A person’s body count is the number of people they have slept with. Like most young people, it is a question I’ve heard numerous times. ‘What’s your body count?’ my friend asks me as we cook dinner together, stood side by side in front of the hob. ‘What’s your body count?’ another friend poses, sipping warm beer from a can during our group holiday. ‘What’s your body count?’ I’m asked half an hour into a third date, before our main courses have even arrived. This is how it always seems to go. One person will just hiccup the question out and then a sort of drunken top trumps is initiated. For boys, the highest number wins. For girls, the lowest.
At surface level, it seems trivial and unimportant, the idea of everyone having a number to their name. In the post-Love Island world, we take for granted that this kind of information should be readily available, part of a sexual fact file to be provided to anyone on request. However, it seems to me that the idea of a body count may be doing more harm than appears. Whatever number a woman gives, she will be judged.
Too many people. Slut.
Too few. Prude.
None. Why? What’s wrong with her?
“What is perhaps most frightening is that we’ve internalised the idea of body counts, us women.”
Men are also judged, of course, but rarely with the same severity. Low counts are met with encouragement rather than suspicion. There’s still time. Tonight’s the night. That kind of thing. Really high numbers may raise a few eyebrows, but I can’t imagine anyone would ever disassociate themselves from a guy simply because his list of women was too long. One of my closest friends has a number almost four times mine, and I’ve never thought any less of him for that reason.
Earlier this year, Taylor Swift drew attention to this sexual double standard, criticising the writers of Netflix sitcom Ginny & Georgia for making a ‘deeply sexist’ joke about her relationship history, where the accusation ‘you go through men faster than Taylor Swift’ is weaponised. Despite all the online discourse, it seemed clear to me that she was right to do so. Why is it anyone’s business how many men she has been with? What’s worse is that this attitude is worlds away from the kind of labels male celebrities get when they exhibit the same behaviour. Unlike Taylor Swift, they are admired for their sexual conquests. ‘The Leonardo DiCaprio girlfriend list: The romantic timeline of a serial modelizer’ reads the headline of The Evening Standard. Nobody is using comparisons with Leonardo DiCaprio as an insult.
“Who I sleep with is my business. Who he sleeps with is his business. If I want to tell him, I will, but I shouldn’t be asked”
What is perhaps most frightening is that we’ve internalised the idea of body counts, us women. Even when we are not asked, even in the long gaps between hearing the question, we keep these mental lists, judging ourselves by some external standard of how many people it is normal to have slept with by the age we have reached. We know when we last slept with somebody, what day it was, and what number the person is on the list that we have written in our heads. Do men wake up after a night of sex and begrudgingly add another mark to their internal tally, concerned about the growing sum? Unlikely. If they do, it seems more likely to be out of pride than embarrassment. Guess who I slept with, they brag. Guess how many girls I’ve been with, they boast.
This is not to say that a person’s sexual history is totally irrelevant. It might be important to discuss if you plan to have unprotected sex with a new partner, for example, since it makes you more or less likely to be free of infection. Equally, if for religious reasons the idea of virginity is something that holds special significance, with sex held in higher regard than by the average person, then it is also understandable that the potential of a relationship between two people may be opened up or shut down by their approach to sex, including how many people they have been with.
However, on the whole, asking for someone’s number, this magical figure which gleams above their head, a supposed reflection of who they are and how they act, seems unnecessary. I was asked the question most recently by a male friend of mine and it occurred to me that, sure, it might have been an interesting piece of ‘Ceci trivia’ for him to have to hand for future reference, but that actually it should have no bearing on our relationship, nor his opinion of me. There is no ideal number, so why does it matter? Who I sleep with is my business. Who he sleeps with is his business. If I want to tell him, I will, but I shouldn’t be asked. And in return, I won’t ask him. To take this approach is to prevent ourselves from making assumptions about other people. We are all multidimensional, and there are far more important things that we should judge others on than how many people they have gotten into bed with.
This kind of mathematical locker room chat won’t just stop overnight, I accept, but if we understand what it is we’re actually asking and the problems this is causing, maybe we can build stronger mutual respect. If we are ever going to be properly sex-positive, all of us, and properly equal, we have to remember that women have agency. Just like men, women are autonomous beings with a right to have sex whenever they want, and with whoever they like. And, just like men, they are under absolutely no obligation to tell you about it.
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