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The patriarchal obsession with virginity messed up our definition of sex

By Sara Kloepfer

There are many reasonable questions to ask before having sex with someone — whether that person has been tested, if they want to have sex, what they are into.

How many people they’ve slept with is not one of them.

Not only is this question invasive, but it is also loaded with assumptions about socially acceptable expressions of sexuality. Not surprisingly, these assumptions ultimately judge women more harshly than men.

You know the double standard that men who have sex are studs and women who do the same thing are sluts? That’s the logic at play here. The person asking wants to know how to quantify someone’s sexual experience and therefore determine their sexual worth and value.

Their "number" is none of your business 

A loaded question necessitates a loaded answer: someone’s number is either deemed too low (inexperienced i.e. incompetent) or too high (slutty i.e. “un-dateable”). But too low or too high in comparison to what exactly? Everyone has a different number that they consider to be a “normal” amount of sexual partners, as well as different relationships with sex and intimacy. So we should not be asking what is normal, but rather who decides what counts as “normal.”

Unfortunately, normality seems to be prescribed by women’s magazines, unreliable polling, and outdated social expectations.

Comparing numbers is a common way to figure out if you are “advancing” at the same rate as your friends. This unhealthy dynamic plays out both in real life and onscreen in television and film, from Friends to Sex and the City to the movie literally titled What’s Your Number? A “normal” number is usually based on an average, and the problem with averages is that they exclude and stigmatize outliers on both ends of the spectrum. Those with very few sexual partners end up feeling equally condemned as those who are slut shamed for having many.

What is virginity, anyway? (seriously)  

The question may seem straightforward, and its logic awful in an equally straightforward way. It is no surprise then that plenty of people agree that the number does not matter or define who you are. However, if you really think about it, the number is not only irrelevant, but the question itself is illogical. Its premise is pure bullshit. In order to answer the question, both parties must be in agreement about what constitutes sex.

The way that society defines “sex” is usually quite narrow and heteronormative. Sex usually refers to sexual intercourse, or penis-in-vagina penetration, between a man and a woman. This definition is bound up in a patriarchal obsession with virginity. Since a hymen is not a measure of virginity (because, science), virginity is actually a social construct grounded in heterosexuality and religious traditions that value women as little more than property and child-bearers. This centuries-old emphasis on sex as strictly for baby-making and not for pleasure results in non-procreative sex, such as oral and anal, coming with qualifiers. 

Accepting the concept of virginity implies that non-heterosexual sex or sex acts besides penis-in-vagina penetration do not “count” or are not considered “real” sex. By this logic, people not having this type of sex are technically considered virgins, discounting a wide range of LGBTQ sexuality.

It makes no sense that having “sex” constitutes a notch in your bedpost, but oral sex does not, even though both are extremely intimate. In this respect, your “number” is not even an accurate representation of sexual experience. If we assume that the question is valid in its aim to establish someone’s sexual prowess, the operative definition of sex prevents any answer that is truly representative of someone’s sexual history.

For example, a person who has only had one long-term relationship could easily have had sex dozens of times more than someone who has had a handful of one night stands. Similarly, someone who has done “everything but” multiple times is more experienced than someone who has had sex once. Not only does “what’s your number” further sexist stereotypes, but it does not even provide an accurate answer to the question really being asked: how experienced are you?

Sex is not a numbers game 

Focusing on a singular type of sex can cheapen the significance of relationships or sexual experiences that occur outside of these narrow parameters. Some of my more memorable and meaningful relationships have been with people with whom I did not have traditional sex. Hell, some of my best sexual experiences and discoveries have been all by myself. Turning sex into a numbers game automatically makes it a competition, complete with winners and losers. “Stats” tell you nothing about who someone is as a sexual partner or as a person.

By asking someone’s number, you miss out on the important questions: if they are in touch with their sexuality, whether they are a communicative and respectful partner, how comfortable they are with fulfilling your desires. Sexuality is not quantifiable, so why bother counting?

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