Feminism | Posted by Ashley P on 03/10/2010

Owning Up to My “Number”

the issue of the metaphorical little black book

the issue of the metaphorical little black book

A few days ago, I took a huge step in the self-confidence department. I was reading Jessica Valenti’s Full-Frontal Feminism (a particular favorite of mine) for the fifth time, and her chapter about women’s sexuality made me put down the damn book and go to my desk. Feeling extremely inspired, I sat down with a pen and paper and compiled my list, my “little black book”, so to speak. To some young women, this may not appear to be such a big deal. However, for me personally, writing each person’s name down and totaling the number was my defiant act of courage.

Since my senior year of high school, I have been considerably sexually active. The summer between my high school graduation and my first semester of university, I was certainly known as a slut (the horror!). And, unfortunately, I played into the shame-game with my very own harsh criticism of myself. Thanks to one of the most dominant double-standards in Western civilization, I realized that had if I been born male, I would be considered the epitome of a stud. A ladies’ man. A player. But since I have tits and a vagina, I have been told not to have sex. To paraphrase Valenti, I have been brought up in a society that urges me to “be sexy, but not have sex.” Even after discovering and embracing feminism’s strength and courage, I was engaging in downright hypocrisy by slut-shaming myself.

The past three years, I have often felt guilty and ashamed of my sexual history, always roughly estimating and then lowering to the nearest decimal when telling new partners of my “number.” By being too ashamed to count up my actual number and being unable to tell the truth to partners, friends, etc., I, myself, was perpetuating and even reinforcing this damn double standard. In classes, workshops, and meetings, my feminist self would loudly encourage my female friends to face up and be proud of their number, regardless of whether society would title them “inexperienced” virgin or an “experienced” whore (our only two options as women).  All the while, I would never take my own advice.

That was until very recently. With shaky hands, I wrote down the name of every damn male I had slept with. Ever. Starting at 14, with losing my virginity, and starting back again at 17, when I had my second sexual male partner in senior year of high school. From there, the names came rolling back.

After each name was written down, I tallied it up. I remember instinctively sighing with relief. I had expected possibly over 20. It ended up being 11. Then I was further disgusted with myself for being relieved for being under the 20-mark. What should I have done if I had been over 20, 30, 40, or 100? Is there a certain number that when and if women reach, they should start shopping for chastity belts or immediately join the nearest convent? Of course not. The idea that there is a certain number that would Scarlet-Letterfy me, or any woman for that matter, is ludicrous. That’s when I started logically looking at this list, mentally de-bunking this virgin/whore dichotomy. The following thought-process is what especially helped me weed past the bullshit:

How about, well, not having any guilt associated with your number, whether its 0 or 370? That is definitely a good starting point for any young woman. Unfortunately, the society we are in is insanely fixated on a woman’s virginity, to the point of unhealthy obsession. Remembering that this particular cultural emphasis of our place, as women, in society as being invested in our (unbroken) hymen is correlating this ridiculous notion of self-worth as being all about control. What helped me to especially embrace my number was that I wasn’t being controlled. I was in control with each of these 11 guys both with my consent and participation. It felt good fully realize that sexual activity has, literally, jack shit to say about my self-worth. I’m still ambitious, creative, confident, and intelligent. Those are the traits you should be basing your self-worth on not the number of people you’ve had in between the sheets. Also, I always love a chance to show any sort of flippant disregard toward Western patriarchal values. I looked at the list, and relished in the fact that my 11 partners were the ultimate fuck-you to the uber-conservative, bible-thumping bigots that attempt to govern my body every day on Capitol Hill, whether they’re signing some new pro-life legislature, or funding bogus abstinence-only education.

Upon talking to my mom about this miraculous breakthrough, I told her that going through the names and remembering the different encounters helped me learn so much about my sexuality as a young woman. I do not regret my number, nor do I regret any of the situations involved in gaining this number. The knowledge I gained from having sex with different males of the utmost intangible value to me. My awesome mom also brought in a thought-provoker by saying, “Ya know, Ash. It’s great what you’re doing. Have pride in your number. Fucking own it. Maybe even think about why your number is 11. I would say the same thing to you even if it was 1. What did you learn from it?”

Well, thank you, Mom. That certainly did get me thinking. See, I keep referring to this list by specifically saying “male.” I have also slept with women. And, this was a personal choice to exclude women from my list. No, I am not one to think just because a penis isn’t involved doesn’t make it “sex.” In my opinion, that is both ignorant and a jab at the gay community (Not only do we not view your marriages/civil unions as legitimate, your sex totally isn’t legit, either! Fuck that). You see, I am a recently “out” lesbian. I have known that I like girls and had crushes on them since I was in the eighth grade. As I got older and entered the halls of high school, I labeled myself “bisexual.” I do believe bisexuality can certainly be possible, but for me personally, this was a complete cop-out in regards to my own sexuality. Simply, I was too damn scared to come out as a big, ol’ lesbian. Even while in my first serious relationship during my junior year with a girl, I still clung to the bi-label as a means of, I guess, trying to still fit into some more of “normalcy”: the heterosexual normalcy. Yeah, I’ll admit it. I did not want to be gay. I was young, terrified, and immensely confused.

Thinking about all this, my mom’s question about the “whys” of my number started to make even more sense. I faced the facts that I had been ignoring and suppressing for three years: I was sleeping with males to prove I was not gay. It was kind of my anti-gay shield, I guess. Pathetically much like a, “Hey! Over here! I slept with a guy! I’m soooo straight!” I officially came out and dealt with my sexuality earlier this year, in January. I decided to cut the shit with myself. It was blatantly obvious and has been since I started realizing:

1.)    My most serious, committed relationships where I truly felt I was “in love” were with women.

2.) Upon looking over my list of male names, I remembered that I had, indeed, had what could easily be considered “fabulous” sex. But when it comes down to it, one night of sex with my most recent ex-girlfriend, for example, completely overrides any emotional or physical aspects of my sexual encounters with all those 11 guys combined.

So, I really wanted to share this personal story to maybe inspire a young woman, who like me, is completely ashamed and guilt-ridden over her number. If you know your number, own it. If you’re are still like me and it’s still a mystery, tally your number, and then own it. If your number is 0, own it. If your number is 1,234, own it. If you are having sex for kicks and ‘cause it feels good, own it. And, if like me, your number tells a story, or is a possible window into your behavior, learn from it. And then, yes, own it.

If you do feel guilty and ashamed of your number, negate those emotions by thinking about and maybe even writing down the valuable knowledge you’ve gained from your sexual history. Or you can always, like me, relish in your number and think of it as a downright defiance of this asinine cultural that equates woman to their state of hymen.

And most importantly, take back control over your damn body. It will feel amazing. Trust me.

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  • How do I copyright my work online? @ at 12:31 pm, March 10th, 2010

    [...] Owning Up to My “Number” | Feminism | fbomb [...]

  • Steph @ at 12:57 pm, March 10th, 2010

    Congrats on coming out to yourself! It can be a hard journey, and it sounds like you’ve handled it well.

  • Zoe @ at 1:14 pm, March 10th, 2010

    I played a game with some friends where we all asked each other sexual revealing questions. It was a co-ed group and no one was ever made to feel ashamed about any of their actions because that’s how we are. I was surprised to learn that my number 8 was only beat out by one other person in the group, a guy with 9. I had thought that a lot of other girls in the group would have more, because we are all very sexually open (and I feel they are much more attractive than me so surely their number would be more). Thought it was interesting. Though I was only really in love with one or two of those eight, I don’t regret my number.

  • Is Weight Loss Surgery Your Best Option? @ at 1:28 pm, March 10th, 2010

    [...] Owning Up to My “Number” | Feminism | fbomb [...]

  • Bubbly11 @ at 3:56 pm, March 10th, 2010

    I’m a 0. I don’t see my virginity as something that defines me.
    Sure, there have been many opportuntities for me to have sex but I knew that I would regret it and would feel controlled and trapped in the relationship I was in. The sex would have been for him not for me.
    So I’m waiting for a guy that I feel totally comfortable with, where the sex is just as much for me as for him and where I won’t feel that sex is a control mechanism to keep me in the relationship.
    But until then I’m still a 0 && totally cool with it :)

  • Toongrrl @ at 5:52 pm, March 10th, 2010

    My number is 2000…in my mind. You do the math

  • You Should Talk » How To Find People For Free Using An SSN @ at 6:24 pm, March 10th, 2010

    [...] Owning Up to My “Number” | Feminism | fbomb [...]

  • Alex F @ at 10:10 pm, March 10th, 2010

    Umm this is off topic, but what are the red comments that say “Is Weight Loss Surgery Your Best Option?” then have “[...] Owning Up to My “Number” | Feminism | fbomb [...]” and stuff? I’m just confused, I’ve never seen this before on the F-Bomb. Is it some kind of advertising? Wha? Huh?

  • Brenna @ at 10:21 pm, March 10th, 2010

    Wait, are these numbers just for the people you’ve had intercourse with, or do other sexual acts count, too?
    I think my situation is opposite yours, because I have a low number, and have often wished that it was higher. But after reading this post, I realize that I should not care what my number is. Your number should be high or low because of what YOU want, not because you want to be proud of a number that is neither good nor bad, but just a simple fact about your experiences.

  • Steph @ at 2:04 pm, March 11th, 2010

    @Alex: those are trackbacks. If someplace links to an article, one of those shows that it’s happened.

  • Molly @ at 5:38 pm, March 11th, 2010

    I produce a radio show in Chicago, and once a week we talk about feminst “issues”, etc. this was a recent story uploaded to our website about numbers and how a girl’s boyfriend lied to her about his. Emotional and funny and weird. It shows how guys and girls have totally different standards.

    http://vocalo.org/explore/content/60997

  • Ashley Polley @ at 7:47 pm, March 11th, 2010

    Molly,

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure guys and girls would choose willingly to have these different standards placed upon them in regard to sexual activity. Girls are certainly taught from an early age the sort of nasty repercussions to be expected (i.e., the slut-shaming) in terms of deviance from this unfortunate double-standard.

    It would be pretty rockin’ to bring both young girls and boys up with the knowledge that while sexual intercourse is a huge decision, whether you decide to be sexually active or abstain until marriage, your decision(s) should not reflect your self-worth.

  • Ashley Polley @ at 7:48 pm, March 11th, 2010

    *I meant your sexual activity should not equate self-worth.

  • FW @ at 12:46 am, March 14th, 2010

    Dangit! I never thought about getting their names! :)

  • The Nerd @ at 10:38 pm, March 16th, 2010

    Bisexuals certainly are possible!

    My numbers:

    3 men
    1 woman
    0 other genders

    Not too long ago, that number for women was 0, and I heard it from everyone: “then how do you know that you’re really bisexual?” Srsly? That’s like asking how does a virgin know he’ll enjoy having sex. He knows because he can feel it inside before he even experiences it on the outside! Same with all of us – numbers are just numbers, it’s our attitudes that count.

  • Fifteenth Carnival of Feminists « Shut Up, Sit Down @ at 9:55 am, March 17th, 2010

    [...] one from Fbomb is Owning Up to My ‘Number’ where the author makes peace with her ‘number’ (i.e. number of sexual [...]

  • Elisa @ at 11:50 pm, March 18th, 2010

    I really enjoyed this article, but here’s something I recently realized: I think the phrase “losing” your virginity is a throw back and not sex-positive- it implies that virginity’s something we as women are supposed to try to keep for as long as possible and protect from the big scary men who will ask us for it and try to get us to give to them- “losing” your virginity sounds like a bad thing. It’s funny how wording is so sneaky and pre-programmed (for me too!)!! (The word “virgin” is a whole other story that I’m still not sure about!)

  • 20 year old virgin @ at 11:49 am, April 3rd, 2010

    I get it–all of the ways that women’s sexuality has been supressed and all of the double standards and messed up ideas. I talk about it with friends all the time and I’m always thinking about it. But, I can’t separate myself from it. I can intellectually understand it and believe in sexual liberation…but I can’t undo these messages I’ve gotten my whole life. I wish I could live out my beliefs…but I’m still a product of this culture and I struggle with that.

  • LHM @ at 10:24 am, May 25th, 2010

    I’m 20, and my number is in the upper thirties. I only know all the people’s names (first only, for many) because I write them down immediately so I won’t forget. I like my number because I don’t regret any of the sex it represents.

    My list includes both men and women.

  • Katie @ at 2:54 am, October 7th, 2010

    I just read Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism as well, and it was totally inspiring. This part of the book was probably one of my favorites, and since then I have been doing the exact same thing; telling everyone ELSE that they should own their number. I’m 21 and I’ve slept with 17 guys. I have yet to “completely” own up to my number (meaning that I’m not going around yelling it….yet) but I am owning it up to myself first. I used to even lie to myself about my number, justifying it by saying, “no, those (however many) just didn’t count.” But they did, and I have slept with 17 men.

    This is me owning up to my number!!

  • Jordan @ at 9:09 pm, November 4th, 2010

    Ashley,
    I want to let you know I read a few of your articles for the first time today, and for the most part I really enjoyed them. However, there seems to be so many grammatical errors and ideas that are good, and really close to the point, but just miss because any given article as a whole doesn’t seem to be all that well thought out. I mean this as constructive criticism because I think you have potential to be a much better writer. I hope you take this advice kindly, and perhaps, grow from it.

  • Anna @ at 11:10 pm, January 7th, 2011

    @ Jordan
    Beginning a run-on sentence with a conjunction is a confusing medium to tell someone they are using improper grammar. I hope you take this advice kindly and grow from it.

  • Fran @ at 5:28 pm, May 19th, 2011

    0. I am not ashamed. :D I am nineteen years old, bisexual, and haven’t felt I’ve met anyone I’d like to have sex with yet. And that is all.

    Well hey, one person’s TMI is another person’s disregard for self-shaming. It’s only sex (or the lack thereof)!

  • danteC @ at 12:31 am, November 18th, 2012

    wow, this post really helped me out.
    I have been kinda down on myself about this number thing, have been worrying if mine gets too high.
    I have been getting called a whore ever since I lost my virginity, but in reality I have only slept with two men. I read somewhere that the median for women is supposed to be 4 (so the avg would be about 4.5~5)
    So began to panic before I read this article,so thank you.

  • Gopher @ at 11:35 pm, December 30th, 2012

    Why is this sex double standard so hard for women to understand? It’s not impressive when you sleep with a lot of guys because IT’S EASY! Especially if you are hot. Even an ugly girl could walk out into the street right now, stick her naked butt in the air, and have a bunch of takers. The equivalent doesn’t work for guys. It’s much more impressive to be modest when you have all this opportunity to give in.

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