When I was 12-years-old, we had a special presentation at school. The teacher called two kids up to the front. She called up Gary because he was her favorite and she called up me, because I might fall asleep if she didn’t. She gave us a bag of Cheetos each and we scarfed them down like the ravenous tweens we were. Then she poured us both a glass of water but told us not to drink it. She told me to put the water in my mouth and swirl it around before I spit it back into the glass. She had Gary hold up his glass of clean water and asked the class who would drink that water. There were confused looks of consent all around. Then she had me hold up my glass of chunky pale-orange cloudy water and asked who would rather drink this water. There was a resounding disapproval. Some kids audibly gagged, others simply let out a disturbed wimper. When the noises died down, the whole class had a look of softened disgust.
This was my first ever class in sexual education.
Flash forward to last night’s pillow talk. New person – we’ve spent some nights together, and we finally start feeling each other out conversationally. We get to the subject of previous sexual partners. We’re still green, but they end up asking the question:
While guys are known for often exaggerating numbers involving sexuality, I prefer to play an honest game. We haven’t known each other that long, but I imagine my date’s picked up on that. I inquire if they actually want to know the number. I’m curious if they’re ready for the answer. I want them to be confronted with the idea that this one number might change their opinion of my quality as a partner. And be ready for an answer they may not like. I’ll fudge my opinions when my gal asks me how their hair looks first thing in the morning, but I’m not going to fudge a number.
This isn’t a number like my age, which is fluctuating, but consistent. This isn’t my pants size, which would go down if I just stopped eating at Culvers. And this isn’t a number that’s pretty much set, like the number of Y chromosomes I have. They were asking me a very specific number concerning a very sensitive part of my life. This is like asking somebody how many funerals they’ve ever attended.
I said a thousand. While I’m certain there are plenty of people who wouldn’t be lying when they said that, I gather my date got the joke. We giggle and I ask them why they want to know. Are they afraid that I’m somehow riddled with disease? Are they imagining I’m bound to have at least one psychotic ex if I’ve had that many? Are they worried they won’t seem as special with someone who’s had more than the average?
They tell me they’re just curious.
I tell them the truth. I can tell it’s not as much as they were afraid of. I can tell it’s more than they’re used to. I’ve answered this question before. It gets easier to answer every time, but it’s hard to shake a sense of shame that’s been groomed into me since I was 12 years old holding up a glass of dirty water in front of a class that looks disgusted. That’s how it feels whenever somebody asks.