Emily Heist Moss is a sex-positive, 21st century woman, but still can’t help but care every time her “number” goes up.
I recently slept with someone new the night before he up and moved across the country. I knew that I would likely never hear from him or see him again, and I didn’t mind a bit. He was cute and kind and wore stylish hats, but our connection was surface deep and we both knew it. Dead sober, fully aware, completely consensually, we decided to go for it anyway. When we were done, and I was thinking “Gee, that was fun,” and “I’m glad I did that,” and “Bummer, he’s moving,” and “I could really go for some Ginger Ale,” I was also thinking something a little more insidious. I was thinking that I had “wasted” a number on this guy, that the uptick in my partner count was maybe not worth this experience.
Why do I do that? Why does my post-coital brain gravitate toward the mental acknowledgment that there’s been a change to my “number”? I’m a sex-positive 21st-century lady. I don’t subscribe to slut-shaming, I don’t tolerate sexual double standards, and I certainly don’t believe in imposing someone else’s puritanical, prudish, or simply different theories on my own sexual agency. You do you, and I’ll do me, and that’s all there is to it. And yet, with each passing partner, whether casual or committed, I can’t help but make a little note and feel a little twinge of…not guilt, not regret, not shame, but consternation.
What do you think about after you have sex? Do you replay the highlights? Do you imagine how it could have been different, better? Do you snooze? Do you daydream about your future together or count down the seconds until he gets out of your bed and you can watch Homeland and spread out the way you like?
At one point or another I have done all of these things, but there’s always this one other thought, no matter the circumstances, that consistently skitters through my mind. I visualize a scoreboard, the kind you’d see at a high school basketball game, spiral bound across the top with big painted numbers, and I imagine one of those cards being flipped over, adding another notch to the proverbial bedpost. Oops, I think, there it goes again. Then I have a little chat with myself about autonomy and agency, about the joy of sex and the pleasure of self-determination, and I push the scoreboard to the back of my mind.
I know that I am not alone in this. A friend recently told me about a bizarre emotional adventure she’d experienced after sleeping with a new guy she was dating. It felt right, she said, both physically and emotionally, but she woke up the next morning knowing she was supposed to feel guilty. She wanted to be clear; she didn’t actually feel bad, she just knew, deep down, that she was supposed to. “Supposed to” phantom guilt is hard to shake.
“Do you think men ever sit around and think, ‘Shit, I don’t want my number to get above 15, I better get it under control!’?” She asked, before answering her own question, “No, no they do not.” I’m not going to blanket the whole male gender with my speculations on their hypothetical number guilt, but I can say with confidence that this is a conversation, internal and external, that women have over and over and over again. How many is too many? What will he think of my number? What will my friends think of my number? Hell, what do I think of my number?
I remember one guy friend discussing the desired number of partners he hoped his next girlfriend would have tallied prior to him. One or two was too few—why was her experience so limited?—but 10 or 12 was too many. Six or seven, he decided, was the sweet spot. I asked him if age mattered; is a 28-year-old “allowed” more partners than a 22-year-old? He acknowledged this logic, but then added, “At some point though, having 15 penises inside you is just kind of gross.” I pushed a little harder, so seven is good, but not eight? Or eight is OK, but not nine? Is 14 gross, too? Or is 15 a hard cut-off, and why? He had no answers. And what about you, I said, is having 15 vaginas around you just as gross? He had no answers for that either.
To me, sexual context will always matter more than the quantity of partners any individual has accumulated. Do you treat your partners with respect? Do you treat yourself with respect? Are you safe? Are you enthusiastic? Did you just “go with the flow” because it was easier, when you really didn’t want to have sex? That makes me nervous. Do you always have sex drunk or because you’re searching for a compliment? Do you manipulate people to get them into bed? These are my red flags. If none of those boxes are checked, and you’ve been lucky enough to find a lot of people who wanted to have sex with you as much as you wanted to have sex with them, well, all I can say is bravo! Also, what’s your secret?
I set that standard for my partners because that’s the standard by which I would like to be judged. I have made youthful mistakes, like most people, and there are a few things I would do over or do differently if pressed. But not for a second do I think those tallies somehow lessen my worthiness of your respect and consideration.
So why then, with this philosophy in mind, do I still pay attention to the mental scoreboard? Why am I bothered, even the slightest bit, by the change to my “number” when I have only behaved in alignment with my values? Because, try as I might, read as I do, argue as I argue, believe what I believe, I am not immune to the messages that surround me. I see the billboards for What’s Your Number?, I know men who mark a cut-off at double-digits (Again, why is 10 bad but nine OK?), I know women who sleep with exes because they want sex but don’t want the scoreboard to change.
Did you watch the 30 Rock wedding episode last week? Feminist icon Liz Lemon got married and struggled with feelings on the wedding industrial complex. Her fiancé, exasperated by her mixed messages about her “special day” shakes her and says, “Liz, It’s OK to be a human woman!” “No it’s not!” She shouts back, “It’s the worst, because of society!” Because of society, indeed.
It’s OK to struggle with these questions. It’s OK to wake up and feel strange, and picture a scoreboard or a bedpost or a thermometer or whatever image you’ve conjured to judge yourself against. It’s OK to ask why you feel this way, and to ask your friends and partners the same thing.
The pressure from “society” will come from every which way, because yes, we are human women and sometimes it is the worst. There are centuries of discrimination against us to counter, decades of sexual shaming to undo, years of media indoctrination to push back against, but in the end, we are the only ones who get to control how we feel about our decisions. So the next time you willingly, enthusiastically, excitedly, fabulously choose to have sex with someone, and you feel the scoreboard change, pull a different Liz Lemon move, a classic, and give yourself a goddamn high five.
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.