Do college students ask, and do they care, about the number of previous sexual partners of a potential new sexual or romantic partner?
“Yes, out of curiosity,” UT alumnus Henry Zhao said. “I usually give the vaginal sex number first, but if asked, I’ll give the oral number. Oral sex can’t get you pregnant, so it’s not that big a deal.”
If you plan on popping the question, it is wise to get on the same page and ask what exactly your partner counts as sex. A “hook up” could mean kissing for one person, while others may only count vaginal sex.
In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers at The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University asked nearly 600 students, “Would you say you ‘had sex’ with someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was … ” and found that “Americans hold widely divergent opinions about what behaviors do and do not constitute having ‘had sex.’”
More than 90 percent of respondents said penile-vaginal intercourse counts as sex, while 81 percent of respondents said penile-anal intercourse meant “had sex.” 40 percent of participants said oral-genital contact counts as “had sex.”
In a later study published in the journal Sexual Health in 2010, researchers at The Kinsey Institute surveyed people between the ages of 18 and 96 and found no single generation or gender agrees on a definition of “had sex,” according to the article “Study: Adults Can’t Agree What ‘Sex’ Means” on ABC News. Although almost 95 percent of participants agreed that penile-vaginal intercourse counted as “had sex,” opinions changed as the questions became more detailed. For example, 11 percent of those surveyed would not use the phrase “had sex” if “the man did not come.”
Movies, pop culture as well as research also suggests that men count oral, anal and manual sex (mutual masturbation) as “sex” more often than women do, and definitions can get tricky based on circumstances.
If your partner happens to be bisexual, for example, does the number of his past same-sex sexual partners count into his overall “number”? After all, if only vaginal sex counts as “sex,” does oral sex only count as “sex” with your partner’s same-sex partners, but not with his opposite-sex partners?
Beyond definitions of sex and hookups, there is still social stigma and shaming that surrounds sexuality that may make us feel less compelled to be honest about our sexual histories, particularly for women. Even though women today are challenging the stereotypes, slut-shaming and double standards that surround women’s sexuality, many are still reluctant to be honest about their sexual behavior in order to avoid being labeled a “slut” or a “whore.”
“Number doesn’t matter to me,” public relations senior Brittany Gail Thomas said. “Why burden your mind with thoughts of that person with other men or women? The only thing that matters is that they are with you now and have hopefully found out what they do and do not like by way of sleeping around, or what I like to call ‘finding yourself sexually.’”
Drew Cohen, former student at Austin Community College, shared that he usually doesn’t ask, saying that “if you’re mentally prepared to hear one thing and find out another, you may change your views on that person. I guess it’s circumstantial.”
From a sexual health perspective, it’s fair to ask your partner about his sexual history and past condom and contraceptive use so long as you don’t make hasty judgments based on someone’s number of partners. It’s a good idea to discuss sexually transmitted infections and for a couple to get tested together before having sex. You have a right to know if a potential partner has a sexually transmitted infection and how often he gets tested, but the exact number of previous sexual partners is altogether different.
“I tend to encourage my students and readers not to get too hung up on their own or others’ ‘numbers,’” said Debby Herbenick, associate research scientist at Indiana University and The Kinsey Institute. “A person’s sexual history is only one aspect of who they are as a person, or a potential partner — and there’s more to their number than meets the eye.”