Leah has asked many of her interviewees how many sexual partners they’ve had. The answers, in their surprisingly wide variety, show that there is no “normal.” This also opens up a discussion about what “counts” as sex.
Public service announcement: Your sexual desires don’t always overlap with your romantic relationship preferences. You can be attracted to and visually stimulated by both men and women, but maybe you only want to engage in long-term committed partnerships with men—or vice versa.
LEAH: Welcome to Good Girls Talk About Sex. I’m sex educator and sexual communication coach Leach Carey and this is a place to share conversation with all sorts of women about their experience of sexuality. These are unfiltered conversations between adult women talking about sex! If anything about the previous sentence offends you, turn back now! And if you’re looking for a trigger warning, you’re not going to get it from me. I believe that you are stronger than the trauma you have experienced. I have faith in your ability to deal with things that upset you. Sound good? Let’s start the show!
LEAH: Hey friends. When I started this podcast, I knew I wanted the interviews to consist of two pieces, the main conversation about an interviewee’s sexual history and any story telling they were willing to do then the Q and A. Originally called the Quick Five, now called the Lowdown.
I imagined the Q and A as my opportunity to ask women the questions I’ve been wondering about. Was every woman actually shaved down there and was I a prude for not going there? Were there other women who liked to give blow jobs but couldn’t stand to swallow? Or was I the anomaly? Do other women worry as much as I do about how they smell and taste? Or were there other women who are more resilient to the cultural narrative that I had been? In fact, the early days of interviews, what I was really asking women in the Q and A was, “Am I normal?”
Almost every one of the questions was one that I was struggling with as I came to a deeper sense of acceptance around my sexuality and my right to bodily autonomy. It only took a handful of interviews for me to realize that I was far from the only one who wondered about these things and was afraid that I was alone.
That was so comforting that I began to expand the questions to include things I’ve heard other women wondering about. Was it okay that their idea of kinky was sex with the light son? Was their body broken because it takes them a long time to orgasm? And by the way, what actually constitutes a long time? Was it a problem that they enjoyed their orgasms from masturbation more than their orgasms from partnered sex?
I also removed some questions that didn’t seem to be getting fruitful results. Or in the case of this question, approximately how many sex partners have you had seemed to make interviewees uncomfortable. There always seemed to be an assumption that their number was too low or too high. So for a while, I stopped asking.
And then, in an off my coaching call with a client in her late 20s, she expressed here dread of letting a potential suitor know that she had only had sex with 1 person. She saw herself as a total freak and was sure she would be rejected by anyone who knew the truth. She was certain that no one else in their late 20s had the limited experiences like she did. Around the same time, I had a conversation with one of my sex positive polyamorous friends where we were talking about our “numbers”. She joyfully proclaimed that her number was pretty low, only about 85 or 90.
With those two conversations juxtaposed in my mind, I knew it was time to bring the question back because there’s perhaps no other question that prompts so much fear and shame as this one. So here are the answers of about 35 of the 60 interviews I’ve done. And before we get started, I want to be really clear.
No matter what your number is, you are absolutely normal. No matter what your number is, it is common. There is no need to feel shame about your number no matter how high or how low you might judge it to be. There is someone out there who wants to love you regardless of what your number is. I’ll tell you about my number in a few minutes.
SPEAKER 1: I think 20.
SPEAKER 2: 9. I just added that the other day.
SPEAKER 3: Oh gosh, I’ve had a lot of playmates. I guess 50? Or probably more. That’s the number that comes off the top of my head.
SPEAKER 4: Oh my gosh, 20 probably? About 20.
SPEAKER 5: Oh Gosh, I have no idea. Probably between somewhere around 20 and 30.
SPEAKER 6: 1?
SPEAKER 7: I’m sorry to say that I cannot give an accurate number because I didn’t start counting when I should have. But this does mean any partner like partners engaged sexually with?
LEAH: I leave it up to you to decide who you want to include.
SPEAKER 7: Okay. I’ve definitely slept with more than a hundred people. I probably think it’s at least two hundred now because I do count all of it.
SPEAKER 8: North of 35 but I don’t know the exact number.
SPEAKER 9: 12. I wasn’t going for quantity.
SPEAKER 9: And it was more about who could withstand this screening process. If you can’t write me a note, if you can’t talk on the phone, if you won’t let me do a background check, and I did a background check on everybody.
SPEAKER 10: In my personal life, I think it’s like 35 and in terms of work, I started keeping track of how many people that I’ve been with when I first started working and I very quickly realized that there was no point in doing that. To me, sex work and personal life are very separate so I don’t even count those people but I did run the numbers in terms of sole service clients back when I first started it was already at the thousands. After being in and out of the industry for about 7 years, your guess is as good as mine. 10000? I have no idea. And I don’t think it serves me to know that number.
SPEAKER 11: Oh, just the one.
SPEAKER 11: Yeah.
SPEAKER 12: I honestly have no idea.
SPEAKER 14: I tried like maybe I could come up with a range.
SPEAKER 15: 20, 22.
SPEAKER 16: Well, going back to before I was married the first time it’s going to put the number up so probably about 40.
SPEAKER 17: I honestly don’t know. But that says to me somewhere around maybe 30?
SPEAKER 18: I think I stopped counting at 50.
SPEAKER 19: 100+
SPEAKER 20: Probably 6 or 7.
SPEAKER 21: I would say approximately 5.
SPEAKER 22: I did a count before I talked to you.
SPEAKER 23: I think it’s 14.
SPEAKER 24: 16?
SPEAKER 25: Over 30.
SPEAKER 26: I would say 20, 25?
SPEAKER 27: 12
SPEAKER 28: Maybe somewhere between 10 to 13.
SPEAKER 29: It’s got to be over 150.
SPEAKER 30: About 7
SPEAKER 31: I’ve had 4. I mean I guess that depends. Are we talking about penetrative sex? Are we talking about oral sex?
LEAH: We’re talking about however you define it.
SPEAKER 31:Well normally my answer would be 4. That would be penetrative sex but if you want to be technical about it, I guess my answer could be 6 if we’re including oral sex.
SPEAKER 32: Close to 200 probably?
SPEAKER 33: Somewhere between 20 and 40?
SPEAKER 34: I am somewhere in the upper 30s.
SPEAKER 35: I literally don’t know. 40? 50? Don’t know.
LEAH: So, what is my number? I’d actually be hard pressed to tell you. Not just because I stopped keeping track during my journey of sexual healing but also because what is encompassed in that number?
Prior to my 40th birthday, I’ve had intercourse with 5 men. I’d fooled around with a handful of other men and a couple women, but I didn’t count those because there wasn’t intercourse. I didn’t count the couple of guys that I had given blow jobs to or received oral sex from but stopped short of penile penetration. I didn’t count the guy in college who penetrated me with his fingers even though I was deeply uncomfortable with it both emotionally and physically.
Between ages 40 and 42, I had sex with 2 more people, one man and one woman. And that’s when it hit me, the intimacy with a woman obviously counted but there was no penis or dildo involved for penetration. So what was it that I was counting? What does sex actually mean? Is it achieving an orgasm? Well, that can’t be right because there’s plenty of penis and vagina penetration that doesn’t achieve an orgasm and I’ve had a lot of it. And what if one person orgasms but the other doesn’t? Does that mean that one of them had sex and the other didn’t? That’s blatantly absurd. So perhaps, it’s defined by genital touch. That might be a little closer but what about people who are fully clothed and grinding against each other’s genitals to the point of orgasm? There’s no direct contact with the genitals but I’d argue that’s still a sexual encounter. So that can’t be the answer.
After a lot of thought and conversation with my sex positive friends, each of whom has their own answer to this question, I’ve come to my own definition of what sex is. To me, sex is any activity that has the potential of creating an orgasm whether it does or not. In my mind, that covers a lot of bases. Penetration without orgasm, that’s sex because it has the potential of creating an orgasm. Stimulation with direct skin contact? That’s sex because it has the potential of creating an orgasm. A woman who can orgasm from having her breasts touched? Yes. Two women stimulating each other without any penetration? Absolutely. A man jacking himself off in the privacy of his own bedroom? Definitely. We call that masturbation but another term for it is solo sex.
So with this new definition of sex as any activity that has the potential to create an orgasm, I honestly have no idea how many people I’ve had sex with. During my sexual healing journey, I had encountered with many, many, many people. Only 3 or 4 of them ended in any type of penetrative activity but I can guarantee you that there were lots of other types of sex happening along with pleasure, giggling, orgasms, and all sorts of other fun stuff.
The problems with defining sex as being penetrated by a penis are many. First, it would suggest that all lesbians who have never been with a man are still virgins which is again totally absurd. But it also centers the entire sex act around the man, and not just around the man, but around 5 or 6 inches of his body. And it makes the women’s genitals nothing more than a receptacle for his penis. It’s also incredibly heteronormative which is why I think so much heterosexual sex falls into the wham, bam, thank you ma’am category. The guy does just enough to get her interested, though frequently not enough to get her really turned on and lubricated, so that he can stick his dick in her and have a release.
It’s all we’ve been taught. It’s all we know to expect. But there is so much more possible. When I’m working with a client who wants to revive her sex life with her partner, I often suggest that they take penetrative sex off the table for a few weeks and get back to just enjoying each other’s bodies, your whole bodies, not just your genitals. So, what’s my number? I’d say probably somewhere around 50. I’ve lost count and I’m perfectly happy that way.
LEAH: Speaking of lesbian sex, this week’s “Am I Normal” question is exactly that topic and it’s a question that I hear frequently from women who have always assumed themselves to be heterosexual so don’t be surprised if you hear yourself in this question.
QUESTION: Hey, Leah. I’m wondering if I’m normal because I was married to my husband for 15 years and we have two kids. I love him but our sex life is pretty stale. Recently, I met a woman through a Facebook group. We’ve developed an intense attachment really quickly. We started video chatting during quarantine and I can’t stop thinking about her. The other day I realized that last several people I’ve been attracted to have been women. Am I a lesbian? Is my marriage a sham? How do I explore this without wrecking my marriage? Am I normal?
LEAH: Dear listener, thank you for your bravery in admitting to yourself what’s going on in your brain and your body.
First things first, you probably already know this but I can’t tell you if you’re a lesbian. No one can because it’s an entirely personal thing. It’s also potentially a changeable thing which means that your marriage has not been a sham. Our desires and preferences can and do change over time so if you are attracted to your husband earlier in life and you’re not now, that doesn’t mean that you’re lying to him or yourself. It’s like you developed a taste for strawberry ice cream which you hadn’t ever ordered before. It doesn’t mean that you were lying about liking chocolate for all those years. You just have a new experience and a new perspective today.
We’re also living in a moment of history where being something other than straight is gaining acceptance so you may finally be experiencing some desires that you’d hidden even from yourself for many years because it didn’t feel normal or acceptable. So regardless of how or why you got here, here you are.
You’re having urges towards women, what to do now? You’ve said that you don’t want to blow up your marriage without a better understanding of what’s going on and I totally support you in that. So let’s look at some ways you can interrogate these urges further that don’t require breaking the boundaries of what I presume is a monogamous heterosexual marriage.
First, consider your fantasies. When you’re masturbating, having sex, fantasizing, having sexy dreams, are they about penises or about breasts and vulvas? Your fantasies can be a really good guide. If your fantasies center on male bodied people, chances are good that your sexual desires still tend toward the masculine and the urges you’re feeling are the desire to be seen and understood in ways that women traditionally do more fully. If your fantasies center on female bodied people, that doesn’t automatically mean you’re lesbian, but there’s a good chance that the attraction is sexual and not an outgrowth of a different emotional need.
So next, watch some movies and television that depict sexy times between women and watch some that depict sexy times between heterosexual couples. What you’re looking for is to see what turns you on. Do you get as turned on by watching two women together as you do with heterosexual couples? If you’re open to watching something more explicit, seek out the work of feminist porn directors. I’ll put some links in the Show Notes. Porn will take you further into the sex act but these female directors do it in a way that’s not objectifying or degrading to women. If you’re more of a words person than a visual person, check out the stories on lit erotica. I’ll also put that link in the Show Notes. And do the same type of exploration between lesbian stories and heterosexual stories. Which turns you on more to read about? And if both turn you on, there’s a really good chance that you’re bisexual or pansexual meaning that you’re attracted to multiple genders.
Studies show that women tend to be significantly more fluid in their sexual attraction than men. Whether that’s a biological truth or a social construct is a debate for another day, but what that means is that it’s not unusual for your preferences to shift and change over time, maybe even many times over the course of your life. So now if you’ve done these things and you’re feeling strongly that this attraction is real and you want to continue following it, I suggest finding a lesbian or queer bar and spending an evening there.
The idea is not to be picked up or do anything in particular except pay attention to your own responses to what you’re seeing and feeling. You’ll need to make a decision whether this falls in the bounds of your monogamous agreement. My feeling is that if you could go into a regular bar without worrying that you’re violating your vows, you should be able to go into a queer space without worrying.
Here’s what I highly do not suggest that you do. Ask your husband for a threesome. Honestly, this is the worst possible way forward for so many reasons. Communication and negotiation is hard enough between two people. Bringing a third person into the mix increases the challenges exponentially especially when the two main people have things unsaid between them. Having a threesome can be terrifically fun and satisfying if there are boundaries and agreements in place and there’s excellent communication in all three directions.
But too often the main couple is only thinking about themselves and treats the third person they bring in as a prop for their sexual exploration. There’s little thought given to her emotional safety and it can do harm especially if the primary couple lends up having feelings come up that need to be handled in the moment and she’s left out in the cold as they process this which often looks like fighting and hostility both at each other and at the third. Opening your bedroom to another woman so you could have an experience may seem like the most obvious and easiest solution but it’s a situation that most people haven’t properly prepared themselves for and it can be really messy.
Okay, so you’ve examined your fantasies, read some erotica, watched some movies and porn, you have not suggested to you husband that you have a threesome. There’s one final thing that I want to offer you as food for thought. Our sexual desires and our relationship desires don’t always match up.
I’ll use myself as an example. I love women’s curves. Their hips, their breasts, their thighs, their tummies, I find everything about a woman’s body intoxicating. However, I learned something important about myself during my time of sexual exploration. While my short term attachments to women were strong, the idea of forming a long term attachment to any of those women didn’t excite me. It’s much easier for me to imagine forming a life time attachment with a male than with a female. What I was experiencing was that my sexual attractions who’s body do I want to touch and my romantic attachments, who I want to spend my life with, don’t’ fall directly in line with each other.
I suppose you can look at this as a cruel quirk of fate but I actually find it kind of comforting. I notice beauty and attractiveness in all genders. I’m bisexual or pansexual. I am equally happy to engage sexually with someone of any gender who piques my interest bisexual or pansexual, but beyond a relatively short time, my investment in the female-female relationship dynamic wanes. It’s not that my appreciation for her as a person disappears. It’s not that my appreciation for her body disappears. But I’m not motivated to do the work needed to build a foundation of a lasting bond.
On the other hand, after a similarly short time with the right man, my investment in the male-female dynamic intensifies. That’s heteroromantic. My appreciation for him as a person increases. My appreciation of his body increases dramatically. I’m motivated to do the work to build the foundation and solve the problems. Heteroromantic.
So while my attraction is initially strong and eventually declines with women, my attraction with men starts a little lower but builds and remains strong over time. I would identify myself as a bisexual, predominately heteroromantic woman.
As I said in the beginning, you are far from alone in this quandary. You are absolutely normal. The unfortunate thing about how our culture has defined and venerated monogamy is that it makes it difficult to know how to move forward in really getting to know yourself. You can navigate these waters without blowing up your life, unless you choose to. If you’d like support in doing it, I’m here either for one on one coaching or for group coaching where you can experience the love and support of other women who are sorting through their own desires to really know themselves.
So do you have an “Am I Normal” Question? Call 720-=GOOD-SEX and leave me a message. It can be up to two minutes long and I may answer it in a future podcast. So now, before we go, I’m’ excited to introduce a new segment for these Lowdown episodes. I know that many of you are avid podcast listeners and I also know that my favorite way to find new podcasts is to get recommendations from people l trust.
So every other week, I’m going to introduce you to a podcast I found that I think you might enjoy. The subject matter may be occasionally related to sex and relationships but lately, I’m actively working to broaden my listening horizons so I’m seeking out shows that fit my basic vibe. Interesting, thoughtful conversations and explorations on topics and voices that are new to me.
I’m really excited to introduce you to this week’s podcast, The Change Over by Alanna Sparrow. Alanna and I are in a podcast group together where I saw her post on an intriguing title, White Privilege vs. Black Punishment. Given what’s going on around the United States and around the world about recognizing racial inequality, I was immediately drawn in. And I was not disappointed. As I listened to Alanna break down how she thinks a simple word change could help ease the conversation. So here’s a clip on Alanna’s show, The Change Over.
PODCAST CLIP: For the Change Over challenge this week, what I want to encourage those of you who listen and who have these trust conversations with the people of different races who maybe for whatever reason, they want to understand. They want to learn and it’s just not clicking because they don’t understand this whole white privilege thing because they’ve never been “privileged”. Maybe if this is somebody that you still want to have a conversation with and you still want to kind of get through to them or you just don’t understand because what they’re saying doesn’t match up to the person that you know them to be.
Try having that conversation and instead of saying that this is about white privilege. See if it makes a difference if you say that this is about black punishment because in reality that’s what it is. While for us black people it is a privilege for white people, and anybody else, to drive in their car and not get pulled over or to go for a run and things of that nature, everyday life things that they may not see as a privilege. It’s going to be hard for them to try to comprehend and try to really understand that that’s a privilege to people because it’s just life. However, when you say that you and other black people and even people of other races are being punished because of skin tone, that might strike gold. I don’t know if you’re having those conversations, I say give it a try. I also say let me know how it goes.
LEAH: If you liked that, I highly encourage you to follow the link in the Show Notes to The Change Over. Her titles include ones that I know will be of interest to those of you who listen to this show. Surviving Domestic Violence, Why You Don’t Need To Learn A New Skill During A Pandemic, and Sometimes You Just Got To Piss People Off.
LEAH: That’s it for today. If you’re enjoying the show, please take a moment to leave a 5-star rating and review on Apple podcasts or, if you’re using another podcast app, go to www.ratethispodcast.com/goodgirls.
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Good Girls Talk About Sex is produced by me, Leah Carey, and edited by Gretchen Kilby.
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Transcripts are produced by Jan Acielo.
Before we go, I want to remind you that the things you may have heard about your sexuality aren’t true. You are worthy. You are desirable. You are not broken.
As your Sex and Intimacy coach, I will guide you in embracing the sexuality that is innately yours, no matter what it looks like. To set up your free Discovery Call, go to www.leahcarey.com/coaching.
Until next time, here’s to your better sex life!
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