Why the Numbers Game Doesn’t Guarantee Safe Sex

by Arielle Loren

From adolescence, we’ve been socialized to inquire about our partners’ intimate numbers. In seventh grade, it’s “how many people have you kissed?” In high school, the question expands to “how many people have you hooked up with?” Approaching adulthood, the question stops at “how many people have you sexed?” While curiosity about your partner’s past lovers is normal, it’s the primary intent behind these questions that make them unnecessary. Typically, lovers request numbers in fear of contracting sexually transmitted diseases or as a potential way to measure the likelihood of infidelity. The problem is that most people lie, forget, or downright refuse to disclose their numerical sexual history. Thus, it’s better to inquire about your partner’s history of sexual health and preference in terms of dating lifestyles.

When’s the last time you’ve been tested? That’s the first question you should ask to inquire about someone’s sexual health. Once your partner provides an answer, you should consider whether the testing date was recent enough for you to feel comfortable. If so, you should ask to see their test results and then inquire if they’ve had unprotected sex with anyone else since or shortly prior to the testing date. If they have or the test dates aren’t recent, you should request that your partner get tested again. In the meantime, you should use caution and have protected sex, both in terms of penetration and oral.

If you had taken the other route and asked, “how many sexual partners have you had?” It’s likely that the person would feel judged and frankly, you probably wouldn’t get an honest answer. Somewhere between college and post-graduate life, I stopped counting my partners, as I felt the question was invasive and irrelevant to a contemporary relationship. If I sat down and thought about it, I could recall my entire sexual history and count my partners. But I feel it’s unnecessary unless there’s a health threatening circumstance in which I have to tell someone that they might have something. Thankfully, I’ve never been there. I always get tested for everything under the sun in addition to having the test results available for my new partner’s viewing. I’m also willing to be upfront about any partners or unprotected circumstances (very few in general) that I’ve had since my last test date. These days, I can count my yearly total of sexual partners on one hand. But regardless, I feel like the numbers game is simply a way of drawing judgment on someone’s sexual history instead of sticking to the medical facts.

Often, I’d discuss the numbers game with my male friends and ask their perceptions of women that couldn’t count their total of sexual partners on two hands. Most replied with the typical assumption that she’s “loose,” not monogamy material, STD ridden, and can’t keep her panties herself, which is loaded with all sorts of gender biases, particularly since none of these male friends could do the same. I proceeded to ask if they’d sleep better at night if the woman were dishonest about her numbers. Interestingly enough, just about all replied yes.

So what’s the real reason that people play the numbers game? If it were really about sexual health, we’d just get right to the point and ask for test results. Do you disclose your number of past lovers to new partners? Is the question truly irrelevant so long as everyone is safe and willing to share his or her test results? Weigh in.

  • dbsm

    Number counts? Where dey do dat at? I haven’t been asked a sexual count since maybe high school. I’ve never known a grown man, young or older, to ask such a thing. I’ve never known anyone to care.

    There may be an assumption involved that attractive women who like sex (evidenced verbally and physically), have had a lot of sex. Therefore, number count is irrelevant. It is what it is.

    I do not ask either but I’ve had a couple of guys come forward with the information in normal conversation. It often colors my vision of the man, but end the end, it is what it is. There is always risk.

  • Nic

    I think the numbers don’t count as much as habits do. One is just a moral judgement. The other is an acutal health risk.
    Too many people act as if pregnancy is the only concern and use BC that only prevents that. Pregnancy can be dealt with(plan B, RU486, etc.). But Herpes, HIV, and hepatitis are forever.
    You need to vet people and get them tested before you take them to bed, b/c condoms REDUCE the risk of some things (HIV, hepatitis), but not others (herpes, HPV)
    Of course, if you insist on getting everyone you are intimate with tested, you are doing to lower your number since you have to wait before hopping in the sack.
    But seriously, your first partner can give you any of these things if you don’t take the time to find out what a MEDICAL screen tells you and not “what’s your number”? All a number tells you is how “busy” someone has been.

  • http://ladyngo.blogspot.com Lady Ngo

    SMH, I truly don’t know why people are so willing to take the gamble. STD test or not, sex is ALWAYS going to be a risk. Barrier methods aren’t infallible and just because your partner tested negative for everything two weeks ago doesn’t mean they haven’t picked something up along the way.

    The numbers thing doesn’t even make sense in terms of being concerned about sexual health. It only takes one infected partner for you to catch something. There are people who will catch any and all kinds of nasty lil infections from the 1st person they sleep with and there will be people who put up Wilt Chamberlain numbers that won’t ever catch anything.

    From what i’ve seen, aside from using it to shame women, most dudes play this silly numbers game so they can pull the “i can tell you don’t have nothing, so why do we need to use a condom” card. Which is why everybody and their momma has a dang disease now.

  • guest

    I don’t ask men how many partners they’ve been with. Sad to say, but I just think the majority of them have lost count. If they ask me, I disclose that information.

    When it comes to a new partner – I don’t think I could ever go there without practicing safe sex even after testing. To me, that is the equivalent of pulling your own trigger by engaging in unprotected sex.

  • apple

    numbers don’t guarantee safe sex because all it takes is one.. however it is important to ask , if you plan to stay long term.. i mean how would you feel as girl/boy number 100 …are you just a conquest? and talk about competition

  • KDJW

    Regardless of how many people a person has been with it only takes one time to get infected with an STD or HIV. People must practice safe sex, and get tested together twice (to cover the window period of 3-6 months)Personally before getting married the question would come up but that was never a pass to say well they have a low number, he’s good NO I don’t care if you only had one sex partner we are still getting tested together. I’ve given too many postive test results as a counselor to be another statistic

  • mEE

    right?? I was just thinking the same thing. like aren’t a little far removed from the age of asking these silly questions.

    my s/o asked me about my “number” about 2 years into our relationship and it held as much weight as him asking me if I prefer ham or turkey. it was just something we talked about for the sake of talking. we’re too old to think that really means anything

  • Chrissy

    Yea. I wouldn’t generally want to date someone who was promiscuous because I would feel like I was just another body to them a “toy.” That’s dehumanizing to me.

  • dbsm

    people are allowed to prioritize what matters to them and for many people pregnancy is not only their main concern, but really their only concern.

    just as you stated, pregnancy can be terminated (when women can access it); but most STIs are curable. and the one’s that aren’t…well…50% of the population has herpes…HPV is common and mostly harmless…and we are exposed to viruses all the time (the flu can kill u) and most of the time, a good immune system (one that has been boosted by EXPOSURE) can clear it out and/or minimize its effects.

    also, certain types of contraceptives are possibly making women more susceptible to STIs and they don’t even know it.

    you choose sex
    you choose to work/be around people
    hell you choose to be around animals

    risk all around

  • Sheena

    I don’t ask the number to imply anything about STDs. That’s just stupid, like its already been stated all it takes is one time to contract a disease. My basis for asking the number is to get an idea of the guy’s commitment history and how promiscuous he is. I personally don’t dig on men who have had many sexual partners (using my own personal definition of “many”). Of course other questions follow, but a man who has spread himself around to lots of women with no commitment is not my type, so that’s why I ask. The STD discussion is totally separate


    That’s why most men won’t ever disclose that info. I always lie and/or give a low number.

  • Chrissy

    I know people lie but let me ask you this…

    Why are people who are proud to be ‘promiscuous’ and want to sleep with whomever and whatever and protest it is nobody’s business….Why is it they want to pretend they are all of a sudden the virgin mary when they want to get into a relationship?

    I already think I know…but I would like to hear from your kind

  • Nic

    Yes, but this article was about how numbers relate to safe sex, not how numbers relate to who you decide to date or marry.
    So again, if you do’nt want to date someone who has been with 100 people that is perfectly reasonable, but you should not have a false sense of security if you date someone who has only been with 1 other person.
    If the priority is your health, you should make the decision that is actually supported by science. It doesn’t help anyone to base a scientific/medical decision on your gut.
    If the article had been, would you date a man or woman who had had a lot of sexual partners, then we’d be on the first point that you made, which is “what matters to you when choosing a sexual partner?”

  • http://gravatar.com/jamesfrmphilly jamesfrmphilly

    zero works for me…..

  • V

    If half the people you’ve dated are lying about their numbers then really you have no clue. I just find the whole number thing irrelevant – especially in this time where teenagers are having sex as young as 13. From the age 13 to let’s day 25…do you really think a person is going to have 3 sexual partner? I’m all for testing for STDs.

  • lol

    thank you!

  • http://gravatar.com/ebony82 ebony82

    This is too much of a headache, besides being awkward. I’ll stick to advocating virginity.

  • http://gravatar.com/ebony82 ebony82

    When it comes to STD’s it’s important to remember: all it takes is one.

  • Jessica

    The more men press you, the more likely they are to hold it against you. I told my boyfriend that its between me and God…no one else.

  • Crimsonette

    I would say maturity. I know this is going to come off as completely one sided, but if you’re having sex with multiple partners, I just don’t see you as being ready for a committed relationship with ONE individual. I would think a guy is still wanting to play the field, and it’s fine if wants that, I just don’t want to be in the field he is playing on and get in the process. Would I ask for a specific number? Probably not. However, I would like to have a sense of the number, so to speak, and see where is mind is at regarding hookups.

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