Should you share your number?

When it comes to professing how many people you've slept with, it is the ultimate “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” confession. For many, some things are better left unsaid.

You may be better off avoiding this conversation entirely, given you never know what kind of reaction you’re going to get.

For most people, claiming too many past lovers is frowned upon. For others, having too low a number can send their would-be lovers running for the hills, wary they’re a bit too “green.” So given the distress it evokes, is it in a couple’s best interest to have the “how many” conversation? And at what point should you 'fess up your sexual experience (or lack thereof)?

Sharing is not only considered a sexual health courtesy, but a requirement in many ways. Some people see this revealing conversation as a form of bonding, since it's such a personal issue. Having this conversation is also regarded as an emotional breakthrough, as in lovers don’t need to hold back about anything.

Still, those longing to get so up-close-and-personal wonder if they should press the issue to learn more about their lover’s history. Do they really want to know?

There are good reasons to dig up the dirt, especially if you have moral, religious or sexual health concerns. Some people fret over dating a person with a large rendezvous rap sheet, feeling that they, too, will be crowned with society’s labels of “cheap” and “easy.”

Research in the journal "Sex Roles" shows that people view those who lose their virginity in a non-committed relationship or as young teenagers (versus young adults) to be less desirable, regardless of their gender. Those people are considered to have fewer morals, and to be less conventional, more assertive, more sexual and less conforming.

Then there are the people who are just plain nosy, hoping a number can serve as some sort of psychoanalysis. They think a number signifies what kind of a person you are. There are also people who think it will give them a good idea of their risk of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease. But, in fact, it’s how consistently a person correctly uses protection that truly helps one to assess risk.

These aren’t bad reasons to know a (potential) lover’s count, whether they help you sleep at night or sleep together. Yet many argue there are even better reasons to be ignorant of your lover’s number.

First, some say that factors other than sexual history need to be given a lot more weight in deciding whether you want to be with a person. Lots of people find a partner’s physical attractiveness, ambition and dependable character more important than his or her level of sexual experience.

Second, even if you disagree with it, the normative behavior these days is to be sexually active (at least some of the time) and to have multiple sex partners over the course of a lifetime. The reasons: People are hitting puberty earlier and marrying later, therefore spending a much longer period of time being sexually active but unmarried. And is it fair to judge that?

Third, if you love the person or are falling in love, do you really need to know? Should somebody’s number have so much significance that it can make or break an otherwise totally wonderful relationship? In a perfect world, it wouldn’t. But research shows that people put a lot of weight on history, whether you’re in it for a short while or the long haul.

When rating a potential marital partner, data in "The Journal of Sex Research" found both men and women give a higher desirability rating to a partner practicing chastity than to one with either moderate or extensive sexual experience. While both men and women view promiscuity as undesirable in a long-term partner, women perceive this characteristic as more undesirable in short-term partners than men do.

However, when rating potential dating partners, moderately and highly experienced people are perceived to be more desirable than inexperienced ones. People who engage in intercourse within a committed relationship are viewed as significantly more desirable for both dating and marriage than people described as engaging in intercourse in an uncommitted relationship.

I know lots of couples who follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on this issue. This isn’t because they fear sharing their number or hearing about the notches in their partner’s belt. They do this to take control of a conversation that invites so much judgment and unnecessary drama. By not disclosing, they free themselves of the jealousy, speculation and negative stereotypes that can come from sharing this kind of information.

Sometimes, starting clean and not letting your history come back to haunt you is the best thing you can do for yourself — and your partner.

Dr. Yvonne K. Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."

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