Your Body Count Is Nobody Else's Business
A number is simply a number — nothing more, nothing less.
I remember vividly the first time I lied about my “body count.” I was 22 and having a late-night conversation with some new friends about the number of people we had slept with. I had largely missed out on the stereotypical college hookup culture (I have Southern Christian purity gospel to thank for that, but that’s a story for another day), and I was embarrassed that my lack of experience put me behind other people my age. I didn’t feel close enough to these friends to divulge my insecurities right there in front of everyone.
So, when it came to my turn to share, I fudged it. I took the number of people I had hooked up with, not just penetrative sex partners, and said that was my body count. It didn’t feel like a lie — I had had sexual experiences with those people — but I knew it wasn’t the same “number” my friends were asking for. Still, I wasn’t brave enough then to push back on the question, so I let my fear of judgment dictate my response.
It’s been six years since that moment, but I still think about it, in part because the cultural fascination with “body count” is very much alive and well. The cheeky, double-meaning term for the number of people you’ve had sex with is everywhere on social media. It’s practically unavoidable if you’ve spent time on TikTok, where the hashtag #bodycount has over 500 million views. Viral trends range from people listing where they met each of their sex partners to joking about what they could buy at the store with their body count in dollars.
On the face of it, these quips might seem harmless and fun — and in some cases, they are. Sharing your body count may feel like a way to proclaim your sex positivity or to bond with other people who’ve had similar past experiences. But it’s not always such a lighthearted topic.
“I’ve been asked what my body count is before on dates when the conversation starts to veer into more intimate topics, and remember this one guy was really shocked that it was higher than he anticipated,” says Ally, 28. “He said I didn’t seem like someone who slept with that many people because I gave off a cute vibe, not so much a sexy vibe, as if you can’t be both?” Though she wasn’t embarrassed about her past, the conversation made her feel bad. “It was really deflating for the person to be disappointed that it was higher than they anticipated and that I wasn’t as ‘wholesome’ as they thought.”
If you feel icky about the idea of having a “sex number” in the first place, you’re not alone. “I hate it,” says Veronica, 28. “I think it’s one of the most personal things you can ask someone. It’s also not necessary information.” Unless your sexual history directly impacts someone else (say you’re sharing your STI status with a new partner), you should never have to divulge anything you don’t want to.
“Body Count” Inherently Creates Comparison
No matter the intention, talking about “body count” invites an element of comparison — and this can be anxiety-producing for many people. Mia, 22, recalls playing truth-or-dare one night with friends when she was asked to share her body count with the group. “I was too embarrassed to say, so I evaded the question,” she remembers. “At that point in time, I could count on one hand how many people I had sex with.” She considered herself the most sex-positive person in her friend group, and she was experienced from her years spent with a long-term partner, but having a “low” number made her feel like an imposter.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense when I look back, but I think with body count, there’s always a concern about how people will perceive you,” Mia says now. She felt confident in her sexuality, but reducing it to a number made her experiences seem less valid.
[It] reduces sexual partners to sexual conquests rather than unique human beings with thoughts and feelings.
“With all the conflicting messages we receive about sex growing up, it’s no surprise that people experience a lot of shame around the number of people they’ve slept with,” sexuality educator Lena Peak, MSW, tells Elite Daily. If you were raised to value virginity (another pervasive and damaging social construct), you might be anxious that any non-zero number before marriage is too high. If you want others to perceive you as sexually experienced, you might worry about your number being too low. “The number of people you’ve been sexually intimate with doesn’t determine anything about who you are or your worthiness,” Peak says.
“If you are into someone, it shouldn’t matter if they have had sex with one other person or 500,” sex therapist Kristen Lilla, LSCW, tells Elite Daily. A number is simply a number — nothing more, nothing less — and it says nothing about the experiences that have shaped you into the person you are today.
Reducing Sex To “Bodies” Minimizes Your Partners’ Value
The very origin of the term “body count” hints at its problematic roots. “‘Body count’ originally refers to the number of casualties in a violent situation like war — which is a dehumanizing concept on its own,” says Peak. “This concept reduces sexual partners to sexual conquests rather than unique human beings with thoughts and feelings.”
She goes on to emphasize the influence of internalized capitalism. “In capitalist societies, workers and material items are collected, used, and carelessly disposed of,” Peak explains. “Hyperfocusing on ‘body count’ perpetuates a system in which sexual partners are also collected, used, and carelessly disposed of.” If you view your past sexual partners as notches on your belt, it doesn’t exactly account for their value as real people.
The pervasive influence of misogyny also comes into play here. Women often face more judgment in regards to their sexual history, especially from cisgender, heterosexual men. Lauren, 27, was on a date when the guy proclaimed his belief that women with a body count higher than 10 were “dirty” and “not worth marrying.” “It made me feel very angry and bad about myself,” she recalls. “Even worse, he went ahead and told me his number was in the 30s. So somehow, it was OK for him to sleep with three times as many people.” She quickly ended the conversation and called an Uber.
It’s not just women who face unfair scrutiny about their sexual history. “Other intersectional identities also play a role in how ‘body count’ is stigmatized,” Peak explains. “For example, groups of people stereotyped as sexually promiscuous (e.g. Black women, gay men, etc.) or sexually abstinent (e.g. disabled people, older people, etc).” These folks may feel even more anxiety about sharing their number for fear of being further stigmatized or judged prematurely. Even cisgender, heterosexual men can face pressure to “collect” sexual experiences to adhere to masculine ideals. All this to say, everyone is likely battling some insecurities about this, even if they can’t quite vocalize them.
Defining Sex As Penetration Is Innately Heteronormative
Another glaring issue with the concept of body count is the way many people limit it to penis-in-vagina sex. “When society talks about sex and body counts, it is most often looked at through a very heteronormative lens,” says Claira, 22. “Not everyone defines sex and sexual encounters the same way.” LGBTQ+ people in particular may choose never to engage in P-in-V sex, and it’s invalidating to say those experiences don’t “count” as real sex.
It also takes the notion of consent out of the conversation. Like virginity, body count fixates on the idea that sex is a physical act, regardless of the context around it — and this can leave survivors of sexual assault without a clear idea about what they’re supposed to include in their count. “The concept of body count minimizes and insults the experiences of survivors who did not consent to sexual experiences forced upon them,” Peak says. “To any survivors feeling confused or ashamed about how their history of sexual trauma factors into their ‘body count’: know that you and your experiences are so much more than just a number.”
You are by no means obligated to “count” an experience that was violating and non-consensual. “Body count is a juvenile and outdated measure of sexual success that sets everyone up to fail, and you have the power to reject that concept altogether,” Peak says. “Instead of tallying sexual partners on a roster, I encourage everyone to focus on building collaborative erotic experiences in which all parties involved are treated with the care and respect they deserve." Talking about body counts can feel a bit like gossiping about “getting to second base” in middle school, when maybe the more important conversations are about whether you felt good about the encounter.
Your Sexual Experience Is Valid — Full Stop
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t share your sexual history with someone else, especially if those experiences have impacted you in a significant way. But your “number” on its own doesn’t reveal much about you. “The answer to how many people you’ve had sex with doesn’t help you get to know a person any better,” Lilla says. “You might share some details of your sexual history for a few reasons, including if you’ve been sexually assaulted, if your partner is aroused by hearing details of past encounters, if you have a STI status you need to disclose, or if something else significant occurred that affected your views on relationships, intimacy, or sexuality.” But that’s an entirely different conversation than simply asking, “What’s your number?” (And, TBH, you’ll learn a lot more about a person by asking those more meaningful questions.)
If you want to start unpacking your own perspective on body count, alone or with a friend or partner, Peak suggests talking through the following questions:
- “What messages have I received about the number of sexual partners a person has? How do these messages change depending on the person’s identity (i.e. gender, race, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability status, etc.)?”
- “What messages around ‘body count’ do I want to challenge or reclaim?”
- “What ‘counts’ as sex to me? Is any of this rooted in patriarchal, cisheteronormative, or, frankly, boring ideas of what sex can be?”
- “What are some of the most erotic or titillating moments I’ve experienced? Did they occur during penetrative sex?”
- “How do I want to honor where I’m currently at in my sexual journey?”
To live in a world that’s truly free of shame, it’s essential to give each person the right to define sex for themselves. There’s no “normal” number of partners or “ideal” level of experience, and there’s certainly no need to explain yourself to other people. What matters is that you’re engaging in safe sex, divulging health information to your current partner, and communicating about your expectations and feelings. Whether you’re happy with your sex life or not right now, it’s no one else’s business to dictate how you should feel.
I wish I could tell 22-year-old Sarah that she was doing just fine, and that she didn’t need to hide her truth to be perceived by other people as worthy. I don’t keep track of my “body count” anymore, and if someone asked me, I’d tell them straight-up that I don’t think about sex that way. It’s not a contest or trophy to hang on the wall broadcasting your desirability. It’s also not a way to prove your purity or worth to anyone else. Sex is nuanced, personal, and impossible to reduce to a number. I hope that one day, we’ll all feel the freedom to think about it that way.
Lena Peak, MSW, sexuality educator with the Expansive Group
Kristen Lilla, LSCW, sex therapist and sexuality educator