The one “number” your partner doesn’t need to give you

Don’t ask your partner how many people they’ve slept with. Seriously. I think we need to erase this question from our sexual and romantic vocabularies.

I decided early on that I would never ask my boyfriend how many sexual partners he’s had. The primary reason is because it’s none of my damn business.

Asking the person you’re intimate with how many people they’ve been intimate with is like asking what kind of porn they watch: In most cases, the answer will plague you with semi- to moderately-obsessive concerns about your partner’s sexual appetite, desires, and behaviors — and, in more extreme instances, will make you feel inadequate, or like you can’t “keep up” with your partner.

A friend of mine once told me that, a Hispanic woman, she was disturbed to find that her boyfriend enjoyed “Latina porn,” which often perpetuates damaging stereotypes about Latinas and Hispanic women (e.g. the “fiery Latina” trope). I agreed with her: I would feel pretty unsettled if my boyfriend indulged in the “Ebony” category. That is to say, there is nothing necessarily wrong with enjoying these kinds of porn — so long as you’re aware that they may feature stereotypes about the women they represent, and so long as you don’t look down upon the women who perform in these videos.

Similarly, I’ve known people to become sick with jealousy over the knowledge that the person they’re sleeping with (especially on a regular basis) has had more sexual partners than they had expected, or are willing to accept. This is understandable: Confessing your “number” is often met with slut-shaming. This is particularly true for cisgender women — though, according to friends I’ve discussed this with, it also seems to be a concern for trans women and gay men — highlighting a longstanding double-standard: While cisgender heterosexual men are applauded for the number of their sexual pursuits — the more they’ve had, the more they’re congratulated — women are chastised for practicing “loose” behavior. I’d like to think that in 2017, this double-standard is no longer prevalent — and perhaps it is less so than it once was — but it certainly still prevails.

So, why should we put ourselves under so much strain?

If you really can’t help but ask how many sexual partners your spouse, significant other, friend-with-benefits, or one-night stand has had, first acknowledge and accept that you are not entitled to an answer. Also consider how your questioning might make the other person feel. Next, recognize that the answer you receive may conflict with your expectations, for better or for worse. Lastly, treat the other person with kindness. If you’re asking out of pure jealousy or insecurity or to get back at the person, you should probably reevaluate your concerns. Being vindictive isn’t cute or kind.

Instead, create an open, welcoming dialogue to discuss the situation. Rather than flat-out asking your partner how many people they’ve had sex with, ask whether a discussion of each other’s sexual histories will ever be on the table. Go from there.

The truth is, though, the number of sexual partners you’ve had doesn’t matter. It isn’t a reflection of your fidelity, your health, or your character. It might not even be an indication of your own attractiveness or sexual success, or even how much you enjoy sex. It’s just a number. Like one’s age, or the number you see on the scale. Let’s leave it at that.

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