The Sex Column #5: Body Count
I recently heard from a person who is considering ending their relationship.
"[My partner] has had sex with a lot of people, men and women, and I feel like I am not enough for them," they said. "The sort of porn they watch, the variety of things that they have fantasies about—one person cannot provide for," they insisted. "They can’t."
I have to admit that might be true. One person cannot be all things. People are large, they contain multitudes, but is it possible to find a person large enough, multitudinous enough? Especially if you are a ‘promiscuous’ person (i.e. a person whose number of sexual partners is considered unusually high.) Is it possible to look at the person in your bed and think: Yes, this is enough. This is the person who I will fuck, forever?
The letter-writer is not open to polyamory (although they suspect it is the only arrangement that will suit their partner.) Since their partner has chosen to be in a monogamous relationship—and I assume that they are a person with agency, a person who is capable of deciding what they need—I consider this a problem to address within the context of monogamy.
The letter-writer is exhibiting the sort of trepidation I have previously been exposed to: Did I need something that my partner could not provide? Were they enough?
"Yes," I found myself promising, "you are enough." But to be asked to reassure a person that you are capable of being present in the relationship, constantly, is wearying. Why must your partner defend their entitlement to a position they already hold? You are basing feelings of self-doubt and jealousy on a reality that you have conjured from their body count alone.
Are you worried about your partner’s needs being satisfied, or are you projecting your insecurities onto them? Are you blaming their past behaviour (which they cannot change) for your current behaviour (which you can)? If it is the former, then you are going to have to take their word for it. You must take a leap of faith, as in relationships, we all must. However, I can’t help but suspect it’s the latter—in which case, do you think that you are displaying responsible, loving behaviour? Or, do you perhaps think your behaviour is likely to reinforce a negative sexual dynamic?
Bisexuality and promiscuity are often discussed simultaneously, as if one were simply a symptom of the other. It is a worn-out trope, that of the promiscuous bisexual. Being ‘just greedy’ was a joke that I played along with from my teens to my early twenties, because, Yes, I thought, I am a greedy person. I am touch-sensitive, extroverted, impulse driven. But these traits are inherent to me—not my sexuality. Over the years, as all of us must regardless of appetite, I have learnt to practice monogamy in a way that makes me feel good about myself and my capacity to love, and of that I am proud. Therefore, when I choose to be ‘good’, to play the role of a monogamous woman (because role-playing is all any of it is,) I’m no longer afraid of forgetting my lines, of wandering offstage.
Not long ago, I read something that suggested that the higher a person’s tally of sexual partners, the more likely they are to be unfaithful. This feels like something that could be true, doesn’t it? The promiscuous person must be more sexually driven, easily bored: less able to sustain relationships. The promiscuous person is assumed to be predisposed to flit from one thing to the next; a person who eats the marshmallow in front of them rather than waiting for the promised second. But consider for a second whether the promiscuous person is instead, perhaps, a person who has fucked more people than average. And that this is the only defining characteristic of the promiscuous person.
Let’s just re-appraise, for a moment, the ridiculous notion of a body count. How excruciatingly banal it is to confine a lifetime of various intimacies to a numbered list, especially as the concept remains (largely) confined to the heteronormative myth of the transformative power of penetrative sex. A penis is not a magic wand that legitimises an intimate act, nor is it a flag capable of laying claim to a body. Intimacy is not a stockpile of things that are in danger of running out. Certain acts counting and not-counting as sex is childishness of the highest fucking order.
For some time, I have tried to fight this idea of being promiscuous as wanting more than one’s fair share. People are not allocated a concrete amount of pleasure. Perhaps my ‘fair share’ of pleasure is as much as I want, as much as I can get, and that that is your fair share too. Consider that pleasure-seeking changes, evolves, and that there are countless intimacies that come with staying with the same person—exploring all the ways that two bodies together can be. Far from being intimidated by the types of sex you imagine your partner has had in the past—sex with bodies which look or feel different to yours, bodies which are numerous and shadowy—you should find confidence in this new and specific pleasure that you are providing. Try to be more generous with yourself, with your assumptions of what you can offer, so that you can be more generous with your partner and your assumptions of what they need.
Photograph by Eli Goldstone