I didn’t think I was ashamed of the number of sexual partners I’ve had in the 20 years I’ve been getting it on until I found myself filling in a number half the true total at a recent gynecologist appointment. Although I know doctors are trained not to judge, and this doctor in particular had been particularly kind, helpful and professional when I’d seen her previously, in my head, all of a sudden the number (at best an approximation as I haven’t kept an exact count in years) seemed like cause for alarm. Even if I never had to say it out loud and its size was simply one more piece of data for her to use in evaluating me, something about it made me erase what I’d typed in the online form and halve it. As it turned out, she didn’t even ask me a single thing about my number, so that fretting was for naught—except that it taught me a lesson: slut shaming isn’t just something other people do to us, but something we can do to ourselves.
The incident shook me up,; I consider myself an advocate for sexual freedom and would never want to judge anyone for their number of partners, yet I did it to myself. When I actually recall the collected sexual experiences and lovers I’ve had, I’m not actually ashamed, because even the worst sex of my life and most harrowing relationships have taught me important lessons that I believe make me a better lover and better person. In the moment, I was making what I thought were good choices, whether sex for fun, for love, for the sake of experimentation—or all three. Do I have some former partners I wish I could completely delete from my memory, or go back in time and selectively not sleep with? Sure, but that’s part of life. If every sexual experience was perfect … okay, that wouldn’t actually be a bad thing, but it’s a pretty unrealistic standard.
Still, there’s something about my number that feels off to me, like a dress that once fit perfectly that now I can’t squeeze into no matter how much contorting I do. The number represents who I used to be, but is at odds with my current staid life. For the past year, the only person I’ve slept with is my boyfriend, and even before that, I was much more considered and careful than I’d been in my twenties and early thirties. I’d come to a place where I wanted sex to be about more than just sexual pleasure. Please note that I’m not saying sex for pleasure’s sake is wrong in any way—it’s wonderful! What I mean is that I didn’t want to have even the most mindblowing, earth-shattering sex with someone who’d lock me out of their life the next day. That tradeoff was no longer worth it.
Whereas I used to want to cram as much adventure as possible into my days and nights, now, on a typical Saturday night, I’m home reading and playing Words with Friends, or maybe eating dinner my boyfriend’s cooked for me and catching up on watching “Jeopardy.” I am not off at sex parties or even flirting with anyone, though I’ve done plenty of that.
Rationally, I know that a doctor’s job is to help people, not judge them, not to mention that by not giving her my full and truthful information, I’m depriving her and myself of the chance to learn as much as possible about my medical history. Since she didn’t ask, and I went through the routine annual exam in the exact same way my others have gone, I don’t feel too badly about fudging my number. I do feel badly for allowing myself even a moment of discomfort over something that A) can’t be changed and B) is part of who I am.
It reminded me that back in college, my first serious boyfriend wanted us to move in together after we graduated. I’d been his first lover, and he’d been my second. We broke up and got back together over the course of our time in school. I was moved by his wanting us to be together, but also knew that wasn’t the right path for me at such a young age. I smile when I see a book written by someone I’ve bedded, or see news about former lovers on Facebook. I even play Words with Friends with two of my exes (both of whom invariably beat me most of the time—grr!). When I break down the number, I remember that it’s made of up real, live people, who are fascinating and complex and varied, and that makes them all worth it.
I deliberately haven’t listed my number here, not because I’m ashamed, but because it’s not the point. My number could be two and I could feel bad about it, or 2,000 and I could be proud of it; it’s all a matter of perspective. I’m much more interested in my current partner, who not only has never asked about my number, but I’m pretty sure doesn’t care one way or the other—which is good, because my number doesn’t tell him or anyone else anything about my personality, character or level of commitment. The next time I go to the doctor, I’m going to be honest. The only thing I have to be ashamed of is letting a number dictate how I feel about myself.