Is Knowing Your Partner's "Number" A Good Idea?

Photographed by Lula Hyers.
When you're getting to know a new partner, there are a lot of fun facts you might be curious about, like: Do they like their job? How's their relationship with their mom? Exactly how many people have they slept with? Answers to some of these questions come out organically, but others, like the ones about their past sexual conquests, require some gentle probing to figure out.
Your curiosity about this new partner probably isn't going to go away, but do you need to know how many people they've slept with?
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It can be helpful from a sexual health perspective, says Lisa Thomas, LCSW, LMFT, a sex and relationships expert. Having an honest conversation about your past sexual partners could make you both feel more comfortable and confident that you're taking the necessary precautions to avoid contracting or transmitting STIs, she says. Quantity matters when you're talking about STIs, because having unprotected sex with multiple partners does increase your risk of getting one (though getting tested for STIs together could more decisively clear up those concerns).
However, in some cases, people aren't just asking for the facts when they inquire about their partner's sexual history, Thomas says. "Asking can be a way to get to know somebody, but basically what you're looking for is whether or not this person is good in bed," she says. Of course, having more sexual experiences doesn't necessarily correlate to being good in bed, but some people might assume this is the case, she says. If it's a brand new relationship, you might use the number to interpret what someone is looking for in a relationship, Thomas says. "You [think you] can tell if someone is a long-term type, looking for a monogamous relationship, or if someone isn't really ready for commitment," she says. Asking isn't passing judgement; it's just trying to "understand what kind of life experience they've had," she says.
Once you have this information, however, it can make you even more curious. So resist the urge to press for more information than is actually necessary, Thomas says. "Questions about numbers can lead to more insecurities," she says. You don't need to know the names and Instagram handles of the people they've slept with, for example, and it won't make you feel better to try and figure them out yourself.
If it does make you uncomfortable to know that your partner has slept with more people than you have, remember that "numbers can be deceiving," Thomas says. Many people feel like they have to match or trump their partner's number, and studies have shown that men tend to over-estimate their number of sexual partners, while women give a more honest approximation, Thomas says. Sex is also vastly different from partner to partner, so there's not necessarily a clear-cut way to tally and compare your numbers.

A person's 'number' is indicative of how they were in the past, not necessarily how they'll be with you.

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Also, many people worry that their number is "too big," and that their partner will judge them for that. Unfortunately, there's a gendered component to this, and studies suggest that women are judged more harshly than men for their number of sexual partners. Bottom line: You don't have to apologise for having a higher number. If your partner balks at your number, then it's your decision whether or not it's worth it to have a sexual or emotional experience with that person, Thomas says.
The main thing to keep in mind? A person's "number" is indicative of how they were in the past, not necessarily how they'll be with you, Thomas says. "What they've done before they met you doesn't mean they're making those choices now that you're together and moving forward in a relationship," she says. But, say you're in a long-term relationship with someone who discloses that they've slept with a lot of people, and you only have a handful of partners to report. Is it wrong to be annoyed by that?
Your discomfort might be "rooted in insecurity," Thomas says. You might feel like you don't have enough sexual experience to match up to this person, or it could bother you that they've had an experience that you never did, she says. Once you hear that your partner has tried a lot of different things with a lot of different people, you might wonder if your partner is actually satisfied sexually with the sex you're having. But "numbers can be lop-sided," because you don't know the whole story behind them, Thomas says.
Of course, having disparate numbers isn't a reason to break up with the person and go have a ton of sex with different people just so you can measure up. "People get wrapped up in whether or not they should have slept with more people before shutting it down," Thomas says. If there's something that they have done that you're bummed you never got to experience, like having a threesome, then it could be an opportunity for you to explore that together as a couple. Thomas suggests that you frame it like this: "I'm interested in your past sexual experiences, because I want to know what you find interesting or what's on your bucket list."
Thinking about your partner's past is normal, if not unavoidable. But ultimately, talking about how your experiences with past partners relate to what you want now can be a good thing. "They may have been with a number of partners because they were looking for you," Thomas says.
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