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July 26, 2005

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» Beats me, I quit counting after the third orgy from Pandagon
Man, lots of good blogging out there today. Hugo turns in an excellent post on the subject of one's "number" and how women still get judged more harshly for having a high one than men. The impetus for the post... [Read More]

» Homosociality - how's that working out for ya? from the Hathor Legacy
There's an episode of The Simpsons in which Marge is trying to subtly clue Homer in to the fact that his new bestest buddy in the world is gay. She tries a number of euphemisms, including, "He prefers the company of men". Homer replies: "Who doesn't?" [Read More]

Comments

Jeff

I think there's a bit more to it than simply the desire for known paternity and the fear of comparison. I think there's an aspect of homosocial status in men's choice of partners, with the perception being that a woman who has not had sex with anyone else is more affirming of a man's desirablity (and worth) than a woman who has had other sexual partners. I think our current lack of adequate sex education leads men to believe that sex with a virgin is going to be qualitatively better, while keeping them in a state of ignorance that all but ensures it will be worse. There's also the fear of sexual incompatibility - that the partner with more experience is less invested emotionally and is more likely to leave or cheat (reinforced by a cultural equation of sexual activity and immorality), or that a more experienced partner is going to want things that a less experienced partner may not be comfortable with or skilled at.

I don't think concealing one's past in that respect is the solution; indeed, for some people (e.g., those with STDs) that is not an option. Indeed, I think that for a lot of people, the problem isn't that they know too much about their partner, but that they don't know enough, which leads them to fill in the gaps with the worst case scenario. Making the past one big gap doesn't seem to be preferable to me. That's not to say that nothing's off-limits; I do my best to respect the privacy of others even as I try to be open about my own past.

Teresa

You should remind that charming gentleman that if you marry a virgin, you will also be guaranteed to be the worst f@*k she's ever had.

Amanda

Fantastic post, Hugo. I think the paternity thing is a bit of BS used to cover the actual cause of jealousy--the male competition thing. Every man I've ever known to get over this issue only did so by being honest with himself about that aspect.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to, at the opportune time, dramatically state, "I never even knew it could be so good!" Worries about inadequacy thereby vanquished. :)

Stephanie

I love this post, Hugo.

I guess being "the best f@*k" a virgin has ever had doesn't strike me as much of a compliment to the man. But OK, some men need their delusions I guess.

My husband wisely decided to never ask me that question. Well, he asked once and quickly took it back saying that "it just doesn't matter" so why bother asking.

BritGirlSF

My advice for your former student? She's better off without this guy. Anyone calling their partner a "slut" is showing a level of disrespect and a lack of genuine love (not to mention emotional maturity) that should make any sensible person run away as fast as their feet can carry them.
One question for everyone here - do adults actually play the "what's your number" game? I had thought that this particular piece of foolishness stopped some time in the very early twenties at the latest. Are people in their late twenties or even thirties still doing this? I would have liked to think that most people got over the worse of their sexual insecurities by tht point.

Keri

You bring up some interesting points, but even after all that I still think it's best to be honest about one's past in a relationship. Frankly, if a woman is dating a man who really can't handle the idea of her having had sex with others in the past (or having had more partners than he feels is appropriate), I think she's better off finding out about it. Sure, it might hurt, but it's better than spending her life wondering if her partner might call her a "slut" or leave her if he ever found out the details of her past, isn't it? Past relationships shape the people we become-- like it or not, they're part of who we are, and if you aren't certain that you can trust someone with the entirety of who you are, you should not be in a serious relationship with that person. Be honest, and if they can't deal with it, you're better off without them-- for me, it's that simple.

And coming at it from the opposite perspective (because yeah, even though I'm not a guy, I've been there), one can be curious about one's partner's past without intending to judge the partner for it or "use it against them." If I'd abided by the "don't ask, don't tell" rule, I'd probably still be freaking out about some situations I had the wrong idea about from the limited amount of information I accidentally stumbled upon, and it might have really damaged my relationship. Instead, I asked about the things that were bothering me and found out they really weren't as big a deal as I thought they were, and I managed to come to terms with the jealousy and insecurity I had at first. Perhaps a more mature, self-confident person wouldn't have needed to pursue that information, but what can I say-- none of us are perfect, and I think each of us need to handle these situations in the way that's best for us.

(There's also a bit of a logistical problem with the "keep your past a mystery" bit-- what about the many people who still have some sort of contact with their past boyfriends/girlfriends? If one's going to pursue active friendships with one's exes, I think it could be far worse to pretend they're just like any other friend than to be honest with one's current partner about their past together romantically/sexually. Maybe that's just my insecurity coming out again, but if I was dating someone who carried on friendships with other women and was evasive about whether or not he'd dated them, I'd be a lot more worried that something was going on than if he told me "yeah, we were together, but now we're just friends." I know you've said in the past that you don't necessarily think it's appropriate to pursue such friendships, Hugo, but they do happen, and in those situations I think honesty is absolutely necessary.)

Amanda Marcotte

One question for everyone here - do adults actually play the "what's your number" game?

Never underestimate people's willingness to act like immature idiots. :) But if someone asks for your "number" and you want to shock them, say, "Aw, I lost count a long time ago."

Antigone

Well, I always ask for the number in regards to the STD question. It's not so much that I care about the actual number, but more to the point that I care about if he has any diseases floating around, and if the guy is a non-virgin, my next question immediately becomes "Did you use protection and have you been tested"? If the answer is "no" to both, then no sex happens.

I don't think this is purely a male phenomenon. The first guy I ever slept with had 10 before me, and I was hoping not to come up short on his sexual experience. Of course, my method of dealing with it was to have lots and lots of sex until I figured out what he liked rather than calling him a "man-whore", but that's just me personally.

Michael Dowd

If a woman truly makes her partner feel like number 1 in the sack, then he won't feel the need to ask how many there were. Not to mention the fact that his self confidence will inspire him to reach higher plateau's in his partner's pleasure, as at that point he is simply competing with himself to beat his personal record and become a better man in his own eyes. Atleast that's how I personally feel about it.

BritGirlSF

"Never underestimate people's willingness to act like immature idiots. :) But if someone asks for your "number" and you want to shock them, say, "Aw, I lost count a long time ago."
There I go again expecting people to act like reasonable adults. Just call me the eternal optimist.
Funnily enough the last person to ask me the "number" question (who was only 21 at the time so I'll cut him some slack, even though I'm married and he's just a friend so I'm not sure why he needed to know anyway)responsed to my quite accurate response with "I don't believe you, women always lie about their number". If you're not going to believe the answer why ask the question in the first place?

LarryE

I think the anxiety/performance fear thing has a lot to do with it, although I have real doubts about the homosociality idea:

it doesn't matter much what the woman thinks; the man will be competing with her past lovers in his head, even if no such rivalry is taking place in hers. After all, he isn't really after her validation; his real goal is to prove himself 'better than' those she's been with previously.

But how is he to prove himself "better" other than through her validation? The two halves of the argument - it's not important what she thinks and he wants to prove himself better than her previous lovers - can't both be true.

Rather, I think the difficulty lies in that even if she swears he's the best ever, he very possibly won't believe her; he'll be convinced she's just saying it to make him feel better. In fact, he may accuse her of having said the same to all her previous lovers. The social demands on men to always "succeed," always "win," carry real costs, one of which can be a constant sense of failure, of inadequacy. That is, it's less that he has to prove himself "better" than he has a sneaking fear that he simply can't measure up.

Aa a sidelight, I remember an episode of the old "Mary Tyler Moore" show, which I know reveals my age. Lou Grant had gotten involved with a woman who Mary got to know and who, she discovered, had had an interesting life. After his male co-workers tease him about being with a woman who's "been around," Lou breaks it off.

Later he goes to find her and confesses that

"It's not your past that's bothering me, it's mine - I haven't got one. I tried to convince myself that you weren't good enough for me. The truth is, I was afraid I wouldn't be 'good enough' for you."

bmmg39

"One question for everyone here - do adults actually play the "what's your number" game? I had thought that this particular piece of foolishness stopped some time in the very early twenties at the latest. Are people in their late twenties or even thirties still doing this?"

I dunno. I'm in my 30s and I'm not embarrassed to say that my "number" is zero.

Adam Ash

I've never understood the notion of retroactive jealousy: that you can be jealous of people your lover has long finished with. Not that I much understand being jealous of current people interested in your lover either. After all, current interest is flattering to her/him, and should therefore be flattering to you as the chosen one. Mind you, even if your partner fucks someone else, I don't think yoru jealousy should bust things up between you, if your partner still prefers you.

mythago

Durnit, Teresa beat me to it!

Hugo, I hope your former student will come to realize that, hurtful as it is to have been dumped, that she is better off without him.

BritGirlSF

"I've never understood the notion of retroactive jealousy: that you can be jealous of people your lover has long finished with. "
I'm not getting this concept either. To me the ex is an ex for a reason, and your SO has already chosen you. Why would you even care about the ex? I know that Hugo doesn't believe me about this, but I just don't get the jealousy concept in general unless the third party is a direct threat to the relationship.

spiritrover

I don't think there's anything wrong with a little sexual competitiveness, but discussions about "the number" don't tell you anything about how to be the best lover you're partner's ever had. My view is, the best approach is to try to be the best lover your partner's had *that day*, then by the time you string 10, 11 years' worth of days together, you can reasonably expect you've made the highlight reel at least a couple of times.

Keri

I understand the concept, though I'll freely admit that it's not particularly rational. "Jealousy" may not be the best word to describe it, because it doesn't have much to do with envying the past partners or feeling directly threatened by them-- it's more that when it sinks in that your partner's had all these romantic/sexual experiences that have nothing to do with you and that you can never truly understand, it can be unsettling, especially if you don't have many similar experiences in your own past. I can't figure out how to say it so that it won't sound self-centered and possessive-- perhaps it just inherently is self-centered and possessive, but it happens. I'm not saying it justifies calling one's girlfriend a "slut" or breaking off the relationship, but I do think "retroactive jealousy" is understandable (particularly for those who are relative beginners at the whole serious sexual relationship thing), and can be overcome if one is willing to get past the initial emotional reaction and discuss things honestly with one's partner.

As for "the ex is an ex for a reason," it's not always that simple-- sure, the relationship ended for a reason, but not necessarily a reassuring one. People don't always fully move on after relationships end, issues from past relationships can haunt current ones, etc. This is part of the reason I think honesty is so important-- when you don't know the whole story about your partner's past, it's easy to develop worries about that sort of thing. Often, all it takes is one good conversation to put those worries to rest; not talking about it for fear of seeming judgmental or insecure, on the other hand, is likely to do quite the opposite. I don't think it's constructive to tell people they shouldn't feel jealous or care about their partner's past-- whether they should or not, if it matters to them, it matters to them. What's important is how they deal with it.

Sheelzebub

Better to be a slut than a snivelling weenie. But that's just me.

Stentor

I second pretty much everything Keri has said.

I've discussed "numbers," as well as general details, with everyone I've dated, and found it to be a positive experience. If someone had had a lot of brief encounters, I wouldn't necessarily worry about the exact number and the details of each one. But I find it helpful in building a strong bond to share where you're coming from experience-wise. It's not something I talk about on the first date, because it requires a certain level of trust and compatibility to ensure that we're prepared to handle the information in a mature fashion.

Lynn Gazis-Sax

"You bring up some interesting points, but even after all that I still think it's best to be honest about one's past in a relationship. "

But, I don't see not sharing "numbers" as being less than honest. Pretending to be a virgin when you're not would be dishonest. Pretending that your ex that you're still friends with is just a friend that you were never involved with would be dishonest. But not giving a "number"? I don't even know what a "number" would be. Is it everyone I ever had intercourse with? Everyone I was ever naked with? Everyone I ever kissed? Unless there's a specific context (such as, how many people have you had unsafe sex, in VD terms, with), I don't see how the question even has a meaningful answer.

So, I've never given my husband a number, and he's never given me one. I know that he wasn't a virgin when we met, and the names of certain past girl friends, and he knows the same about me. I'm not obliged to tell him exactly how far I went with each ex.


Ken C.

Antigone:
"Well, I always ask for the number in regards to the STD question. It's not so much that I care about the actual number, but more to the point that I care about if he has any diseases floating around, and if the guy is a non-virgin, my next question immediately becomes "Did you use protection and have you been tested"? If the answer is "no" to both, then no sex happens."

Regardless of what he says, I hope you still use a condom; this seems like a very unreliable way to protect yourself.

rabbit

I'm not getting this concept either. To me the ex is an ex for a reason, and your SO has already chosen you. Why would you even care about the ex? I know that Hugo doesn't believe me about this, but I just don't get the jealousy concept in general unless the third party is a direct threat to the relationship.

Its an issue at the beginning of a relationship, I think, and I totally understand it. Not to the point of a high number making you an undatable slut, but in the same sense that to most of us, pretty much anything that could make you insecure will at the beginning of a relationship. And if that's a high number that's what you latch on to. For me, it was that his most recent ex- was one of the most gorgeous women everyone who I talked to had ever seen, though his number was 0 (for 'sex' at least. not like it kept him from much else), and I'm short and chubby. For him, it was that 0 coupled with my not-so-much zero and the anxiety of maybe sucking. But its 2 years later now, and I can honestly say that it certainly doesn't matter anymore. We have more to hold us together than just the physical, and we've both turned away temptations of infidelity quite a few times by now (i.e., if I'm not the best in bed, its not like that doesn't bug me, but there's got to be a million other reasons he's with me...so I just have to accept that and try harder). I can't imagine that anyone for whom a number matters in more than an early-relationship-jitters way or for more than a few months actually has a very solid idea of what their relationship is based on. Its not that talking about his past partners doesn't provoke a 'the hussy! he's mine now!' sort of casually jealous response, but that anyone who lets that get to them after any length of time is insecure at best and a real jerk at worst.

Nick Kiddle

I had an interesting situation with a former boyfriend because I wanted to know and he didn't want to tell me. After much bitterness, he grudgingly revealed that the number was 1, which left me wondering why it had been so big a deal and whether he didn't trust me. He also expected me to behave as if my past had no bearing whatsoever on my present, and talked about my exes as something he was trying hard to forget about.

I like to compare notes, and I think there are healthy and unhealthy ways to do it. The last time I exchanged number, we just mentioned order of magnitude "double figures" "only single figures for me" and went on to more interesting things.

Tony Vila

Hugo, your addendum seems to be right on target in identifying the problem, but not enough in solving it. Our culture puts virginity - especially female virginity - on a pedestal. It supposedly means they're morally superior, love you more, will feel better in bed, etc. And Christian social conservatism has a lot to answer for in maintaining this meme (although of course not creating it).

I'm glad you personally feel that people shouldn't get to judge others for not being a virgin, but do you think that the populace at large can reconcile "being a virgin is better" with "if your partner was promiscuous, it doesn't matter"? Your recent posts on the diversity of homophobes or on how thoughts of lust and violence can be similarly sinful to acts of lust and violence, show that you understand how hard it is to maintain nuances like this on a grand societal scale. As long as we fetishize virginity (no matter how good our reason for doing so), "the number" will be a way men have of value-ing women.

Amanda

The ex is an ex for a reason, sure, but that reason may not be sexual performance. It's always a possibility that you aren't the hottest thing ever, you know. I'll be honest--I can fathom my boyfriend had exes but I'm human and don't like to dwell on the idea of them in bed or anything.

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