Part of the fun of having a new sex partner is learning their sexual history and divulging yours, too: What are you into, sexually speaking? When did you lose your virginity (and was it as awkward as everyone else’s?) Are there any sexual fantasies you’re dying to make a reality?
Naturally, this sexy, sex-positive line of questioning leads to another classic question: What’s your sex “number”?
For some of us, nothing piques the interest quite like knowing how many people the person we’re boinking has boinked before. (Try saying that 10 times fast.) It’s not only a fun topic, but one that can bring you closer together and help you understand how you relate to each other as sexual partners, said Megan Negendank, a psychotherapist and sex therapist in Sacramento, California.
“It’s really important to be able to have open conversations about sex with our partners and sharing our number could lead to a good discussion about what sex means to us and what we want from sexual intimacy at this point in our lives,” she said.
After a decade of marriage, Negendank still vividly remembers posing the question to her husband when she was 20. She wanted to know everything: What it was like, who they were, how her S.O. felt about the encounters now.
“He was open to sharing with me and I think that early conversation still helps me better understand him as a partner,” she said.
Her future husband wasn’t so inquisitive, taking a “the past is the past” outlook on her sexual count.
“I asked him if he wanted to know my number, and he said he wasn’t interested,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of other conversations about my past sexual experiences and serious relationships, so I know it’s not from lack of interest or caring. I think he just thinks knowing the number isn’t that important and that’s fine with me.”
Negendank’s intense curiosity and her husband’s indifference highlights an interesting divide: When it comes to other people’s “body count,” interest levels vary. If you are intrigued and want to know, there’s nothing wrong with casually bringing it up like Negendank did. It’s quite a different story if you take the question seriously and get judgmental about your S.O.’s response.
First, consider why you want to know and why the number feels important to you, if it does, said Rachel Kazez, a Chicago therapist and founder of All Along, a program that helps people understand mental health and find therapy.
If you’re asking out of concern, you might want to explore a few things, she said. For instance, are you asking because you’re insecure about how you rank given their past experiences?
“If it’s that, do you trust your partner when they say you are important to them now?” Kazez said. “Do you have judgments about the number that may be based on religious, societal or media messages that don’t actually align with your own values? Would your thoughts on their number differ if they were a different gender?”
“Ultimately, it’s not fair to judge and add meaning to anyone else’s sexual experiences. Your partner trusted you enough to share this number and honoring that trust includes managing your judgments.”
It’s smart for you to analyze your reasons for asking, but there’s no need to get super serious or anxious when you broach something like this. After all, it’s not so much a Big Important Couple Discussion as it is fun pillow talk.
As for how to respond to the big reveal, treat it with the same casualness you’re (hopefully!) treating the question itself. (Yes, keep it casual even if you’re a teeny bit surprised by the number, whether it’s high or low or something in between.)
“I think you could say something like, ‘Cool!’ ‘Fun!’ or ‘Into it,’” said Jesse Kahn, the director and a sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York.
In the event that you are surprised by their number, Kahn suggests asking some internal followup questions to yourself. (No need to bring these up with the other person!)
“Ask yourself, ‘Am I comparing our numbers?’ ‘Why am I surprised?’ and ‘Am I judging them and if so what are those judgments?’” he said. “Ultimately, it’s not fair to judge and add meaning to anyone else’s sexual experiences. Your partner trusted you enough to share this number and honoring that trust includes managing your judgments.”
Also, remind yourself that no one “owes” anyone information about their sexual history. It’s your right in a relationship to know if your partner has any STDs or STIs (if the two of you are sexually active), what their sexual boundaries are and whether they’re faithful to you (if you are monogamous), but sex “numbers” are quite another matter. By sharing their number with you, your partner is getting vulnerable with you and trusting you with very private, intimate information, Negendank said.
“You should thank your partner for opening up about their number and if you both feel comfortable talking more about it, go for it,” she said. “Try not to focus on the number so much and instead just stay curious and you’ll come to better understand your partner and their sexuality. You might learn a lot about them!”
Sex Ed for Grown-Ups is a series tackling everything you didn’t learn about sex in school — beyond the birds and the bees. Keep checking back for more expert-based articles and personal stories.