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Owning Up to My "Number"

A few days ago, I took a huge step in the self-confidence department. I was reading Jessica Valenti’s Full-Frontal Feminism (a particular favorite of mine) for the fifth time, and her chapter about women’s sexuality made me put down the damn book and go to my desk. Feeling extremely inspired, I sat down with a pen and paper and compiled my list, my “little black book”, so to speak. To some young women, this may not appear to be such a big deal. However, for me personally, writing each person’s name down and totaling the number was my defiant act of courage.

Since my senior year of high school, I have been considerably sexually active. The summer between my high school graduation and my first semester of university, I was certainly known as a slut (the horror!). And, unfortunately, I played into the shame-game with my very own harsh criticism of myself. Thanks to one of the most dominant double-standards in Western civilization, I realized that had if I been born male, I would be considered the epitome of a stud. A ladies’ man. A player. But since I have tits and a vagina, I have been told not to have sex. To paraphrase Valenti, I have been brought up in a society that urges me to “be sexy, but not have sex.” Even after discovering and embracing feminism’s strength and courage, I was engaging in downright hypocrisy by slut-shaming myself.

The past three years, I have often felt guilty and ashamed of my sexual history, always roughly estimating and then lowering to the nearest decimal when telling new partners of my “number.” By being too ashamed to count up my actual number and being unable to tell the truth to partners, friends, etc., I, myself, was perpetuating and even reinforcing this damn double standard. In classes, workshops, and meetings, my feminist self would loudly encourage my female friends to face up and be proud of their number, regardless of whether society would title them “inexperienced” virgin or an “experienced” whore (our only two options as women).  All the while, I would never take my own advice.

That was until very recently. With shaky hands, I wrote down the name of every damn male I had slept with. Ever. Starting at 14, with losing my virginity, and starting back again at 17, when I had my second sexual male partner in senior year of high school. From there, the names came rolling back.

After each name was written down, I tallied it up. I remember instinctively sighing with relief. I had expected possibly over 20. It ended up being 11. Then I was further disgusted with myself for being relieved for being under the 20-mark. What should I have done if I had been over 20, 30, 40, or 100? Is there a certain number that when and if women reach, they should start shopping for chastity belts or immediately join the nearest convent? Of course not. The idea that there is a certain number that would Scarlet-Letterfy me, or any woman for that matter, is ludicrous. That’s when I started logically looking at this list, mentally de-bunking this virgin/whore dichotomy. The following thought-process is what especially helped me weed past the bullshit:

How about, well, not having any guilt associated with your number, whether its 0 or 370? That is definitely a good starting point for any young woman. Unfortunately, the society we are in is insanely fixated on a woman’s virginity, to the point of unhealthy obsession. Remembering that this particular cultural emphasis of our place, as women, in society as being invested in our (unbroken) hymen is correlating this ridiculous notion of self-worth as being all about control. What helped me to especially embrace my number was that I wasn’t being controlled. I was in control with each of these 11 guys both with my consent and participation. It felt good fully realize that sexual activity has, literally, jack shit to say about my self-worth. I’m still ambitious, creative, confident, and intelligent. Those are the traits you should be basing your self-worth on not the number of people you’ve had in between the sheets. Also, I always love a chance to show any sort of flippant disregard toward Western patriarchal values. I looked at the list, and relished in the fact that my 11 partners were the ultimate fuck-you to the uber-conservative, bible-thumping bigots that attempt to govern my body every day on Capitol Hill, whether they’re signing some new pro-life legislature, or funding bogus abstinence-only education.

Upon talking to my mom about this miraculous breakthrough, I told her that going through the names and remembering the different encounters helped me learn so much about my sexuality as a young woman. I do not regret my number, nor do I regret any of the situations involved in gaining this number. The knowledge I gained from having sex with different males of the utmost intangible value to me. My awesome mom also brought in a thought-provoker by saying, “Ya know, Ash. It’s great what you’re doing. Have pride in your number. Fucking own it. Maybe even think about why your number is 11. I would say the same thing to you even if it was 1. What did you learn from it?”

Well, thank you, Mom. That certainly did get me thinking. See, I keep referring to this list by specifically saying “male.” I have also slept with women. And, this was a personal choice to exclude women from my list. No, I am not one to think just because a penis isn’t involved doesn’t make it “sex.” In my opinion, that is both ignorant and a jab at the gay community (Not only do we not view your marriages/civil unions as legitimate, your sex totally isn’t legit, either! Fuck that). You see, I am a recently “out” lesbian. I have known that I like girls and had crushes on them since I was in the eighth grade. As I got older and entered the halls of high school, I labeled myself “bisexual.” I do believe bisexuality can certainly be possible, but for me personally, this was a complete cop-out in regards to my own sexuality. Simply, I was too damn scared to come out as a big, ol’ lesbian. Even while in my first serious relationship during my junior year with a girl, I still clung to the bi-label as a means of, I guess, trying to still fit into some more of “normalcy”: the heterosexual normalcy. Yeah, I’ll admit it. I did not want to be gay. I was young, terrified, and immensely confused.

Thinking about all this, my mom’s question about the “whys” of my number started to make even more sense. I faced the facts that I had been ignoring and suppressing for three years: I was sleeping with males to prove I was not gay. It was kind of my anti-gay shield, I guess. Pathetically much like a, “Hey! Over here! I slept with a guy! I’m soooo straight!” I officially came out and dealt with my sexuality earlier this year, in January. I decided to cut the shit with myself. It was blatantly obvious and has been since I started realizing:

1.)    My most serious, committed relationships where I truly felt I was “in love” were with women.

2.) Upon looking over my list of male names, I remembered that I had, indeed, had what could easily be considered “fabulous” sex. But when it comes down to it, one night of sex with my most recent ex-girlfriend, for example, completely overrides any emotional or physical aspects of my sexual encounters with all those 11 guys combined.

So, I really wanted to share this personal story to maybe inspire a young woman, who like me, is completely ashamed and guilt-ridden over her number. If you know your number, own it. If you’re are still like me and it’s still a mystery, tally your number, and then own it. If your number is 0, own it. If your number is 1,234, own it. If you are having sex for kicks and ‘cause it feels good, own it. And, if like me, your number tells a story, or is a possible window into your behavior, learn from it. And then, yes, own it.

If you do feel guilty and ashamed of your number, negate those emotions by thinking about and maybe even writing down the valuable knowledge you’ve gained from your sexual history. Or you can always, like me, relish in your number and think of it as a downright defiance of this asinine cultural that equates woman to their state of hymen.

And most importantly, take back control over your damn body. It will feel amazing. Trust me.



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