End lays

Feeling bad about yourself by the numbers.

Published October 24, 2006 5:46PM (EDT)

You know what there isn't enough of? Guilt and shame associated with female sexual desires and behaviors. That's surely the explanation for today's splashy feature in the New York Post titled "Your lays are numbered." It's basically a big exposé of the "funny math" that New York women supposedly use to tally the number of partners they've been with. (The story assumes heterosexuality, so that's male partners we're counting.) Embedded in the story are stats about what's "normal" or "average" and what numbers catapult a woman from the "girl next door" to the "whore next door." Then there are the tales of women who fudge the metrics based on ludicrous circumstances, like drunkenness, length of the encounter or size of the partner's member. And the women who lie to their new boyfriends about past experience because they don't want their boyfriends to think they're "easy."

"Women are very conscious of the number of sexual partners they've had," says Karyn Bosnak, a 32-year-old who has written a novel about a 29-year-old woman who decides to cut herself off at 20 partners because it's twice the average number. "Even though it's ridiculous to worry about increasing your number, that's exactly what happens."

Yack! While surely many of us have had sexual encounters that we would cheerily take back in retrospect, and trysts that we wish had happened that never did, the idea that women should conceive of their own sexual identities as a numbers game is really troubling.

What I'm about to say sounds obvious, but when I read a story like this I feel as if it bears repeating: No one should care how many or how few people you sleep with as long as you're safe and feel good about the choices you make. It doesn't change who you are. It doesn't affect your looks, personality, desirability or character or your spiritual or moral worth. If you find a partner who likes you less because of the choices you've made in the past, then the partner is probably not a good match. Or he or she needs to grow up and get over it.

The reason it's worth ranting about this has to do with the unrelenting sense that being a woman at this point in history -- when we have so many opportunities to exercise our rights and our passions -- is forever being circumscribed and measured. If it's not weight, it's the number of our sexual partners, and it always gets boiled down to the message that women need to curb and control their own human energies and desires. We're told that we should deprive ourselves of pleasures, or we should bulk up to meet some silly expectation of normal femininity.

It's bullshit, stemming from a fear of female enthusiasms, but it can often make women internalize the feeling that they are supposed to extinguish those enthusiasms.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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