This article originally appeared on VICE France
There are two questions I now refuse to answer: 1. How many driving lessons I had to have; and 2. How many guys I've slept with. When it comes to driving, let's just say I was a slow learner. But if we're talking about fucking, I'd rather not do the math.
First, there's the fact that making a list just doesn't make any logical sense. How can I reduce a long-term boyfriend to just another name in line next to some error of judgement I barely remember? What about my first love Alessandro – the older brother of my high school pen-pal, who drove me on his scooter along the coast of Sicily when I was 15? He blew my pubescent mind and I'll never forget him, but we didn't sleep together. Does he not count?
This aside, even if I did have a vague figure in my head, I'd always say it was way smaller and according to studies, I'm not the only one. A survey by the French Institute of Public Opinion found that on average, people in France say they've had 9.9 sexual partners (13.1 for men, 6.9 for women). And while this figure varies depending on the social class and the age of people interrogated (young urban people, for example, are way above the national average), the results show one common theme – men always say they've had more sexual partners than women.
In the UK, a survey by student newspaper The Tab showed a similar pattern. Some 20 percent of women surveyed would lower the number of sexual partners they'd had, compared with 10 percent of men. In contrast, only 5 percent of female students admitted to upping their number, compared with 12 percent of males.
Look, I am not the Edward Snowdon of sex. I don't want to force women to list their lovers on a Facebook status tomorrow morning like a 2.0 reimagining of Tracy Emin's tent. I say yes to a private life, yes to secrets, yes to mystery. But still I can't help thinking: What the fuck are heterosexual women afraid of?
According to François Kraus of the French Institute of Public Opinion, it's a same-old-same-old kind of problem: "Even if things are changing, today, in all social classes, the belief remains that a man who's had many sexual partners is more valuable than a woman who's had many sexual partners."
But do we really still live in a Don Juan versus Bell de Jour world? Yes. And it's even worse than that. If you're not shagging anybody, you're frigid; if you're just fucking your partner, boring; and if you're sleeping around you're still a whore.
Mina says she's "only slept with eight guys" but she's ashamed of it. "I want to have fun, to be liberated," she says, "but it's hard." Émilie – like me – prefers not to count. "You can write 20 if you want" she says, laughing. She says she's scared of her friends judging her but I can't help but think there's more to it. "If I count, seriously, it's too many," she insists. "It scares me. It might sound stupid, but I always imagined that after I'd finished studying I would spend the rest of my life with the same man. And in fact, telling myself I might have slept with 40 guys, even if in most of the cases I had a nice time… Well, it makes me sad."
What is sad is the fact that she has to judge herself like this – seeing every sexual encounter as another dent in her innocence, a further step away from the utopian prince charming fantasies she swallowed as a child.
Louise, on the other hand, couldn't care less about telling me how many people she's slept with. "Around 20," she says casually. She's 27, recently broken up from a long-term partner, and is entering what we agree is her "YOLO phase". But she's found that not everyone is into her newfound sexual awakening: "I realised my friends can't bear hearing a woman talking about how happy she is, and how much fun she's having going out with loads of different guys. I used to tell my friends everything, now they're all like, 'And when do you plan on finding a boyfriend?' or, 'Shouldn't you be more careful with your reputation?'"
I guess that's the drama with sex. You can never talk about it out of context; As soon as you start telling people about your sex life, the only thing they're thinking about is their own – their own insecurities, their own doubts.
Is there anywhere women can talk about fucking without judgement? What about a gynaecologist's office? I put the idea to Émilie. She laughed. "When I was 17, my gynaecologist asked me how many partners I'd had. I said four. 'How do you think you will be respected if you don't even respect yourself?' she said."
My gynaecologist is the opposite. She's named after a flower and has a kind, motherly face. I trust her. But I still lied about how many people I'd shagged when I first went to get the pill. "It's a pity," she said when I confessed. "People who start their sexual life early or have numerous partners have a better chance of getting HPV, and we could inform them if we knew that was the case," she explained sadly. "Our patients should be able to tell us everything without being scared we will judge them."
She almost made me feel sorry I'd lied to her. I told her it was complicated, that I always felt torn between the desire of being free while remaining what society would consider as proper – being assertive but not too much. "Well," she said. "I don't like to judge…" (In my experience, anyone who ever starts a sentence "I don't like to judge" will do exactly the contrary so I prepared myself for her next sentence.) "I don't like to judge," she continued, "but I've seen lots of young women like you. When they're aged 27 or 28, they want to party and be free, but then they come crying to have IVF treatment at 35 and ask themselves why they didn't wake up and try to get serious earlier. Life goes by fast." I took off my gown, got my insurance card back and left straight away.
My boyfriend is certain that my pussy is damaged by the amount of guys I've had sex with.
Still this doesn't answer the basic question here: Why do we lie about the number of the people we slept with? I figured I'd ask some guys too.
Antoine is 29 and works as a creative director. I met him at a party, drinking warm rosé in a plastic glass. When he heard I was writing this piece, he got in touch with me. "I will tell you what I think", he declared. He likes it when girls are not "easy at first. I like knowing the girl is giving me something special when she agrees to sleep with me – it gives me more value. If she's slept with the whole of Paris, I feel stupid. Sleeping with her doesn't make me feel good about myself, if she opens her legs in front of anybody. I'm not proud of it but that's how it is."
Unfortunately, there are many Antoines. Valentine met one of them, too, via a friend of a friend. She was crushing on him but then one night, over drinks, she started talking about her sex life. He immediately lost interest in her, telling her mate he didn't know "if she's a serious girl or if she just wants to suck dicks at parties." As if it's not possible to be both at the same time.
Of course, not all men are like this. And most of them have to deal with their own self-doubt and the social codes dictating their lives. Mathilda has just moved in with her boyfriend. They love each other, but the subject of how many people she's slept with always comes back. "Even guys who tell you they love liberated women at the beginning, will end up reproaching you," she sighs.
She refuses to give her boyfriend a number. "He's certain that my pussy is damaged by the amount of guys I've had sex with. He has this stupid belief he can't let go, that the bigger the number of guys a woman sleeps with, the larger her pussy," she says. "My boyfriend isn't an asshole, he hates thinking like this, but it's somehow stronger than him."
For others, the fear is focused on being able to give a sexually experienced woman pleasure. Benoît, a bartender, admits he puts himself under a lot of pressure: "I'm always stressed the first time I sleep with a girl," he says. "'What if I can't get hard? What if I can't give her pleasure? What if I'm bad at sex?' are questions that always cross my mind. It's even worse if the girl seems really into sex. It's very exciting and very scary at the same time."
His solution? "I became an expert at going down on girls. Seriously, I am really conscientious," he says. "I stay there for as long as I am needed. I ask girls what they like, I insist, I want them to guide me. Once I feel sure they are enjoying themselves, the pressure is gone. Once she starts twisting and turning, grabbing the sheets, moaning; I don't care about the other men any more. She might have done it with Rocco the day before, but I feel like the king of the world."
That is a guy who understands.
*All the names have been changed.