Don't play The Numbers game
At the end of the day, there is no point grilling lovers about their past lives
By ANN MARIE MCQUEEN, SUN MEDIA
When two young people fall for each other, it's like the elephant in the room: Who, exactly, came before they came together?
It's called The Number. And just like a birth certificate and favourite pair of underwear, every adult has one.
I hadn't thought about The Number for a while. Until last weekend, when I ran into a couple of male friends who happened to be smack-dab in the middle of a conversation about it. Now in their 20s, The Number causes them no end of trouble.
See, women in their 20s, the age of women they naturally go out with, seem to want to know their Number. These guys, who could be called players, but, in my opinion, are only the very nicest kind, told me their Number is, um, quite high. Say, above 50. This, they know, is bound to upset the girls they're dating.
Even if the girl-who-asks can get past their Number, in the natural progression of such a conversation, there is the whole matter of her Number.
The guys, the players-but-nice-players guys, say no matter what that Number might be, if they like the girl, it's too high.
Even if her Number is two, and they know it's perfectly normal for her to have had sex before they met, and even if they didn't raise the subject, and even if they've slept with tens of dozens of women themselves, even if they know it's completely unfair and sexist, they will obsess about it. They will hate it.
That's why they would never initiate a conversation about The Number. And they don't think women should, either.
I had to agree with them. Experience has shown me that when it comes to The Number, we should all adhere to the famous Clinton-era American military policy compromise: Don't ask, don't tell. Canadian author and sex expert Josey Vogels, who writes the online column My Messy Bedroom, agrees.
"It is a no-win situation. You don't stand anything to gain by knowing the number of people the person has slept with, unless there's something you need to know about the people they've slept with," says Vogels. "It's nobody's business."
The last time I asked a boyfriend about The Number I was treated to an afternoon of fond sexual reminiscing. It started out with a post-brunch tally and continued with a series of "oh yeahs" throughout the afternoon. By early evening, just when I thought we'd exhausted the subject, he punched the steering wheel and proclaimed: "I just remembered another one!"
By the time he'd passed 60 the next day, I didn't care how many people he'd slept with. Whatever he did before me, sexually speaking, was nothing compared to the big deal he was making out of it now. For once, I was kind of glad I'd asked about The Number, because although I didn't like what I was hearing, it wasn't because it was too high.
I also realized he was lying. There was no way he'd slept with that many people, or he wouldn't have gone on about it so.
That's another reason The Number is a dumb thing to talk about: Studies show when asked, men and women tend to lie about it. It was all laid out in American Pie 2's Rule of Three, the number by which men tend to multiply, and women divide, their sex partners when telling others about them.
In 2005 polling of a 2,000-strong Knowledge Networks Panel, with an average age in the late 40s, women reported having an average of 8.6 partners, while men reported 31.9. (I'm not able to explain this 0.6 and 0.9 business.) Scientists then set out to find out how many were lying.
Turns out, there were lots: 21% of men and 15% of the women later admitted they'd lied.
Norman R. Brown, a psychologist at the University of Alberta, explains that women tend to rely on enumeration, which leads to underestimation, while men rely on rough approximation, which leads to overestimation.
We are sleeping with each other, after all.
The Number is so compelling, so confounding that author Karyn Bosnak has even written a new novel about it.
In 20 Times A Lady, the heroine wakes up after a night of drunken sex with someone she dislikes. Not only is he a wretch, but she's now reached her self-imposed limit on how many men she can sleep with. As celibacy is not an option, she proceeds to retrace her steps, sexually speaking, hoping to make it work with one of numbers one-through-20.
It's like a do-over, to the max.
If only we could live in a world like the one seen in the charming 1994 film Four Weddings And A Funeral. In it, Andie MacDowell's character matter-of-factly tallied the 33 men she'd slept with, while Hugh Grant sat listening, sweetly managing to be flummoxed and impressed at the same time.
Mostly, we don't. The old double standard, the Madonna-whore complex, the male desire Ludacris so eloquently phrased when he rapped "we want a lady in the street but a freak in the bed," is alive and well.
While it would be nice if women of all ages could tell their men their Number, and not be judged for it, and instead be appreciated for it, celebrated for it even, and vice-versa, that's just not the way life is.
And, as Vogels explains, if women in their 20s insist on asking about The Number, it has to do with more than sex. At that age, most of us still don't quite get the concept of honesty.
"Honesty is like, spill your guts about everything," says Vogels. "That's not the case. Sometimes, discretion is a lot more beneficial."
In the end, I think we learn to stop asking about his Number when we finally make peace with our own.
Because like a lot of things in life, when it comes to The Number, there's really only one person who needs to approve.