London - When the film What’s Your Number came out last year, there was no mystery in the title. Everyone knew the question referred to your history of sexual partners.
The fact is, there’s a shadowy numeral that stalks all adults to the grave and, for many (some would say the lucky ones), the secret will be buried with them.
Others are less coy about the figure. Coronation Street actor Bill Roache claims to have slept with 1,000 women, DJ Tony Blackburn 500, while Lynn Barber, the journalist and author of An Education, said on Desert Island Discs that she had slept with “probably 50 men” during two terms at Oxford. “It was quite good going,” she reflected.
Nick Clegg, displaying less sangfroid, told GQ he had slept with ‘no more than 30’ and has never lived the confession down.
The film What’s Your Number tells the story of a young woman, played by Anna Faris, who realises, to her horror, that her tally of lovers (20) is double that of any of her friends. So she decides she should try to pick out a Mr Right from her exes, in order not to bump up her tally.
The film draws on research that reports married women, on average, tend to have notched up ten partners, but when the number tops 20, a woman’s chance of tying the knot recedes.
The notion of a perfect “ten” was reinforced recently when a new study revealed this was the figure both men and women believed to be the correct answer to the thorny question regarding past loves.
Fewer than that number was felt to suggest a regrettable lack of experience (and also, possibly, of desirability), while many more ran the risk of appearing promiscuous.
Back here in the non-ideal world, however, the numbers game can be a mite more complicated.
What of my 51-year-old friend, who has amassed a modest three partners over his lifetime? Should we deem him clumsy in the bedroom, or does the fact he’s maintained three long-lived relationships reveal a skilled lover, who’s good at keeping passion alive?
Does the man who’s had ten one-night-stands have a claim to more experience, or is he demonstrating less commitment? And how do you categorise one female contemporary, who boasted of bedding 17 men in her first year at Oxford, but then went on to wed a fellow student and has now been married for 22 years?
Last time the 40-something couple were spotted by a fellow acquaintance, she reported they were “smooching like teenagers”.
Many of the people I know have one crazy period of sexual abandon, which distorts their tally. Often this happens at university, where many a romantic high hope is dashed on an ill-sprung narrow college bed and chased by a savage hangover.
Those people who don’t experiment as students may have a wild patch when long relationships end.
One friend recalls the time in her 20s, when an eight-year relationship fell apart and she spent “five years bedding anything with a pulse and a vague sense of humour”.
Such excesses were less known to my mother’s generation. In fact, you only need to go back to 1981 to recall it was still decreed - two decades on from the supposed sexual revolution - that the perfect tally for the bride of the heir to the throne was zero.
Poor, innocent Lady Diana Spencer trotted up the aisle a virgin, while Prince Charles had a number of love affairs behind him. Her naivety and his experience proved a recipe for disaster and, thankfully, the virgin stricture was not issued to Prince William.
However, the then Kate Middleton, with her presumed past history of one, or possibly two, exes was (and is) the modern manifestation of a blushing blameless English rose. It would still be hard for a fun-loving party animal to be anointed future Queen.
The truth is old attitudes persist; many of us still attach significance to the numbers game. In fact, women I know who are re-entering the dating scene now, after years of marriage, are wary of men who boast many conquests.
One told me with horror of a man who confessed to having sex with more than 50 women. “But you’d slept with 30 men before you got married,” I said. “Yes,” she said. “But I wouldn’t dream of telling any man that.”
Here, it seems to me, is the nub of the matter. We all lie about our sexual history. What else could explain the data that for decades stated the average man had had twice as many lovers as the average woman - other than the average person being a jolly good fibber?
The main problem with the ‘ideal number’ is that it presumes a stopping point after ten conquests. This is all very well if Mr (or Mrs) 11 takes you to the altar, but what if they don’t?
Are you to give up on sex altogether, so never add extra digits to a disagreeable sum.
And what of the newly separated who find themselves back on the market after years with one partner?
One 50-something woman I know thought she’d stopped at “four”, but now finds she’s at 14. Another divorcee keeps her score low by continuously sleeping with an ex-boyfriend - pretty much the premise of What’s My Number.
The kooky, blonde star of that film has no need for such subterfuge. Anna Faris told a newspaper when the movie came out that her actual tally before her marriage to fellow actor Chris Pratt - far from being 20 - was five. Faris said: “I’m not a very good lover. I’m so nervous about my sexuality.”
Which underlines the intriguing truth that bombshells can be surprisingly restrained, while bespectacled librarians can be total wildcats.
One further feature of the survey rating ten partners as the ideal figure is the fact that the great majority of respondents said they’d rather not know a new partner’s score.
This shows commendable wisdom on the British public’s behalf. How will it benefit anyone to know their new beau has slept with half the population? You want to feel that you’re special, not a statistic.
It seems to me that counting your lovers, or admitting to a figure, will always appear either gauche or rude.
I have always admired the female friend who tells all her beaus that she’s a virgin because: “Nothing counts before you.”
As for me, my own failsafe response to the dread question is: “More than Mother Teresa and fewer than Warren Beatty.”
(He has had 12,775 lovers, apparently.) - Daily Mail