Dr. Helen

What's Your Number of Sexual Partners?

That was the discussion at the booth next to me at lunch today. Three young men in their early twenties were carrying on a lively (and loud) conversation about marriage, women and dating that was hard not to overhear. One of the guys mentioned he was 23 and would not mind being married and had thought he would get married when he was 16, but it didn’t work out with the girl. Then the other guys started discussing their dating style and when it was time to have “that conversation.”

“What conversation would that be,” I wondered, and thought maybe they would talk about whether they wanted to be with her or vice versa exclusively or maybe ask if she had an STD. The most vocal guy spoke up to his friends and said that it was always awkward to have the conversation about how many partners she had. “My last girl,” he said, “had only three partners and she was 30!” The other guys agreed that this was weird (I guess too few?) unless she had been with three guys for a long time. Another guy said “What if she said just 1?” and they all agreed that that number was too low. The loud, vocal guy piped up: “On the other hand, what if she said 40?” to which the others agreed that was too many.

The guys seemed to have narrowed down this question as a way to figure out what kind of relationship they could expect from their partner. They didn’t want someone inexperienced because it might mean she was weird in relationships, didn’t like sex or was just plain strange. Too many partners meant she might be disloyal, a player or be more likely to have an STD. Or maybe it means something else.

Apparently, the question of how many partners someone has had is a common one:

It can be awkward to have that discussion with a new love interest, especially if you’re afraid that a misalignment in your pasts could end the relationship before it even gets off the ground. That fear was reflected in respondents’ ideal time frames for having this discussion, with 36.3 percent of women and 35.3 percent of men saying that one to four months was the appropriate length of time to wait before disclosing this information.

Surprisingly, 10.9 percent of women and 11.3 percent of men didn’t think it was ever important to disclose that information to a partner. (Let’s just be clear about one thing: Those people are 100 percent wrong and playing with fire.)

I don’t remember people asking this question when I was younger — do you? And is it a good way to get a handle on someone’s ability to be a good partner?