Do Numbers Matter?

A few weeks ago, Sterling brought my attention to this article: Sex Partners Number Faulty Gauge For Women, Experts Say.

The jumping off point for the article is the movie What’s Your Number?, currently in theatres.  I haven’t seen the movie yet, but reviewer Dana Stevens sums up the plot thusly,

According to the article [protagonist] Ally reads, once a woman has had in excess of 20 sexual partners, her chances of getting married drop precipitously. Making a quick headcount, Ally realizes with horror that she’s already at 19, and that the next guy she sleeps with had better be “the one.”

I can’t critique a film I’ve never seen, though its sad Tomatometer rating of 7% amongst the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, implies that the execution of this movie is as aggravating as it’s premise.

Growing up, pop culture and social mores sent a loud clear message. No one likes a slut – at least not for more than half an hour at a Friday night party. Even sluts didn’t like sluts. Girls who “slept around” didn’t respect themselves. If they did, they wouldn’t give it away so easily. From this I inferred that as a girl, I carried most of my self-worth in my vagina and to a lesser extent, my boobs.  As I self-identified “good girl” I resolved not to “give it away” to some random boy, no matter how cute or crush-worthy.  Meanwhile the guys worth seemed to be inversely affected by chastity. Any male not having or at least actively pursuing teh sex at all times, was marked by his peers as un-masculine.


A self-respecting man must get a much sex as he can. An ethical women should withold sex and have as few partners as possible.  Problematic because:

a) Double standard much?

b) It’s a dicotomy that pretty much necessitates a manipulative approach to heterosexual sex. That, in turn, begins to blur what should be a very clear distinction between sexaul negotiation and sexual coersion/assault.

So, boo to slut-shaming, sexual commodification and equating a woman’s worthiness to her chastity!

Hooray for low tomato ratings!

Yesterday I was facilitated discussion group with some local high schools students. The topic was healthy relationships.  They were a fantastic group and I was impressed with the degree of passion and critical thinking they demonstrated.  In many ways, their approach to sex and relationships is much more sophisticated that what I remember experiencing at their age.

We also talked about the language we use around sex and relationships. The word “slut” came up.

“What does that word mean to you?” I asked.

“It’s a girl who just has sex with lots of people and doesn’t care or respect herself,” one student told me.

“Would any of you ever call a man a ‘slut'”, I asked.

“No,” was the unanimous answer.

“Why not?”

After a thoughtful pause, one of guys gave what I thought was a very astute answer.

“I think girls have to be more afraid of sex, especially at our age, because they can get pregnant and stuff.  A guy can just walk away, but if you’re a girl you have to deal with it.  So we tell them sex makes them slutty so they don’t want to do it as much.”

A sound hypothesis if ever I heard one. Pre-contraception, there was a very clear motivation for discouraging women from having sex.  Single motherhood for a young women who often had minimal education and limited income potential? Not awesome.  Shame, shame, double-shame was one of many techniques designed to encourage girls to keep their pantaloons on, even if their loins were burning just as hot as the men’s.

Today the shame, shame double-shame persists.  Although birth control and safer sex methods do exist, as a society we’re still conditioned to shame women around their sexuality.  The problem is, it doesn’t work.

In the short term, shaming young women around sex, doesn’t stop them from having sex. It stops them from being honest about it – particularly with parents, health care practioners and other adults who could help them access the contraception/safer sex products they need to protect their health.  In the long term it can make negotating sexual relationships challenging and weird for all involved.  It also leads to bad filmaking.

For my money promiscuity vs. chasity has nothing to do with a woman’s character. When it comes to sexuality and self-respect, the “numbers” are irrelevant.


  1. Danielle Gregoire says:

    Nice deconstruction! I was thinking exactly what that young man said as I was reading. It doesn’t work. Coming from a town that often bore the burden of being the teen pregnancy capital of Canada (or was it just the province), we were often submitted to the shaming. Thank goodness my “first” boyfriend’s mother was way more savvy. She offered us condoms just in case, with no judgement. Brilliant woman. I hope to be as open minded when my children come home with their partners…and if I’m not I have a fail-safe…13 fairy godparents to watch over them, and over the advice that I might not be able to.

    • nadinethornhill says:

      I think fairy godparents, cool aunts and uncles and open-minded family friends are the safety net for parents who want to ensure their children have access to comprehensive information about sex (and other stuff).

      Because I do what I do, I envision a scenario where a teenaged Green Bean is sick of my candid sex talk and will therefore refuse to tell me anything. In which case, I’ll need my sexy-saavy friends and family to keep him informed…and dole out the condoms. :-)

  2. jessicaruano says:

    Apologies in advance for making a pop culture reference, but there was an episode of Will and Grace in which the characters discuss not only how many sexual partners they’ve had, but also how many times they’ve actually had sex – total. Difficult to calculate, yes, but they were able to make a pretty good guess.

    One character had more sexual partners, but fewer sexual encounters (because some of that the partners were ‘one night stands’ or very short-term relationships) than another character, who counted only a few partners and TONS of sex.

    So if you’re the kind of person who just doesn’t have long-term relationships, you may have had, say 10 partners, but had sex only a couple dozen times. It seems like the word ‘slutty’ only applies to the number of partners, disregarding all other aspects of the relationship. Troubling.

  3. nadinethornhill says:

    I love pop culture references!

    A very interesting distinction. Not only is it considered more acceptable to have lots of sex within a few relationships, it’s aspirational.

  4. Milan says:

    I think the word ‘slut’ is ripe to be reclaimed, to refer to anyone of any gender who openly seeks and enjoys sex.

  5. Nat says:

    I’m always a touch amazed by how much gender politics hasn’t changed much or are changing more slowly. Probably dates back to Victorian times and unchanging attitudes towards sex and virtue. “Lay there and think of England.” Kind of thing. Why is it that society still sees the need to discourage sexual experiences in its young women? I’m not sure what the answer is, but my gut tells me it can’t be good.

    PS: Love this blog.