Do Women Still Fret About the Number of People They’ve Had Sex With?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 3 2011 7:33 PM

The Numbers Behind What’s Your Number?

How many sex partners has the average American woman had—and does anyone still care?

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Anna Faris and Chris Evans in What's Your Number?

Photo by Claire Folger © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

What’s Your Number?, the new Anna Faris comedy about a 30-something woman named Ally Darling who is fixated on the fact that she’s slept with 20 men, is a critical and box office failure, with reviewers slamming the film’s retrograde sexual mores. For those of you who missed this flop, here’s a quick synopsis:  Ally, who has just lost her job and hit bottom, becomes obsessed with the significance of a woman’s “number”—the number of men she has had sex with—after reading in a women’s magazine that women who have sex with more than 20 guys are much less likely to get married. As Slate movie critic Dana Stevens notes, the film doesn’t really argue with the notion that Ally is a capital-S slut. As Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum put it, “Whore is the kind of descriptor the creators of What's Your Number? think is hilarious for a woman to apply to herself, one whose only ‘scandal' involves a head count of her sex partners. And by the way, who in this day and age is counting?”

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

According to sociological studies, regrettably, a lot of women are still counting—and so are men.  For the most part, the old stereotypes have some truth to them:  The average American man has had more partners than the average American woman. Recent CDC data shows that men between the ages of 25 and 44 reported having slept with a median of six women, while women in the same age bracket said they had slept with a median of four men.  And while more than 27 percent of men ages 25 to 44 have had sex with more than 15 women, only about 10 percent of their female peers have had sex with more than 15 men.

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Young women seem to want to keep their numbers lower, while men want their numbers to be higher. A 2001 study of college students in the U.K.  published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior titled “Which Behaviors Constitute Having Sex?” showed that, compared with women, a greater percentage of men count oral sex  and manual sex as “sex” when they’re tallying their partners—presumably because they want to boost their number.  Of the 11 sexual acts that the study’s researchers counted, there was only one—anal sex—that women were more likely than men to “count” as sex.  The results of this study jibed with previous studies which also found that men counted a greater number of behaviors as sex than women did.

While women are concerned about their numbers getting too high, they also don’t want their numbers to be too low, lest they be seen as prudes. Lisa Wade, an assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College, says that a lot of women she’s talked to deliberately lost their virginity before going to college, because they didn’t want to be viewed as unsophisticated.  Kathleen Bogle, the author of Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus and an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University, says she’s often heard the “rule of fingers” from her female students—i.e., you should be able to count the number of partners you’ve had on both hands.  

This is the sexuality playbook the women in What’s Your Number? seem to be using. In one scene, Ally, concerned that her number is crazy high, asks her sister (a bride-to-be) and her sister’s bridesmaids how many men they’ve slept with. Their numbers range from single digits to a high of 13. Only Ally, who at that point had had sex with 19 people, and Sheila, the woman who had had sex with 13 guys, were considered slutty by the rest of the crew.

Unlike Ally, though, women don’t always feel bad about themselves when their numbers are high,  particularly if they have supportive friends.  A 2011 study in The Journal of Sex Research looked at the sexual activity of teenage girls and at whether these girls perceived a sexual double standard. According to that study:  “Young women who reported a high number of sex partners did not typically develop a narrative about being unpopular or stigmatized, a desire for more friends, feelings of loneliness, or low self-worth.” Instead, the researchers found, adolescents “often referenced the behavior of friends within their own networks.”  These social network served as a source of “reference and influence” and “a form of social support and as a buffer against negative attributions associated with their own behavior.”

 In other words, if Ally had more friends like Sheila, who was completely proud of the fact that she had bedded 13 dudes, she probably wouldn’t have put so much stock in a slut-shaming magazine article.

There’s some hope that future generations of women might be able to go even further than Sheila, shedding the antiquated notion that a woman’s “number” matters at all.  Kathleen Bogle points out that because women today are not only having sex as teens but also getting married later, the number of lifetime sexual partners is higher in younger cohorts than in older cohorts. The average woman loses her virginity at 16, Bogle notes, while in Massachusetts, where What’s Your Number? takes place, she gets married at 28. 

So as women are single and sexually active for longer, their “numbers” will naturally rise, and in the process, those numbers will start to seem less and less relevant. Think about it: Ally is in her early 30s in this movie and lost her virginity in her teens. By my calcuation, she’s had an average of 1.4 partners a year. That’s hardly “whore” territory.

Perhaps it’s a good sign that What’s Your Number? was a box office flop. Maybe women in their 20s and 30s are aspiring to a more positive attitude towards their own sexuality and have decided that movie night isn’t worth wasting on a character who falls into the same old tired traps.

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