On Virtue and Vice

8?  25?  105?   300? 1,023?

Is there such a thing as having too many sexual partners? Are you a sex addict? Is sex your vice? Is sex a hindrance to a loving relationship? Is it a good thing to be very sexually experienced?

I have the pleasure of talking to a lot of people about their sex lives. Questions about how many partners is too many and is there an issue if you have only had a few partners are regular topics of conversation. People worry about how much sex they are having and how much they are missing out on.

Is There a “Right” Number of Partners

The simple answer is, “no.” There is no right or wrong number of sexual partners a person can have. To put your number in perspective, the average American has eight sexual partners in a lifetime. For some people, they can’t imagine reaching that large number. For others, well, its a good weekend. There is nothing inherently wrong with either view.

People who have either “a lot” of partners or a very small number of partners tend to worry about their sexual proclivities. This worry comes largely from the perception that there are people having a lot more sex or a lot less sex than themselves. For people with just a few partners, there is a worry that they are too sexually inexperienced. For people with many partners, they worry about being a “slut” or a “whore.”

The question I ask everyone who brings up this topic is, “What role is sex serving in your life?” How you experience sex, what needs it is fulfilling, and how you treat others is the important thing. Your ultimate number of couplings is far less important.

Is Sex Your Vice?

For people with more than a few partners, I ask, “Is sex a vice?” By that, I mean, are you using sex to fulfill needs and gaps in your life in an unhealthy way?

Most of us deal with feeling worthless or unimportant. We also can feel very disconnected from other people. We have become lonely and isolated despite technology’s promises of constant connection. Some people use sex to try and alleviate those negative feelings.

For many people I know, having sex can make them feel momentarily connected to another person. It can make them feel pretty, or worthy, or cared for. The problem is, so many people are having sex for so many reasons, when you use sex to fulfill an emotional need and don’t have the other parts of the relationship to support that, people end up feeling worse.

The cycle of: feel bad > have sex with someone > feel momentarily better > lack connection > feel bad > have sex with someone– can be detrimental. This is what fuels our current hook-up culture. Most of the time, even people who say they don’t want any strings attached to sex and just want to hook up, want some type of connection. Feeling like you are nothing more than an object to be used leaves you feeling empty at the end of the encounter no matter how technically proficient the sex turned out to be.

There are plenty of people who are not aware that they are using sex to find a connection, or self worth, or fill another need until they have repeated this cycle many times. I have written elsewhere on this site about how to make a partner feel connected and important even if all you are doing is a one-night stand. Being a decent human being and not using someone else can help you and whoever else you are hooking up with for the moment.

So, is having a lot of partners a bad thing? Not necessarily. Sex, if practiced mindfully and you are aware of why you are seeking out a lot of partners (beyond the facile explanation of “I like to do it!!”) can help you understand yourself and be good to others. I will say, if you are cycling through enough people to make you think you may have too many partners, you may want to ask yourself what you are seeking through many sexual encounters with many different people. What need are you not meeting in other parts of your life that necessitate having lots of sex with lots of people? There may be nothing missing and you are just having a great time and have lots of opportunity. You may be missing something important. Take a few moments and think about you and your needs.

Is There Virtue in Having Very Few Partners

Inherently, no. There is nothing that elevates you to some higher plain because you have only had sex with one or two people. In the United States (and many other countries) we tend to glorify virginity as if it is something sacred and not to be spoiled. We have mythologized the idea that if you only have sex with one person your whole life you are somehow closer to godliness. You are not. It is just the overabundance of cultural programming that makes you believe this.

There is also nothing inherently wrong with only have a partner or two in a lifetime. This doesn’t make you sexually naive or somehow a lesser sexual being that someone with dozens or hundreds of partners.

Like the person who has many partners, the important thing is to ask yourself if you are not seeking out partners, what is at the root of that decision. Some people are lucky enough to have found “the one” early in life, form a strong bond, and have no desire to go outside of that relationship for sex. That can be very healthy. Some people are not highly sexual. People who identify as demisexual and asexual are perfectly healthy and don’t have a desire to sleep with many (or any) people.

Others will refrain from sex because there is a fear about it. Or they worry about being seen as a “slut,” and making themselves unworthy of a long-term and loving relationship. Some people have an unhealthy fear of STIs (I am not advocating being willy-nilly about safe sex, but fear of getting an STI is so paralyzing to some people they forgo sex they want because they see everyone as germ-infested and gross).

How Do I Know If I Have an Issue with Sex?

Here are ten basic questions to ask yourself. Be honest with yourself (this can be really hard). Once you have worked through these, you will have a better idea about why you are engaging (or not engaging) in sex.

  1. Am I okay with the number of people I have had sex with?
  2. When I seek out sex, what is the motivation behind it?
  3. When I have sex with a new partner, how do I feel a day later?
  4. Am I forgoing sex because of something that scares me or that I worry about a lot?
  5. In a perfect situation, what is the ideal outcome of a sexual encounter?
  6. Am I comfortable and do I feel safe with the people I have sex with?
  7. Am I taking unnecessary risks to have sex?
  8. Am I treating my partners with respect?
  9. Am I refusing to have sex because I feel bad about myself or my body?
  10. Do I think I am worthy of respect, love and a fulfilling sexual relationship?

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