Love, Kate: When Should My Guy & I Talk “Numbers”?

Our sex and relationship columnist, Kate Carraway, to the rescue!

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Should I ask my guy how many women he’s been with? And do I need to disclose my number?

I’m going to set this up like a click-baity headline: Why You Should Ask Your Guy About His “Number” (But It’s Not Why You Think You Should). Or something.

You probably already know that there’s nothing you can definitively find out from someone’s number—by which you mean how many people he’s had sex with, for readers of the “Whaaaat?” variety—other than the number of people he’s decided, and decided to say, he’s had sex with.

Depending on the person, this “number” may or may not be an honest accounting of intercourse partners (ew ew ew!), may or may not be a straight-up fabrication, based on what he or she thinks sounds cool or reasonable, may or may not include serious make-outs, which for some people count as much as anything else, and may or may not exclude sex with people outside of their official relationships. (Ever-helpful in the matters of men and women and sex and dating, Chris Rock says in, I think, Rock This! that women asked for their numbers won’t include the “miscellaneous dicks” but will instead tell you how many boyfriends they’ve had. Luv u, Chris Rock.) Asking for someone’s number is just one of the endless, understandable, stupid attempts that people make to assign some logic and apply some boundaries, even shitty ones with holes everywhere, to the social and emotional chaos of relationships.

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Even if there were a real way to know, that number is so rarely indicative of anything real or useful about a person. I guess it can be: someone who has had sex with some objectively enormous number of people, whatever that might be, has probably been looking for something that wasn’t sex, and maybe hurting some people in the process. (That’s a guess, calm down.) But it also can’t be: someone’s choices about real-deal sex-sex doesn’t necessarily relate to their other sexual choices, or to their character and life stuff. It definitely doesn’t tell you much of anything that you, in your presumably new-ish relationship, can use.

I get it, though. Being with a new person is all about that good-sick feeling, which so often splits two experiences right down the middle: on one side, just being so free and happy and thrilled with hot life, and on the other, being an anxious super-detective who has to absorb everything about this dude, like now. I used to open my math textbook and put it over my head like a tent the night before a test, and try and will the information into my brain, and that’s how I feel when I meet someone that I like. I want to know everything, now. It’s normal and cute and fine to want to know everything, and this “number” business is a thing to know.

(There is, too, a practical aspect to asking and knowing: in the era of STIs, when HPV is as common as bangs—I just made that up, but you know what I mean—being for-real and non-magical and test-result-informed about someone’s sexual history and status is important to your physical health.)

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I go back and forth on whether or not a partner has a right to know the full historical details. In some ways, it feels like a bad and hurtful idea; in other ways, it feels essential. What is for sure is that everyone over the age of like 25 has a history of some kind, some more surprising and varied and distressing and interesting than others. I think that cellular turnover means that our bodies end up recreating themselves every seven years or so—I’m really just throwing stuff out there and then running away fast, today—and I like that as a metaphor for our emotional and intellectual selves. The number is, necessarily, a vestige of the past, regardless of whether it’s a lot or a little or something you’re good with or something that you’re not. Maybe your number is one of those meaner ghosts that you wish you could shake, which is why you’re wondering how to disclose yours; maybe not. Maybe it is for your boyfriend, or maybe not. Either way, don’t demand this of him, or allow him to demand it of you: no one can or should require that something be easy for someone else, just because it’s easy for them.

What is so much better than “What’s your number?” or “Here’s my number” is “What was your first-ever relationship like?” and “Tell me about your hardest break-up” and “What do you really need from me?” and whatever else sounds fun and juicy to ask him about. Part of that bigger, better convo will probably include your respective numbers, but it will also include the context of them, the meaning of them, and that’s what you’re probably more interested in, anyway.

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