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Here's why people keep a list of their past sexual partners

Some people home in on a body count, while others fondly remember meaningful connections. ‘Glamour’ investigates the motivations for keeping—or not keeping—a written log of all your sexual encounters.

Once a year or so, deep in the desiccated husk of the site once called Twitter, where I live, a conversation will arise over keeping a list of sex partners. Typically the consensus is, as with so much on the internet, a smug “that’s juvenile,” which always gives me pause. Scratch any social media site and you’ll find plenty of adults admitting, with only a soupçon of self-deprecation, that their moms still make their dentist appointments. But list-keeping is where we draw the line?

The topic piques my interest not so much for its supposed immaturity, but because I wonder if it’s one of those things that people do in movies for plot’s sake but never in real life, like writing your vows the night before the wedding, or meeting someone at a certain spot at a certain time some years in the future instead of just calling them. On Gossip Girl, Rufus and Lily compare lists (in Lily’s case, an edited list); in the second season of American Vandal, investigating a suspect’s alibi involves finding the listed initials of everyone Sarah Pearson hooked up with carved into a cabin at camp. Sex lists are more or less the backbones of Little Black Book and What’s Your Number?

All of which got me thinking about “body counts,” which come up even more often (Miranda has had a few, Steve has had many; Monica’s is higher than Richard’s, etc.). The only way to keep count is to keep a list, even if it’s just mental. If I ask you how many pairs of shoes you have, you’d have to more or less remember what all your shoes are to give me an answer. And I don’t see anyone saying that knowing your body count is weird, though maybe caring about it is.

Because hooking up is one of, like, five topics that are actually interesting, I decided to make a scientific inquiry into the real-life existence of sex lists, their usefulness, and their grown-up-ness. And by “make a scientific inquiry,” I, of course, mean run an Instagram Stories poll and text a bunch of my friends. Insights presented below.

Of the respondents, almost all of whom were female, because men can’t just answer a damn poll to help a girl out, 56% chose “I have a list,” 31% chose “I don’t but don’t care if others do,” and 13% chose “I think it’s cringe and weird.” The “I think it’s cringe and weird” people tended to be Gen Z or married, and the “I have a list” people were disproportionately queer.

I quickly found that “Do you keep a list?” yielded far less interesting data than “Why do you keep a list?” And, spoiler, “Why?” led me to all kinds of thought-provoking areas, like what matters in a partnership, our relationships to our pasts, and what sex even is. It got deep (pun intended). Every single name in this article has been changed.

Lending credence to the “This is a young people thing” line of thinking, a number of list-makers abandoned their logs either when they got into a long-term monogamous relationship, or due to a technological error (an iPhone failed to sync, a laptop was stolen, etc.). Others had more specific reasons for laying their lists to rest.

“I used to, but I deleted it when it got to a certain number,” said Eloise, a Brooklyn-based comedian. That number, she later told me, was 50.

Clea, an artist, said: “I had a list until I started dating women, and then it stopped making sense of what I counted as sex. But now it’s useful to remember my long but forgettable situationships.”

Remembering the past was an enjoyable exercise for many. “It’s in a locked note in my phone—I don’t look at it because it doesn’t get updated anymore, but I will never delete it,” said Hannah, who works at a Jewish nonprofit in the Bay Area. She called her list “such a fun memory log.”

Anna Faris and Chris Evans in What’s Your Number?

Anya, a New York–based podcaster, was happy to chat about the “little log of lust and love” that lives in her Notes app. It includes “first and last name[s] or a nickname if I don’t know that, and then a heart next to the ones who were romantic. I have them grouped into periods when they happened—like high school, college, postgrad—[and] age ranges.”

She made a half-hearted attempt to keep the list disguised, calling it “Prisoners of Azkaban” when she made it in college as a joke, “and why would anyone ever click on that?” But after coming to dislike Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, she changed it to “pink hole,” which she explained was “like black hole but my pussy.” Perhaps there is an analogy here: Like Harry Potter, random hookups once brought us much happiness, but now it’s time to put away childish things. And it was never that serious to begin with.

Betsy, a research analyst, told me her list “was really more of a way to remember one-night stands versus actual relationships/situationships,” and agreed that “lists are so useful and also fun.”

Still: “I don’t know why remembering one-night stands and random hookups felt important,” she added, theorizing, “the mind forgets for a reason!”

The mind forgets for what reason, though? Because old hookups are unimportant? That’s fair. But there’s a darker implication, too. Among people who are actively against list-making, there seemed to be a common sentiment of “Ew, who would want to revisit that?” Which made me wonder if they were doing sex wrong. Much like pizza, sex is great when it’s great, and when it’s not, it’s still pizza. Would you really hate to remember your past pizzas? Or are these people going through life having multiple negative sexual experiences, and if so, wouldn’t a list be helpful in identifying whatever pattern was leading them down that sad-sounding road?

Or maybe it’s just shame. We like to think we live in a post-slut-shaming, sex-positive world, but of course a double standard still exists. For men, gay or straight, an itinerary of past partners is a list of “conquests.” Cads in movies and television shows might hang on to souvenirs from their lovers (on Community, Jeff says the bras he keeps in a box were “won in battle”), and it’s always framed as gross but understandable. But a woman doing the same thing at the same quantity would be…crazy.

Matthew Settle and Kelly Rutherford as Rufus and Lily in Gossip Girl.

Sadly, at least one woman, LA comedian Tina, was the victim of list-as-weapon. “How about being forced to write a list for an abusive and manipulative ex-partner after being slut-shamed, only to find out his list was just as long, as if that matters anyway?” she revealed. She got rid of it after they broke up.

Thankfully, Tina’s experience was seemingly uncommon, though negative feelings around keeping a list weren’t. “I used to have a list, and then once my boyfriend and I had been together for a while I deleted it because it felt like I was just trying to prove to myself that I had sex, and I didn’t feel the need to prove it or remember those people who were almost all regrettable,” said Amanda, an actor. “I would, like, bring it out at parties, with photos, and I am ashamed of that. I paraded it around like a symbol of maturity, when now I see it as a young person who didn’t feel secure in themself as an adult.”

“I have a lot of insecurity wrapped up in seeing myself as completely undesirable, so I think I kept a list as a way to prove to myself and anyone I showed it to [that] ‘people elected to have sex with me! It’s possible!’” she added. “I still see myself as a gangly teen no one wanted to date.”

She wasn’t alone in using a list as an ego boost. “I recently started to compile a list and have been keeping it updated for about a year now. I lost a significant amount of weight over the last two years—115 pounds so far—and radically changed my dating life; I got curious to see what the differences looked like before and after,” said Patrick. “The process of thinking of past encounters was a pleasant one, remembering people I hadn’t thought of in years, or dates that were lovely but never progressed, or things I fumbled at. I feel like I learn something in every relationship, so it was good to go back and refresh those learnings. Also, crudely, I wanted to know my number.”

He called the process of going through his past “validating in that my work to be more desired/desirable has worked. It’s been helping me get over deep-seated and lifelong body issues.” But, like Amanda, Patrick felt bad about wanting to feel good, and was careful to contextualize what role sex does—and doesn’t—play in his self-image. “[It] also makes me feel gauche, to find validation from a number. But the number here is being used as a proxy for the list of people and not the ultimate target, and I think people who do that—just try to get their number up—dehumanize their partners. So the number for me is a curiosity, and not really anything more.”

A friend-of-a-friend told me about another friend, a gay man, who keeps a PDF with pictures. He, too, uses it “mostly for personal reflection,” and my source added that this person is a Virgo, which I did not ask.

So: Self-flattery is not cool, but self-reflection, of course, is. But…really? Don’t we all find a little validation in bed? Are we actually so chill we’re going to simply lose track of how many people we’ve gone all the way with? I considered the quasi-paradox of the sex list. According to science, “The List Length Effect (LLE) is a term used in cognitive psychology to describe how the length of a list influences the recall of items from the list. According to this effect, as the length of a list increases, the probability of correctly recalling an item decreases.” Which is to say, if you’re making a list, it’s probably because you’ve had enough sex partners that you can’t count them all on one hand. And it’s entirely possible that most or all of these partners were meaningful to you. The societal stereotype, though, is that the longer your list, the less an individual entry means. As in, if you’re promiscuous, you must also therefore be casual about sex. Yet to make a list is the opposite of casual. Maybe the haters were right. Maybe whatever cool points you get from sleeping around are nullified by the act of logging them.

Self-perception collided with list-provided factual reality when I spoke to Priscilla, a writer who lives in Chicago. “I have a list! I’d be down to chat under a pseudonym so my parents don’t know I’m a hot slut,” she began. “It’s truly just a list of names, years, and locations—‘Josh, Denver, 2014.’ I haven’t looked at it since I got together with my boyfriend five years ago, but I imagine I’ll review it someday to remember the spectacularly bad sex I’ve had over the years,” she joked, adding, “I do think it’s an objectively embarrassing thing to have, so I have it hidden in another old notebook tucked away in a box.… I accidentally left it in a desk I sold on Facebook Marketplace last year, and I pleaded with the buyer until they let me come pick it up. I told them I needed some ‘important tax documents.’”

(Drew Barrymore—name not changed—also lost her list. Specifically, she left it at Danny DeVito’s house, and he apparently never found it. A list that, to hear her tell it, she made for no apparent reason one day.)

Priscilla added, “Also worth noting that I was raised in purity culture, so a decently long list feels like a fun ha-ha: Gotcha! I’m fucking!”

The second time I spoke to her, she had dug out her list. “This is so funny, I did not remember doing this, but I literally have everyone I have ever kissed romantically on here too, and I have little stars next to the ones whom I have shagged,” she told me. Far from the casual “name, date, location” she’d described earlier, her detailed list was titled “LOVERS” in all caps. And another hard truth: “I am less of a hot slut than I thought. Only 11 sexual partners! Loser shit!”

Embarrassingly enough, it took a health educator friend to remind me of the completely practical and unemotional reason that sexually active singletons might want to keep a list: STD tracking. This is the plot of Lovesick on Netflix, and just in terms of sperm transmission, also helpful in Mamma Mia. Candice, who suggested the STD practicality, added via text, “I cringe when I see people like [guy we both know] on [my list] lolllll.… I do think there’s an aspect of wanting to document who I did this intimate act with. But then it makes me ask myself why I don’t document things like people I have deep convos with or who trauma dumps on me.”

While texting me, Candice was also meeting with her pelvic floor physical therapist, who apparently didn’t know people kept lists. You would think a pelvic floor physical therapist would advocate for some kind of…pelvic self-assessment. Alas.

We live in an age of logs. There are a hundred apps for keeping track of your calories and water intake, and unless you’ve taken the time to disable it, your phone is probably counting how many steps you take daily. I have a number of friends who keep lists of every country they’ve visited; sometimes, that’s their Instagram bio. With all that context, sex seems way too important not to keep track.

Original article can be found on Glamour US

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