Monday, 10 October 2011

'What's your number' and promiscuity

This is something I wrote for fellow feminist Jess ages ago, after a brief chat on Twitter about promiscuity.

In light of the release of Anna Faris film 'What's your Number' which is based around the 'magic number' of sexual partners, I re-visited the brief para that I wrote and thought I would share it with you, readers.

So here it is:

Promiscuity is a posh or professional way of saying 'he's a stud and she's a slut'. Because when we talk about someone being promiscuous, we're talking about women. The idea of promiscuity is predicated on the idea that there is a 'magic number' of people a woman can have sex with, but if she crosses that number then she becomes a 'bad girl'. This number is not fixed, it is ever changing and no-one knows exactly what the 'correct' number of sexual partners is. When i was younger i read in the Guardian 'sex survey' a quote from a man who said he wouldn't go out with a woman if she had had sex with more than five men. So for him, six (male) sexual partners meant a woman was promiscuous. Another women's magazine put the number higher, at around 10.

It's all nonsense of course. There isn't a 'good' or 'bad' number of sexual partners. But I believe that categorising women's sexuality and women's desire as something that can 'cross a line' or become 'bad' is a way of controlling women's sexuality.

Promiscuity was historically a symptom of women's mental disorder, from 19th century hysteria to the more modern 'borderline personality disorder'. It was seen as a destructive trait, for women to go out and have sex that they wanted to have, that they desired and consented to.

This tells us a lot about how women's desire has been seen historically, and, as promiscuity is still a widely used term, is still seen today.

In modern Britain, young women and girls are faced with multiple pressures. They are expected to perform a narrow version of sexuality and sexual desirability at all times. However, they still know that they must not cross an invisible line, and 'fall' into being promiscuous or 'slutty'.

Promiscuity is nonsense because there is no good or bad number of sexual partners. The bad thing is if you are feeling pressured into having sex with people you don't want to have sex with. But that is a different issue to 'promiscuity'.

Whether you are having consensual, pleasurable sex with people you are attracted to because you want to, or whether you are choosing to wait, it doesn't matter. One is not a better choice than the other. The important thing is having your bodily autonomy, making your own choices and expressing your sexuality in a way that makes you and your partner happy – and not being judged for it.


al said...

Agreed. Promiscuity is a very loaded, inappropriate, and offensive term for what is ultimately a deeply personal and private act.

However, having been involved with someone with BPD, I can definitely say it isn't all fun and games for them -- sometimes it's about literally fucking the pain away and other times the sex is itself a form of punishment, of self-debasement -- they actively seek to be degraded.

Anyhow. It all comes down to whether we view sex as clean and wholesome, or in some way as being dirty and shameful.

If it's clean and wholesome, surely the message should be: the more, the merrier.

We could learn a lot from the bonobo ape.

sian and crooked rib said...

oh absolutely didn't want to trivialise the issues surrounding BPD - it's just that promiscuity is a very female focused symptom and i'm always curious as to what the medical definition of promiscuity is for women compared to men! Because yes, self destructive behaviour is a different kettle of fish. It's why i think it's so important to talk about sex in terms of consent, respect, pleasure and desire.

Emily {What Emily Did Next} said...

Great post!

It would seem that a lot of people who judge women for being 'promiscuous' or 'slutty' see sex as something that women allow to happen to them, rather than take an active part in. The judging person often seems to be saying something along the lines of 'god, what a slut, she let all those men have sex with her' without considering that the woman in question was (hopefully) a willing participant. The other extreme is of course the nympho who will sleep with anyone and everyone, including her friend's husbands, etc. Being a woman with autonomous sexual desire doesn't seem to be an option.