This conversation tends not to happen on a first date — nor even a third or fourth — but when you become exclusive, or, to use an old-fashioned expression, ‘start going steady’, it’s something you might want to talk about.
Is there a ‘right’ number of ex-lovers? Yes, according to Seeking Arrangements, an American dating website. Having surveyed 1,000 of its members, the magic number is 10.
Both men and women gave 10 as the perfect amount of people to have had sex with prior to their current relationship. Ten, allegedly, is a nice, round figure, implying experience without promiscuity.
Because heaven forbid you ever had too much fun in the past.
Unless you’re a man, of course — Google ‘men who have slept with a lot of women’ and you get ‘Charlie Sheen’, but Google ‘women who have slept with a lot of men’ and you get ‘prostitute’.
Yet even within such a transactional framework, subscribers of both genders remained coy about exceeding the number ten.
Unlike, say, the Andie McDowell character in Four Weddings & A Funeral, who delighted in listing her 33 lovers in sequence as the Hugh Grant character shuffled about in embarrassment.
Perhaps the only unrealistic part of that scene was that she remembered them in the right order.
So why are we so squeamish about sharing our sexual histories, or, more pertinently, about hearing that women have them, too? After all, if Coronation Street’s Bill Roache can admit to notching up four figures on his bedpost — that’s Ken Barlow as Casanova, ladies — then what is it that stops women from being forthright about their sexual past? Fear of being branded a loose woman? Still?
Once upon a time in Ireland, tradition dictated that you were a virgin when you married — particularly if you were female. You did not cohabit — that was ‘living in sin’ — and you remained married to the same person forever. This meant that if you obeyed the rules, you only ever had sex with one other person in your whole life. This is still the case in many other cultures, but Irish society no longer places a premium on female virginity. Sexual inexperience is largely deemed an unattractive prospect.
“I would have more concern with those at the lower end of the spectrum of sexual experience,” says Fran Creffield, relationship expert with dating website eHarmony, which uses psychological profiling to match its members.
“Someone in their 40s or 50s who has only had one or two sexual partners would really worry me, unless they had been married for most of their adult lives. The last thing you want is a 40-year-old virgin.”
Yet men and women differ in their recounting of past sexual partners.
Men big their numbers up, women shrink theirs down. Norman Brown, a psychologist at the University of Alberta, says American men report an average of 18 partners, while women report five, which is mathematically impossible. This discrepancy is not straight-forward fibbing.
“It’s not simply a case of people lying,” Brown told Psychology Today. “It has to do with self-presentation, estimation, and memory.”
Men and women count their sexual partners differently. Women tend to do the Andie McDowell thing of listing them all out: Tom, Dick, Harry, the pizza delivery boy, etc.
This system is flawed in that it’s easy to forget individual encounters if they were unmemorable.
Men tend not to remember individuals but estimate their sex partners mathematically — one a month over a period of years often equals over-estimates.
Also, according to research from Arizona State University, during these kinds of surveys men exaggerate the number of people they have slept with if the researcher is female, which does not do themselves any favours, because most women do not find this attractive.
Think about it — when you hear that Charlie Sheen has slept with 5,000 women, do you wish you were 5,001? No? Exactly.
But to get hung up on numbers is to miss the point. “Numbers don’t matter — what counts is honesty,” says Creffield. “If you start your relationship with a lie about how many people you have been with in the past, there is already a crack in your intimacy. What is important is how many significant relationships you have had, rather than how much sex — it is your past relationships which form you, and inform your present.”
Lisa O’Hara, of Relationships Ireland, says the key to recounting your past to your partner is your own sense of self. “Do you label yourself if you believe you have had too many lovers, or feel inadequate if you have not had enough?” she asks.
“Women are often stigmatised if they have had several partners, yet it would seem far more acceptable, even today, for men to have many lovers. It doesn’t seem fair to judge someone (or yourself) based on numbers. And whose business is it, anyway, as long as you have been practising safe sex.”
The most important thing is not judging your partner for how many people they have or have not had sex with, but about making sure you are both in good sexual health.
Getting a blood test done together might not sound romantic, but it is — it’s a huge sign of commitment and acceptance, which is what love is about.
Also, O’Hara reminds us that not everyone who has had a high number of sexual partners has been motivated purely by sex.
“I would often see people who are concerned by the number of people they have been with, particularly one-night stands. It’s not uncommon for them to feel regret sometimes, as, upon reflection, it wasn’t what they really wanted at all.
“They were lonely and thought it would give them comfort, only to find that it left them with a deeper sense of loneliness and wondering will they ever find anyone where it was more than a passing fling,” she says.
But, really, every sexual experience you have had brings you closer to who you are and what you want, and what you can give.
* Here are some tips for him and her when discussing ex-sexual partners:
* Don’t get all moony-eyed when recounting past sexual experiences. Men like to hear about the sex, not the love.
* Use your history to turn your partner on — just don’t go into personal detail about ex-partners.
* Don’t use your sexual history as a weapon.
* Recount the women you’ve had sex with; avoid numbers.
* Don’t make comparisons unless positive about your partner
* Don’t be critical about past sexual partners
* Be emotionally honest. Trust your partner. If you feel you have to hide your past from your partner, the relationship is already not working.