Why do we keep lists of past sexual partners?

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Why do we keep lists of past sexual partners?


“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 […] 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 contextualise 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.



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