‘Oh, figures!’ answered Ned. ‘You can make figures do whatever you want.’
– Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
I like numbers. I like patterns in numbers and the significance of individual figures or statistics, but I also know that numbers can be used to tell a story – their real power often lies in how they are presented. This is particularly important within medicine as treatment choices are often based on the results of clinical trials, and drug companies will always want their drug to be perceived as the best, so I’ve learnt to be sceptical and know that statistics and numbers should always be taken with a pinch of salt.
I’ve started with this disclosure because I have recently read a glut of articles about dating and relationships that involve numbers – number of sexual partners, average ages of meeting ‘The One’ (27 if you’re interested) and other dating milestones, including some more satirical ones. It must be the time of year…
These articles often use averages to advise on what is normal – the average age/duration/number is x, therefore that is what should be expected in our own relationships, and other such clickbait. But it was the articles about the average or optimum number of sexual partners that, combined with a fascinating podcast about the maths and stats of dating, ignited this rant in me about how quite ridiculous these kinds of articles can be!
Because frankly, the numbers they use only tell part of the story. As that podcast explains, most surveys present the ‘average’ number of sexual partners as between 10 and 12, but this figure represents the mean; the modal, or most common answer, to the question about number of sexual partners remains just one. Although somewhat surprising, according to the data in the podcast, the majority of people surveyed have still only ever had one sexual partner – the mean is much higher because it’s skewed by the small number of people who have had significantly more. So what exactly should we consider average – one, or 10-12? Which number matters more? Can we even trust either of them, given issues around reliability of data collection, the type of people sampled for the surveys and the chances that these people asked were actually telling the truth…
Basically, I don’t like these averages; I don’t like how they are used and I don’t trust them to be representative. I don’t like that these numbers are used to determine what is best, and I particularly don’t like that these numbers are used to tell us what is normal.
Take an article in the Independent earlier this year that transformed the average number of sexual partners into an ideal. Is it a coincidence that these numbers are the same? I fear it’s another sign that average has come to mean normal, and obviously normal is the ideal… Their poll suggested that ‘those who had more than 10 sexual partners were considered promiscuous, while having fewer than 10 would be considered sexually inexperienced’; essentially, those who deviated from the average were to be criticised.
I think that this might be one reason why I love sex blogs and have a much more ambivalent view of dating blogs. Discovering and reading sex blogs has probably changed my life – I’ve learned so much about myself, what I need and what I like, and I have met people (well, person) who have improved my life and happiness beyond measure. Whether personal accounts of sexual experiences or opinion pieces, sex positive tends to mean sex positive and all views are welcomed. It may be a sign that I have only found or been directed to great blogs of outstanding quality, but they’ve never made me feel judged or abnormal.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for writing about dating.
Obviously, I don’t mean to tar all dating articles with the same brush because many are fantastically thoughtful and beautifully written, but more often than in any other genre, I read articles that leave me with a disbelieving look on my face. Or worse, a more than vague feeling that something is wrong – either with me and my opinion, or that of the writer – and most of these involve numbers. I’ve slept with a date too quickly, or not quickly enough. I’ve texted too often, or not frequently enough. It’s been more than 6 months and I’ve left nothing at his house, or it’s been more than 5 months and I haven’t said ‘I love you’ yet; I must be mistaken, I’m doing it all wrong. The way I’m doing it isn’t normal.
But why is it so necessary to be ‘normal’ anyway? Is it encouraging or depressing to compare yourself to this average, this supposed normality? Whether it’s the age at which you’re supposed to meet your one life partner, or how long to wait to have sex, or any other arbitrary relationship milestone, we are constantly being told what usually happens, what we should expect; what normal people do, and I’m not sure who is supposed to benefit from this knowledge. Is it to reassure those below the deadlines that they still have time, or pressurise those approaching them to act? And if the supposed relationship milestone is way behind you, should we be disheartened? Are we supposed to be replicating these relationship ideals, living identical lives and identical loves? How boring! And when there is so much else written about being ourselves and staying unique, it seems a somewhat mixed message…
When numbers are presented in this way, they risk looking painfully judgemental. Another prompt for writing this was an article by Thought Catalog that gave the opinions of 34 people about that ‘magic number’ of sexual partners. Of the 34 opinions, they ranged from the benign…
“My rule of thumb is you should be able to remember every person.”
…through the more inclusive and accepting…
“I honestly have never cared about this. An ‘acceptable’ number is whatever number that particular girl feels comfortable with.”
…to the downright ignorant and horrific!
“My boyfriend is certain that my pussy is damaged by the amount of guys I’ve had sex with. He has this stupid belief he can’t let go, that the bigger the number of guys a woman sleeps with, the larger her pussy,” she says. “My boyfriend isn’t an asshole, he hates thinking like this, but it’s somehow stronger than him.”
The whole article made me really sad. There was so much emphasis on disease or working in porn or presumed lack of self-respect in people with higher numbers, and on the supposed lack of experience of those with lower numbers. Even those who stated they didn’t care about their partner’s number often gave some limit; along the lines of ‘I don’t care, but I’d hope it was less then 30.’ In this article, women were also still judged more harshly, with many men stating that they would be uncomfortable if their partner had a higher number than them, which is an attitude I’d thought we’d already moved passed.
Why do we need to keep talking about this? Do we care? Does it matter? They’re just numbers. Numbers don’t say anything about each of the sexual partners or what they meant; about which ones were just sex or which ones broke our hearts, about which were so good that we could do nothing but crawl back with shaking legs and aching bodies, about which hurt and which disappointed. Only one partner? Maybe they were lucky enough to find the right one straight away, someone with exactly the same kinks and appetite. Maybe they’ve been fucking every day for a decade, having better, hotter and so much more sex than Mister Twelve-One-Night-Stands who judges their low number. And what if that number is higher? Isn’t complaining about it just slut-shaming?
I’ve never asked anyone their number; I don’t want to know. I want to know how they feel about me and how I fit into their lives, not how I compare to their past. I don’t care about exes or past lovers or who else has shared their bed because I don’t like to compete with history. Knowing someone’s number doesn’t tell me anything about them that I can’t work out in a much more realistic way from just being with them. Knowing someone’s number doesn’t help me predict my future or make the choices I’ve made any more or less valid.
There is a better and healthier way to talk about numbers in relationships, and that’s without judgement or any suggestion of what is normal or best. The best post I’ve ever read on this subject? It’s from Girl on the Net, of course! It took a filthy and fantastic sex blogger to work through all the issues with high or low numbers and conclude that it just doesn’t matter. It’s not the number of people you’ve fucked that will define future relationships, but the number of people who have left their mark, who have broken or filled your heart. Or to put it her way, it’s ‘not who’d been on his cock but who’d been in his heart.’
So stop telling me what’s best for me and my relationships by proclaiming one universal normality; stop judging me and my choices, and really stop using numbers incorrectly to prove a misguided point. It just perpetuates old-fashioned attitudes, and that’s really getting boring now…