Maybe you’ve got it written down on a post-it note. Possibly you’ve relegated it to a mental filing cabinet at the back of your brain. Or perhaps you decided long ago to forget the number of notches on your bedpost and just get on with life.
Modern dating culture has done much for the liberalisation of views around sexual promiscuity: fewer people would think to outwardly chastise singletons for having sexual relationships outside of marriage for example, or for having sex with someone they don’t plan on pursuing a relationship with.
In spite of this, as a society we are still completely preoccupied with the number of people our lovers, friends, exes, partners (Google throws up 55million results for the question: should you tell your partner how many people you have slept with?) and random people in bikinis on ITV2 have had in their bedsheets.
Just like school children wanting to know how many people you’ve kissed, adults all want to know that ‘body count’ or ‘magic number’. But why?
The most frequently cited reason is that humans are just downright nosey, and quite frankly voyeuristic about other people’s sex lives. While this may be true, it is an explanation that conveniently fails to acknowledge what we actually do with that information once we have it.
Because a number isn’t just a number: as a society we use this number to (consciously or subconsciously) moralise other people’s behaviour and how this equates to the worth we give them. You only need to look at Monday and Tuesday’s episodes of Love Island to see that.
The contestants, many of whom had previously declared themselves liberal and forward thinking about sex, only to go ahead and reveal themselves as slut-shaming hypocrites (looking at you, Megan).
As seen in Love Island, the number allows us to judge people in two ways.
Firstly we believe that knowing the number of people someone has slept with will allow us to judge their sexual prowess. Essentially how good are they in bed. And in general, the more people, the better you are.
It doesn’t take a Casanova to know this just isn’t true. It’s like looking at someone’s CV and deciding that a series of week-long job stints gives you better experience than someone who’s held down the same job for years.
While this first judgement might be short-sighted, it isn’t dangerous or discriminatory against either gender. The worst outcome is you end up being disappointed by the sex. But let’s be honest, if you’re having sex with someone based on their sexual history and not because you actually like them, then you’ve got bigger issues to worry about.
The second and far more troubling judgement is a gendered one, and is the way in which ‘the number’ is weaponised against women. And this is because the magic number works on two tiers of acceptance: a male and a female tier.
This issue was neatly distilled in a single scene of Monday’s episode when contestant Laura Anderson cautiously revealed she had slept with 30 people.
Anderson not only felt the need to caveat her figure by saying she was older than everyone else (she is 29) but her annoucement was met with awkward silence and one vaguely-reassuring platitude: “Oh that’s not that bad babe, that’s not bad,” from fellow female contestant Dani Dyer.
Then, about thirty seconds later, when 22-year-old Adam Collard said he had slept with around 200 women, there was nothing but light-hearted laughter from the rest of the group. Not to mention, a subsequent stream of support on Twitter from men congratulating the sexual ‘stud’.
Despite the women objectively having far lower numbers than the men, the reception they were given, both in the villa and online by viewers, was far more scathing and critical.
And this is where the problem with the ‘magic number’ lies - it is a quick and easy way of continuing to penalise women for their sexuality in a society that is trying to move away from such attitudes.
While it may no longer be socially acceptable to tell a woman that she has to save herself for her husband, by sneering at her ‘body count’, the patriarchy can continue to demonise the same behaviour that it rewards men for.
After all, what are we hoping to hear? Zero? Five? Fifteen? Too low and there is something wrong with you (frigid, religious, playing hard to get), too high and there is something wrong with you (no self respect, slut, easy).
With a concept that relies entirely on individual perception - and ever-changing goalposts - women are stuck in the unenviable position of never being able to give the right answer.