In the new Amy Schumer movie Trainwreck, Bill Hader plays the boyfriend, one who is sweet and charming and good. Despite his virtues, however, Hader can’t hide his shock when he learns that Schumer has slept with an enormous number of men. (He’s not sure of the exact tally, because when he asks how many, she replies, “This year?”) There are a lot of reasons that Schumer’s character might be starting to freak him out by that point in Trainwreck—her drinking, her selfishness, her aversion to nonsexual touch—but one is definitely the notion that her bedpost is too thoroughly notched.
Trainwreck is not a documentary, but still—is this a real thing? It’s only natural to wonder about a partner’s sexual history and how it might stack up to yours. (Slate has in fact exploited this curiosity with its popular “What’s Your Number?” calculator.) But just speaking anecdotally, I have never heard from a friend, nor have I heard of any other straight man, whose relationship suffered a crisis when the girlfriend’s too-high number came to light. In 2015, a woman’s number just doesn’t seem a big deal to me. To find out if I was alone, I called up some straight guys in their 20s and 30s to ask what they thought. (I’ve kept them all anonymous to protect their relationships.)
“If I really like someone, I wouldn’t care,” said a 26-year-old who has been with his girlfriend for just over a year. “What would be the reason to not be OK with it?” A 36-year-old who has been with his girlfriend for four months told me, “It’s one of those things that a lot of people talk about when they’re younger and think it means more than it does.”
But does the number start meaning more when it gets too high? And what’s too high? A 32-year-old, who has been with his wife for 12 years, named 20. (Maybe he’d been overly influenced by the unfortunate 2011 Anna Faris vehicle What’s Your Number?, wherein 20 is also viewed as the brick wall separating the free spirits from the lost causes.) But three other guys mentioned 100, before each of them backpedaled. “If there’s a number like a hundred, I would want to be like, Well, you better go get tested for STDs,” the 26-year-old said. But later he said that if he really liked someone, he ultimately wouldn’t care. The 36-year-old said, “There are guys in these movies who say, ‘I thought she was a sweet girl, but then she’d been with 100 guys!’ That doesn’t mean she’s not a sweet girl.”
Another 32-year-old, who is engaged to his partner of three years, likewise isn’t fazed by 100. “If you’ve had 100 perfectly healthy and safe one-night stands, then go nuts,” he said. What number would be too high? “I don’t know if that number exists. I mean, I’m sure that it does. I just don’t know what it is.”
I called up Emma Tessler, a co-founder of Dating Ring, to ask if women’s numbers matter to the men who use her dating service. “The men don’t care that she’s had a lot of sexual partners—they care that she’s likely to have sex with them,” she said. Similarly, Match.com sent me results from their annual Singles in America survey that found that out of 2,478 men asked, 1,871—75.5 percent—said they’d be comfortable dating someone who’s had more sexual partners than themselves.
Some of the guys I spoke with expressed anxiety about dating someone who has had too few partners. “If anything, I prefer people that have had more partners,” the 32-year-old fiancé said. “Because they’ve had more time to come into their own as a sexual being.” The 36-year-old agreed. “At my age now, I would rather date women that have dated a lot than not have dated at all. Because that means sexual experience; there’s no shorthand I have to go through.”
Ultimately, rather than their partner’s capital-N Number, the guys I spoke to said qualitative aspects of their partners’ pasts were more troublesome than anything quantitative. For two of the guys, both of whom described their girlfriends’ previous numbers as high, learning specifics about their girlfriends’ exes bothered them much more than the numbers. The 26-year-old said that when he learned about his girlfriend and one of her ex’s former rendezvous locations, the couple had a big fight. “It’s always worse when you have a specific location or detail or something,” he said. The 36-year-old agreed. “[He was] the best lover you’ve ever had, but he treated you like shit, so you think he’s an asshole, but really, aw, if he was just a nicer guy, then it’d all be great—that’s like, the worst conversation to have,” he said. “By the time I was in my late 20s, I wouldn’t ask. In my mind, it’s not my business.”
Others also spoke about anxieties about being compared to exes. The 32-year-old said his wife only has a couple of men in her past, which makes it easier for him to let go of anxiety about where he falls in her sexual rankings. “My gut reaction would be self-consciousness about if I was the biggest or the best, or if she was happy with me, or if the guy before me was better than I was,” he said. The 26-year-old said that his girlfriend’s number didn’t trouble him at all when he first learned it, near the start of their relationship. But as their relationship progressed, it started to bother him—which in itself bothers him. “I don’t know if I’m too sensitive or it’s something that happens when you get more attached to someone,” he said. “Suddenly you start feeling more jealous about things from the past.”
This was maybe the most intriguing theme running through my conversations. It’s not that these men judge women for having active sexual pasts. It’s that the women’s sexual pasts lead these men to judge themselves.
Tessler said we should be assessing our sexual pasts in a whole different way. “People should stop counting the number of sexual partners they’ve had and start counting the numbers of orgasms they’ve had with partners,” she said. “You will be a happier person if that’s what you’re tallying.”
But my 36-year-old friend—the elder statesman among all my respondents—said the best thing for men to do is forget the number and forget the details. “The best sexual relationships I’ve ever had are the ones that are just like: This is what I’m doing right now; you’re the person that I’m with right now,” he said. “Forget the past, forget the future. If we’re talking about a healthy sexual relationship, that’s what both people should be doing.”