On Slate’s Sexual History Calculator

From Slate’s article, “Is Your Sexual History as Impressive as You Think” by Andrew Kahn and Andrew Weissmann:

You, dear reader, are a human being. And as a human being, you are naturally curious, a little bit self-conscious, and maybe even competitive about sex. At some point you’ve almost certainly thought about the number of people you’ve slept with and wondered: Is that normal?

Wonder no more. Enter your stats into our new calculator, and, based on your age and gender, it will tell you exactly which percentile you fall into when it comes to how many partners you’ve hopped in the sack with.

I came across this article today and I’ve been chewing on a mouthful of fucking annoyance ever since I read it. Needless to say, I don’t think Slate’s calculator is nearly as impressive as the article’s authors do. Fantastically unprofessional, soul-driven rant ahead.

So why did this article crawl under my skin like a disgusting dermatological disease?

In part because this was published in Slate, a (usually) grounded current events / politics site. If I’d stumbled over this in Cosmo, I’d have rolled my eyes and moved on because a sexual history calculator is exactly the sort of thing one expects to find in Cosmo. What I didn’t expect was for Slate to push the same sort of competitive, sexual shame / insecurity inducing bullshit that Cosmo does. The fact that Slate filed this article in Moneybox, their financial section, seems both nonsensical and ironically appropriate to me. Why?

Because this is click bait, plain and simple. The motive behind it has nothing to do with sexuality, curiosity or culture – it has to do with hits. So, in the spirit of not taking that bait, here’s a link I ran through DoNotLink so you can see it (if you really want to) without improving Slate’s hits on this piece.

...says the sexual history calculator.

…says the sexual history calculator.

But let’s get back to the article itself. As it says, we, the dear reader, are human. Surely we want to know if we’re “normal”, so let’s break this down to it’s unvoiced yet obvious implication:

Am I less than average? Fuck. I’m a frigid, undersexed loser.

Am I above the average? Fuck. I’m an slutty, oversexed slut.

Am I in the average? Whew. I’m normal. Thank god.

The calculator feeds into the popular notion that numbers matter when it comes to sexual partners, and it does so in a way that is almost gleefully disingenuous. Weissmann and Kahn site a study published this month in The Archive of Sexual Behavior as the inspiration behind the calculator. This study, done on a weighty 13,000 participants, found that millennials are on pace to sleep with fewer partners over their lifetimes than previous generations. This finding has some legitimate sociological interest, and it’s on that legitimate interest that the authors flimsily hung the relevance of their handy-dandy little service.

Using the same data used by the study that inspired it, the calculator compares your age and number of partners against the average defined by the study’s participants. But the study is self-reported (and I do give Weissmann and Kahn credit for stating this in the article), which means that the study’s participants could very easily have lied, adjusting their numbers up and down in whatever way suited their self images. There is no statistical rigor behind this average, which means that it’s entirely subject to the truthfulness of the people involved. As far as statistical averages go, it’s inherently flawed.

So why bother with the calculator at all, especially when the average it’s using is, very likely, less than accurate and taken from a relatively small sample size?

Because the article isn’t interested in sociological or generational trends despite what the authors claim their inspiration to be. The article, from it’s hook-laden title to its friendly, 1950’s era ad-man tone, are aimed at subversively feeding into the reader’s potential insecurities. Why? To get you to stop and click.

But beneath all that lies a legitimate question, one the authors choose to ignore. Does the number of partners you’ve slept with really matter?

My answer to this question (for all that it’s worth) is no. Sexual histories cannot be averaged. Not really. A person’s relationship to his / her sexual past is complicated, individual and defined by the particular circumstances of her / his life. Whether you’ve had one partner or one hundred doesn’t say anything about you as a sexually mature human being. But this calculator feeds into our insecurities about our partnered sexual pasts. Am I prude? Am I a slut? Fuck if I care. I’m offended by the idea of a click-bait calculator telling me where I fall on an imaginary average, and I’m offended that it’s been published as a way to capitalize on people’s insecurities (“c’mon – you’re human”) to get hits for Slate.

For all that though, the calculator does one thing of legitimate sociological interest. It underscores how wide-spread the reflex to measure our sexual histories against each other is. It wouldn’t be click-bait if the authors weren’t confident of it’s ability to reel people in. But is that impulse healthy or necessary?

I’d say probably not. Regardless of where you fall on the calculator’s spectrum, you’ll either feel bad about yourself or falsely vindicated if you give the results any weight. Either way, the false notion that the number of people in your history means anything will, once again, be reinforced.

This calculator isn’t the precious little service the authors are making it out to be. It’s a disingenuous manipulation wrapped up in cultural interest and that’s why it pisses me off. It’s selling you the notion that there is an average sexual history and that that the subjective average is “normal”. Are you “normal?” Don’t you want to know? Not to sound like John Oliver on a rant, but Fuck You Sexual History Calculator! Sell your “normal” somewhere else!

And yes, I know, maybe I need to lighten up. Maybe some people find this kind of thing fun. Maybe people don’t care. Maybe…but the calculator is a sensationalistic marketing tool and because it serves no larger point (despite the terms it’s couched in) it can fuck right off. As a culture, we’re already too focused on the number of people in our sexual histories. The last thing we need is an app to capitalize on the obsession.

22 comments

  1. i completely agree with you on this M, i think we should decide where we fall. i am so tired of expectations on this topic and many others. where i am at is fine for me, i do not need crowd approval…

    1. Exactly, F. Thank you. I don’t like that it both preys on people’s insecurities *and* creates a false emphasis on the idea that these numbers even matter. Ridiculous.

  2. First of all, bravo for using the word ‘fantastically’ more than once! 😉

    That said, an old stats&prob professor once said, “If you are so inclined, you can make stats say whatever the hell you want to.”

    As you eluded to, quantitatively distilling sex down to number of partners is pretty sophomoric at best.

    As I challenge most ‘poll-ish’ (not to be confused with Polish) data…

    So, does the shmoe or schmoette that has had 55 partners had a better sex life than the average 1 partner only person? What if that 55 partner marathon sexer only had sex once per partner? Is that still better worse than let say, one of the 1 partner only folks that happen to go to town 5 times a week (and a few of those days, more than once)?

    And yes, the above example doesn’t even factor in the qualitative aspects of it all. It just keeps it in numberville.

    It is all meaningless. That said, it was fantastically fun to disassemble it. 🙂

    1. Thanks! My old stats professor said the same thing – probably why I’ve always maintained a wariness for studies and statistics claiming anything definitively. Statistics are easy to manipulate, even when you don’t mean to! Glad you liked the piece – it was written in an indignant rush, so I’m happy it made sense 🙂

  3. I think the only thing that matters is control over your own choices of who, when and why. It makes no difference how many partners anyone has. I share your anger at this kind of click bait shame generator. For what it is worth, I am me. I like sex. I am in charge of my choices and decisions with regard to relationships and that is all that matters.

    1. Absolutely, yes. I share your feelings on the importance of owning your sexuality without shame. I feel like that’s the message we should be perpetuating, rather than this one, where one’s “normalcy” is inherently tied to how many sexual partners one has had. Thank you, Honey.

      1. It makes me very angry that these click bait shame generators are around. It goes against all the education and development of emotional well-being, relationship education regarding your relationship with yourself and with others and all the work on sexual agency. It gives an insidious message that you should always be factoring in whether you have reached the mythical normal number or whether you are wrong for either being below or above. It does nothing to encourage people to value the quality of their experiences.

        Sorry – I am ranty about this.

        Xxx

        1. No, please don’t apologize! I’m ranty about it too. There is nothing salutary about click-bait like this. Is useless at best, and counterproductive and undermining at worst. We’re very much on the same page. Xxx

  4. “the same sort of competitive, sexual shame / insecurity inducing bullshit”

    It’s exhausting.

    Less and less am I reading articles from these sites. Even VICE kinda lost a little of my respect because of E. Dawson’s article.

    I’m tired of the ‘click bait’ articles. Tired of the “how do you compare?” junkicles (junk articles). Lately, I’ve found science journals more entertaining. Some, not all.

    I stopped watching mainstream news years ago because they were using that kind of tactic, now, because the Internet has become everyone’s news source, it’s happening all over again.

    Exhausting, I say! Exhausting! I need a nap.

    1. It is exhausting. I usually ignore stuff like this, especially click-bait, because there is so much of it and the last thing I generally want to do it call attention to it. But in this case, a great deal of my indignation came from the fact that this thing ran in Slate (and it’s been picked up by other sites too). I’ve been reading them for years, but recently they’ve been taking an editorial turn that I’m not liking. I want less click bait, not more, and certainly not from an outlet that I use to respect. They were never the Washington Post, but they usually had something substantive to say. Now, it doesn’t seem like that’s the going trend.

  5. I loved this entire post. Loved it. I am annoyed that this was a click bait post, and I also agree that the measurements are completely irrelevant (and yes, as a person with a math degree, I can confirm you can manipulate data to say whatever you want it to say). I am not really sure what “average” is, and who gauges that, and how exactly does over 18 constitute the entirety of our sexual experiences (since the survey asks how many since 18)? I certainly did it before then, and not once, so how does this study make any statistical sense at all?

    I once had a friend say your number matters only to you, because why in the world would anyone else need it, and I have always seconded that. Because seriously—what purpose does it serve and what can it possibly say about anything other than you can count?

    To be honest, for “statistical” purposes I did take the survey to see what it told me (mostly because I wanted to laugh), and I’m even more befuddled by the option to click “I lied—take it again” after I got my results. Because *of course* if I was comforted by the survey telling me my percentage compared to the “average” wasn’t all that bad, than I could go ahead and finally tell the truth I hadn’t told. Right. What a joke. Thanks for the rant because really—this is just a ludicrous article. Thumbs down on you, Slate. But thumbs up on you, Malin. XO

  6. I’ve never understood the counting system in play. What constitutes a partner? What acts “count” as sex and which don’t? It’s all very heteronormative and vanilla, as if everyone has sex or gets off exactly the same way. But whenever I point that out to people who ask me for my number (and at least half of everyone I date does) they get even more nervous.

    What’s especially irritating is that people will use this to form benchmarks and judge women for exceeding a meaningless standard.

    1. I agree – the fixation on numbers has always confounded me, especially in relationships. I have never cared how many partners my partners have had. It literally has nothing to do with me or our relationship, which isn’t to say that I don’t like hearing about my partners’ pasts. That denotes a level of engagement and trust that I very much value, but I’ve never asked the “how many people have you slept with” question because I don’t care about the number and, I can honestly say, that I’ve never been with anyone who cared about mine. That might be selection bias though – my partners have all had numbers on the higher side and have never been hung up that my number of partners is high too.

      As for the study used as the “inspiration” for this thing, it’s massively heteronormative and vanilla, as you said. While I understand what they were looking for in a sociological sense, it is not an inclusive study and I wouldn’t use it as the basis for anything. I certainly don’t like that it was used to propagate the idea that the number of sexual partners a person has had matters. That’s a hang up we need to be working to get over, not support. *grumble*

  7. So true! That sounds exactly like the Cosmo tests….which means I’d expect most adult women would find childish and useless.

    1. One would hope.. unfortunately a lot of people seem to care about this, mostly, I suspect, because the media keeps telling them that they should. It’s kind of hard not to find that depressing in a cultural sense..

      ps – thanks for stopping to comment. I love it when people do that 🙂

  8. 1. I never ask a question when I do not care what the answer to it is.
    2. Research shows that research works.
    3. In a quantum out look I will always be, always have been, and always will be sleeping with the number of people I have, I am, and I will be sleeping with.
    4. Ergo the number is “Perfect”
    5. The number of fingers I have on one hand

    The sum of it all is agreement with you.

    🙂

  9. WHY is the number of sexual partners irrelevant? If you were charged with hiring a CEO for your company and wanted that person to be around for a long time to lead the company and not just jump at the first competing offer, would it matter to you if that person had had 15 jobs in the last 5 years, as compared to another candidate with otherwise identical qualifications having had 2 or 3 jobs in the same period? Is it absurd for an employer to ask about your job history and consider just the number of jobs as a factor in making an employment decision? I can’t imagine a potential employer saying, “the past is the past and is none of my business.”

    If the number, by itself, is a relevant piece of information in that context, why isn’t the number, by itself, relevant to someone seeking a long-lasting relationship and not just a fling? In my view, those who say it’s irrelevant immediately lose credibility.

    1. If numbers are important to you then you’re free to pursue partners with a sexual history akin to a CEO’s resume. Personally, anyone who compares dating to corporate hiring practices immediately loses credibility with me, but then I suppose we would best be served by agreeing to disagree.

    2. I truly find the analogy choice you decided to use the hiring of CEO’s…(ie comparing the hiring of CEO’s to the number of sexual partners one has)…interesting to say the least.

      Why CEO’s, whom are primarily at the mature stage of their employment history? Why not entry-level workers or those fresh out of college but without an ounce of experience?

      Why CEO’s, whom are one of the smallest subsets of worker, almost by definition?

      Further, I would personally love to meet the CEO that had 15 jobs in 5 years. He or she would either be the worst (which is what you are implying) or the best CEO on the damn planet. I argue that that CEO would be the best. Because based on your numbers and assuming he/she is not working for more than one company at a time, he would only work for a company, on average, four months before moving on. For an average pleb, there is usually a 6 month period between jobs. This CEO is instantly getting the next gig. No rest for him or her. No time to spend on the yacht he/she owns, that’s for damn sure

      You also make the assumption that in the hiring process of a CEO, the primary goal is someone that is LOYAL. That is not always the case. Many CEO’s are hired to fix a companies direction. For companies that are in a rough place, they purposely hire CEO’s that will fix them quickly (which also means painfully). That is going to be a CEO that is not well loved initially, and usually has a plan to hand over leadership once he/she has done the grim job given to them. They are more the ‘journeyman’-type CEO. They are the mercenary. I dare say, trying to fit it in with your analogy, they are viewed as the whores.

      There is a third category of CEO for that matter. That where they are self-made. No one hired them. They trailblazed on their own. How do they fit in? Are they the celibate monks?

      In each case, do their pre-CEO experiences matter not?

      In your singular case? Is the hiring party or person purely looking at years served to as few companies as possible to make a decision? Does that equate to a fantastic bottom line? Or is there more to it than that? Basing the success of a CEO purely on longevity with minimal companies is almost as arbitrary as me trying to guess the color of your hair by the number of vowels you used in your post.

      You said, “If the number, by itself, is a relevant piece of information in that context…”

      Hopefully, I pointed out that the number, by itself, is almost meaningless. At best, that piece of information might be used as a tie-breaker between two candidates. Even then, some companies will lean on the side of ‘loyalty’ the other will lean on the side of ‘diversity of experiences’.

      All that said, rounding back to number of sexual partners. Who’s to say someone that has had a lot of sexual partners isn’t or cannot be loyal? I have friends that were very promiscuous in their lives and are completely committed to their spouses now. The numbers don’t seem to matter there. I know others that had only one lover for decades, only to decide that that wasn’t for them anymore and jump ship. Numbers barely matter there as well.

      If you are someone that is looking for a long-term relationship, of course you are probably going to be more selective. And usually, you will be looking for someone that shares your views. Does that mean those looking or enjoying ‘flings’ currently are somehow in the wrong or disrupting the statistics for those looking for long-term physical relationships?

      Sex is not math and statistics. Quantitating it, is the smallest facet at best.
      Sex is poetry and primal music. It is art and it is filled with prose.

      Some have success with just one partner, some find emotional ruin with just one.
      Some find joy with an experience of a number of partners, some find heartache because of it.

      You have every right to judge those that have whatever your ‘one to many’ partners quotient is. But, without knowing the stories, the struggles, and triumphs, you are letting something be a bit overlooked.

      If I was in charge of hiring a CEO, I would want to know their struggles and their triumphs to put context to the ‘numbers’ that fill the pages of their resumes. The number of past lovers my wife had mattered little to me. Her struggles and triumphs and what ultimately lead her to me most certainly did.

      So thanks for your comment. I would have never imagined ever discussing the hiring practices of CEO’s and the number of sexual partners in the same breath, but it was a fun challenge to take on all the same!

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