Europe has a reputation as a place of tattooed, pierced and sexually liberated people. It is spot on. In a dramatic and rather amusing reversal of cultural norms and practices, Europe is far more sexually open than South Africa.

Considering the utter disdain of early British and French colonialists for the nudity of Africa, I find it quite ironic that nowadays it is we who chastise any kind of sexual freedom while Europeans get naked at the drop of a hat, the mention of a beach, or a peck on the cheek.

There are probably very good reasons for it. Sex is dangerous business in South Africa thanks to the AIDS pandemic. It is risky and scary for a lot of people.

And we were culturally cut off from the rest of the world for a long time. With no TV to fill our minds with the sinful ways of the flower-power generation, there was nothing but oppressive marriage expectations of koeksister-wielding tannies and lobola-fretting tatas.

But not in Europe. Their open-minded secularism lines the streets, their sex shops do not hide in darkness. There, an entire generation has grown up active on gay dating sites, their cities are safe places in which to walk home in the middle of the night, and their men dress exceptionally well. It is almost impossible not to indulge yourself. At least that is what I tell myself, because I spent my early twenties in Europe – I went to university there – and I was, by South African standards, a bit of a ho-bag.

I was a ho-bag in spite of spending three of the five years in monogamous relationship and having a thing for coloured guys, who are not all that plentiful in Scotland. I racked up a number quite quickly and had never really worried about it until that fateful day when the next serious relationship started.

Out came the sexual history question and the demand to know my Magic Number. When I had to find a notepad and pen to try and work my way to a ballpark figure, I noticed in the expression of my partner that things were not going as he had hoped they would. His number was closer to seven. In fact, it was exactly seven. And that is something in itself: he knew the number. I found it quite odd to have been keeping tabs.

I realised that it is not just my mother who disapproves of lighthearted consensual sex between adults. There are plenty of potential partners out there who hold similarly conservative views. Are they doing the right thing by being concerned? Is it essential for safety? Would it be irresponsible not to be scandalised?

But the question, I find, is never about safe sex, it’s just about numbers. And what can that tell you, really? It brings with it all kinds of assumptions, most obvious among them being the assumption that the number of people you have slept with is some kind of shorthand for the kind of morality you have. A lowish number must mean he is the kind of person you can marry, and a high number must mean he is incapable of keeping it in his pants, dislikes being in committed relationships and will probably cheat on you.

“There is no rule to say that those who enjoy casual sex cannot buckle down to a lifetime of committed monogamy…”

These imagined correlations say much more about the kind of conservatism that is prevalent in South Africa than they do about the behaviour of the individuals concerned.

Firstly, someone who has only slept with two people could easily have had more actual sex than someone who has slept with seven people. The low number guy could be a hardcore S&M fetishist and the latter completely vanilla. The prior could even have a strictly casual attitude to sex and the latter could be a hopeless romantic who has just been unlucky with love. The number, in and of itself, tells you nothing about a person.

And even if higher numbers did equate to a more open attitude to casual sex – there is no rule to say that those who enjoy casual sex are reckless with their health, or that they cannot buckle down to a lifetime of committed monogamy if they met someone they loved who wanted that. In fact, there could even be less of an urge to cheat, because the sexual exploration and freedom has been done. The urge to spread seed is out of the system, the world of sex is known; it has been stripped of any mysterious allure.

We ask the question to gauge one another. We want to know if we match up to each other’s expectations. But the window of opportunity to be proud of your number, or to be happy with the answer you hear, is really quite small. Before two, most people feel a little embarrassed. They think they seem inexperienced and naïve; maybe a little hard to take seriously. It’s the kind of thing people mumble under their breath only after a lot of provocation and a fair amount of wine.

And after nine – in my observations, it seems the judgement starts as soon as you hit double digits – people avert their eyes. Some blush. Those girlfriends who know you well will gasp theatrically and then grab your arm forgivingly as if to say, I think you’re a filthy little whore but it might be a cultural thing and all of The Gays are filthy little whores so who am I to judge?

And awkwardness is not only restricted to the actual figures themselves, but to their relativity. In the great number comparison conversation with a new partner, both numbers can be perfectly respectable but all it takes is a massive discrepancy between them and you both feel silly. Each partner thinks the other is disappointed by the number, feels mildly ashamed, and assures the other that it doesn’t mean anything.

What a stupid system.

Why do we share them in the first place? When did it become okay for the Magic Number question to find its way into the standard set of getting-to-know-you questions?

I think it should be scrapped. The way I see it, asking someone how many people they have slept with is like asking them how many times they have taken a shit. It’s personal, meaningless and a little rude.

If what we really want to know is whether they always practice safe sex (a legitimate and important question) then we should ask that. If we want to know if they can commit, then ask them that. But asking someone how many people they have slept with has no purpose. It ensures assumptions get in the way of getting to know one another, and makes you both feel awkward. We only ask it because sex is stigmatised in our culture and we are nervous of being socially unacceptable.

If someone is with you, they have chosen you over all the others, regardless of the number. Only time with them will tell you about their attitude to love and sex. And only your chemistry will determine if you are the final number they reach.

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