, naturally, over time.
So, if numbers don’t matter, how do you tell if your partner is a good contender for a serious, monogamous relationship-with-legs?
The one question you DO need an answer to
Find out how many long-term relationships they’ve had.
You need to establish they are both willing and able to commit – and the number of lovers they’ve had won’t tell you that for all the reasons above.
Yes, of course there are definitely exceptions to the rule I’m about to propose.
But it’s a sensible, heart-protecting, damn good idea, if you’re dating someone over 30, to expect them to have had at least one relationship that lasted at least a year.
Ideally, they’ll have clocked up two or three relationships that have lasted around that by that age.
Rather than ask how many before you, ask how many significant relationships before you – and how long they lasted.
It’s far more telling.