Does your partner’s “number” matter?

23 Apr

Many sexual health campaigns stress the importance of knowing your partner’s “number”. They show many hands wrapped around the partner, or a Facebook check-in on someone’s underwear. And while it’s important to know the STI status of your partner, I don’t think it’s important to know how many people they’ve slept with.

There appears to be a trend of demanding “numbers” from partners. This can never turn out well. You can have too many partners, or too few. What can your partner do with the information besides compare it to their own experience?

Instead, I argue that your number should be a secret. It’s information for you alone. No one should ever have to justify their past to their partner.

Remember in Chasing Amy when Holden demands to know everything about Alyssa's sex life? That was messed up.

In the Kevin Smith movie Chasing Amy, Holden assumes his formerly lesbian-identifying girlfriend has never been with a man. When he finds out from a friend that she was involved in a threesome with two men 10 years before, he’s heartbroken. He passive-aggressively brings the topic up while they’re at a hockey game together and she cries and admits to many different sexual acts and partners. Then she says she’s not going to apologize for her past, and this torments Holden for the rest of the movie. It ultimately ruins their relationship.

I really can’t imagine many of these talks going a different way – it can only cause problems.

As a journalism student, I understand the insatiable curiosity about other people and their lives. But when it comes to someone’s number, it’s really a private matter.

What is important, though, is to know the health of your partner. To know you’re not getting physically involved with someone who could be putting your health in jeopardy. That requires having a potentially much more awkward conversation. When someone asks for a number of previous partners, what they are really trying to infer is whether or not sex will be safe. However, the number is irrelevant. Like I said in my analysis of HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns, unprotected sex is a Russian roulette. Whether it’s your first partner or your 100th, you have an equal chance of getting hit with the STI bullet. The number of partners is meaningless information.

Instead, partners should be asking to see a clean bill of health. The Mayo Clinic recommends sexually active people get tested for STIs annually, as well as between each partner.

Questions to ask new partners:

  • When was your last STI check? (Correct answer will be within the last year. If it’s been longer, ask them to get tested.)
  • Where did you get it done? (This question can help you assess if the person is lying – if they don’t know or give a shifty answer like “I don’t know, the doctor’s?”, you may not want to trust them.)
  • What STIs did you get screened for? (Correct minimal answer: chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV/AIDS, HPV. Incorrect answer: “All of them.” If you don’t know whether to believe them, ask if they got checked for herpes. If they say yes, ask how they were tested for it. Herpes can only be screened with a sample of an open blister – so if they don’t know how tests are conducted but claim they were tested for herpes, they’re lying to you.)
  • What were the results? (Correct answers: All negative, or positive and treated.)
  • If you had any infections, did you undergo treatment? If you had a treatment, did you have a follow up test? (Correct answer: Yes and yes.)

If you are unsure whether to trust them, don’t. It’s not worth your health. Even curable STIs – like chlamydia – have life-threatening long term effects if they aren’t found early on.

Sometimes, a new partner will act like you’re invading their privacy with these questions. Do not be deterred – you only get one body, and it’s your job to keep it safe.

If your partner has objections, take a deep breath and try these:

  • Objection: You don’t trust me.
    Answer: This isn’t about trust. You can have an STI and not even know it. This is a way to take care of both of us.
  • Objection: You’re being ridiculous.
    Answer: This is really important to me. If you can’t answer my questions and take this seriously, I’m not comfortable being naked with you.
  • Objection: No one else asks me this stuff. I can go get sex somewhere else.
    Answer: That’s exactly why I’m asking. It only takes one time to get an STI, and I want both of us to be safe.
  • Objection: I don’t need a test. I know I’m clean.
    Answer: The only way to know is with clean results from the clinic.
  • Objection: This is embarrassing.
    Answer: Not as embarrassing as ending up at the doctor’s office with an STI.
  • Objection: Tests are too expensive. I can’t afford it.
    Answer: Actually, you can get tested for free at health departments (city, county or federal), community clinics and Planned Parenthood. (Even guys can get tested at Planned Parenthood – it’s not just for the ladies!)
  • Objection: I don’t need to tell you this stuff. Let’s just use a condom.
    Answer: Condoms don’t protect us from everything. Some STIs, like herpes and genital warts, can be passed along even with condoms.
  • Objection: I’m too old to have an STI.
    Answer: No one is too old to have an STI.
  • Objection: I can’t get tested, because I’m an underage drinker or use illegal drugs. I don’t want to go to jail.
    Answer: Clinics will keep that information confidential.

Have you encountered a different objection you need an answer to? Leave it in the comments!

What do you think about all this? Do you still think numbers matter?


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