Magic Numbers: Should You Ever Ask Your Partner How Many People They’ve Slept With?

Sex somehow remains a taboo subject, especially when it comes to our sexual histories. Genevieve Wilson speaks to an expert about new relationships and murky pasts.

Couple having sex on the floor

“How many people have you slept with?” It’s a personal question, a touchy subject, and when it comes to your new boyfriend or girlfriend, quite possibly something that you don’t need to know. But humans by nature are an inquisitive bunch, and for some reason, the ‘magic number’ continues to be a topic of interest.

But why? The number only represents ghosts from the past, ones that belong in the past for a reason, yet we still ask and wonder, and then torment ourselves when we eventually get the answers that we thought we were looking for.

According to sex and relationships therapist Teresa Bergin, it’s important to be aware of your companion’s past if you’ve just started seeing them. “You would absolutely want, and need to know, if your sexual partner had experienced any STIs in the past. It’s a very natural question, stemming from both curiosity and a desire to get to know your new partner better”. The problems begin when the questions turn into criticism or a full-blown cross-examination.

There are a number of issues that can arise from starting this conversation, the first one being, it’s not JUST that question that you want to know the answer to. Think about it – if you’re given a number, then you automatically want to know more because realistically you’re not going to get less curious after the digit admission. You’ll want to know names, and places and times. And if you’re presented with a list of names, this opens up a whole new can of worms. How? Why? How many times? Before you know it, you’ve looked them up on Instagram and you’re scrutinising their holiday photos from last year, trying to decipher whether they have a better body than you. Suddenly, you have a mental image of this person in bed with your other half, and it’s going to reappear every time you think about it – which could potentially be a lot.

Teresa says “If you can’t stop thinking about it, it usually means that you’re feeling anxious rather than curious. This may stem from a discomfort or an insecurity about sex. It can also be a result of having been betrayed in the past. For some people, it goes even further back, into how securely or insecurely they felt attached within their family, and the possible anxieties about abandonment they may have experienced.”

Having lots of sex doesn’t necessarily mean having lots of significant sex.

Another complication can emerge if you find out that your significant other has slept with a substantially larger amount of people than you have. Instantly, you’re feeling insecure, inexperienced and a little bit incompetent. How do you compare to the many other women or men that they’ve gotten into bed with? And at the other end of the spectrum, what if your new flame has only slept with one or two people, when you’ve already hit double digits? Not only might you feel embarrassed about your own sexual past but now you’re wondering, was it more meaningful for your partner when they were having sex with their ex? Did they orgasm more easily or more often, in bed with their former lover? Even if only fleetingly, these worries and concerns will undeniably enter your head, whether you’ll be able to get rid of them is the question.

If all of this sounds too familiar, you don’t have to feel overly distressed just yet. Teresa works with couples who have had very different sexual backgrounds and explains, “although it might have caused worries at the start of the relationship, people learn to accept that it’s just a difference, like many other differences they will experience. The key to reaching this acceptance is communication- being as open and as honest as you possibly can”.

Another thing you have to take into account is that not everybody feels the same way about sex. For you, it might be one of the most personal and intimate things that you can experience, whereas for somebody else, it might just be a bit of fun. Or vice versa. Having a lot of sex doesn’t necessarily mean having a lot of significant sex, so try to think of that if you find yourself fixated on the people who were in the picture before you. Each sexual encounter is different and the most important thing is that you have now found a sincere sexual connection with someone. And meaningful sex has nothing to do with the experience you’ve gathered with previous individuals, it’s about the new sexual connection that has just developed. In terms of former sexual partners, it’s rare that both parties will enter into a relationship on an even keel, and if you want the relationship to be a success, you have to accept the past and move forward.

When couples do have to start feeling concerned is when an unyielding jealousy enters into the equation. Jealousy can be one of the most corrosive and detrimental elements to set foot into a new or existing relationship. Even more so when it comes to somebody’s past, which can’t be altered or erased, no matter how much you would like it to be.

The key to combatting jealousy is by talking to your partner about your worries and insecurities, even if that initially makes you feel awkward. It can be even more difficult if you’ve been hurt by certain events or occurrences before, but you have to remember that this is an entirely new and different situation. Of course it’s upsetting to have worrying thoughts about a partner’s history, but similarly, it’s unsettling if you’re continuously questioned about things that may be firmly situated in your past. If all of the focus is going into this worrying, there’s little energy or enthusiasm left for developing and enjoying the new relationship. Teresa recommends that you speak about your feelings before allowing them to completely take over, because jealous thoughts can suck your energy levels dry and leave you feeling suspicious and wary. “When you take ownership of your jealousy and fears, you need to allow yourself to be vulnerable and take a risk, yes that’s scary, but ironically, it can lead to a deeper trust and a stronger bond in the long run. If your jealousy is getting out of hand, seek your friends’ support, and if it becomes a recurring relationship pattern, then it may be helpful to talk with a professional.”

So there you have it, if you need to dig around in the murky depths of your new partner’s former days, you have to be prepared to hear answers that mightn’t be the exact ones you were hoping for. Each of us has a history, some more colourful than others, and the last thing you want is for the past to have a negative effect on your future. It’s much more important and conducive to a healthy relationship to focus on the present day and what’s to come, rather than spending your time dwelling on times gone by. As the saying goes, curiousity killed the cat. Or in this case, curiousity extinguished the romance.

This article first appeared in STELLAR’s July issue. Our August issue is on shelves now! 

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