— "What's Your Number" is a loopy romantic comedy, but there's some sober truth to the jokes.
The movie, which opens Friday, stars Anna Faris as a woman who’s convinced she’s slept with one too many people to find real love. But recent research suggests real-life women also worry about their “number,” and what their peers or potential sexual partners might think of how high (or how low) it is.
"The notion of how many men you've been with is something that always floats around," says Dr. Robi Ludwig, a psychotherapist and TODAY contributor who specializes in relationship issues. "It becomes part of a woman's sexual identity and her romantic identity, and in some cases, it contributes to her self-esteem."
For American women, the median number of male sexual partners over a lifetime is four, according to the most recent government statistics. (The median number of lifetime female sexual partners for dudes, in a mathematical improbability, is seven, the same report showed.)
But a 2003 report published in The Journal of Sex Research suggests an interesting twist: Women may fudge their “number,” depending on who’s asking.
Ohio State University researchers conducted a study in which they asked men and women about their sexual history. They led some participants to believe their answers would be anonymous; others were told that they were attached to a polygraph machine (they weren’t) or that researchers would read their answers. The women who thought their answers would be read were more likely to report an “acceptable” number of sexual partners, with an average of 2.6. But the women who believed they were being monitored by a lie detector reported an average of 4.4 sexual partners. (The average number of those who thought their answers would be anonymous fell in the middle, at 3.4 sexual partners.)
Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, director of the Medical Center for Female Sexuality, says most of her patients feel as though something is wrong with their number. "On the same day, I could have a woman say, 'Oh my God, you must think I'm crazy because I only slept with one guy before I got married,' and then an hour and a half later, a woman will say, 'Oh my God, you must think I'm crazy because I slept with 15 guys before I got married.'"
But even if no one agrees what it is, most people believe in a "wrong number." Cosmopolitan and AskMen.com recently surveyed thousands of women and asked them what they considered to be a woman’s “slut number”: 37 percent said it was 20 sexual partners, 35 percent said it was 10, and 16 percent said it was 50. Just 9 percent of respondents said a woman can never be a slut.
"Somehow, we're a society that just can't let go of the fact that women who have sex are sluts," says Marcus. "It used to be that if you had sex with more than one person, you were considered a slut. Now they're redefining it that if you have sex with more than 20 people, you're a slut."
Marcus encourages women not to link their number of sexual partners to their sense of lovability. "There's no right answer," she says. "There isn't a rule, and there's nothing that's going to guarantee you're going to have a better sex life."