This question is the one single item you should avoid at all costs.

First off, it really is none of your business. Yes, you can ask items like, "Did you have unprotected sex?", but the numbers are not important. Whether it's zero or ten thousand, you're with that person because of who they are, and that includes the lessons they learned when they had other relationships.

Knowing how many other folks your partner slept with will not bring you closer. Actually, it tends to cause rather major rifts. You may think you can "handle it" but knowing how many other folks were there before you will start things rolling around in your brain, such as, "I wonder how I compare to X," or "I wonder if my insert significant other here ever thinks of X when we make love." Men in particular have difficulties with knowing others were with their true love... perhaps it's cultural. Women are supposed to be virtuous, and men are supposed to be worldly lovemaking machines.

Sometimes this cannot be helped. I've known my wife since we were 14. I've always been around when she broke up with one of my friends. I know almost every other person she's slept with. She let me read some of her journals once, to which I can say to you avoid doing so at all costs. Fifteen years into our marriage I still get those "what if?" questions popping up every so often. I know she still has real difficulties with two of my former girlfriends, and I still cannot mention the name Mariah in front of my wife.

Sometimes ignorance is bliss. From personal experience, I highly recommend you be as blissful as you can when this question comes up. If you are asked about your sexual history, be vague and tell them that they are the one single person for you, so the others just don't matter.

The problem as I see it with "how many partners have you had?" is that it isn't specific enough. I enjoy knowing the details of my partners' other experiences -- past and future. But I don't want to know "four" or "eleven" or "eighty-eight." I want it all.

I want the juicy details. The tales of sexual adventure are both interesting and arousing! Sharing these stories can easily lead to making new ones of your own. Knowing how the other guys looked and felt and tasted just adds the needed detail to make the scene come alive in your head. The story of my wife's first time giving head, or knowing how cute her first real boyfriend in college was, or even that the guy she was dating before me had a bigger cock than I do -- these are all interesting. They do nothing to dampen my enjoyment of life with her.

If, while we're out for the day, she sees a guy and lets me know that she thinks it would be fun to fuck him -- hopefully describing a scene in detail, then we can talk about it and end up horny all day because of it. That's fun and frustrating (in a good way). If she chooses to have sex with another guy, and has the fuck of her life, that's really awesome! I don't wish the same old monotonous routine for the love of my life…I wish great new things for her. Isn't that what true love is about?

I'm glad that I don't stay up nights wondering how I compare to X. I don't have to wonder because we talk about it. If X did this thing with his tongue that she really liked, maybe she can teach me to do it too. My wife and I are friends and we are friends with people with whom we've had sex. I like it. It is a nice and healthy relationship.

It's interesting to see how conservative noders are. In addition to the writeups here, I've had several /msgs telling me how messed up I am.

My own answer to this question has changed over time. When I was younger, and less knowledgeable, I followed the common wisdom that teaches us that the “How many partners have you had?” question is relationship poison. Not knowing how to handle the answer to this question, I, like most men I knew, simply chose not to ask it at all.

As I was later to realize, however, choosing not to ask the question doesn’t solve the problem. Refusing to face something you’re afraid of doesn’t make that thing go away. Instead, it lays festering in your imagination, gradually turning into a demon of your own mind. And it’s a demon that can’t be beaten in the dark recesses of your thoughts. It has to be brought out into the open air, the sunlight, to be defeated.

But I, like most men, was strangely resistant to this notion. Believing, as many men do, that I somehow “owned” the woman I was with, I didn’t want to know that she had been “owned” by someone before me. My adolescent ego was faced with an intractable dilemma: I didn’t want to know, but I had to know. And the finding out would ultimately be my downfall.

I knew all that, but not having a satisfactory answer, I generally tried to ignore the problem. Sometimes it would surface on its own, though, without any questioning on my part. Someone I was seeing would casually mention previous relationships, previous affairs, previous one-night stands. I usually didn’t handle it very well.

Then I was forced to grow up. I met a woman, a remarkable human being. Intelligent, charming, caring, sexy –- everything I wanted. But she had previously worked as an escort, and was still a college student working as a stripper (no, really) when I met her. Her “number” was well into the triple digits. I had thought that my own modest, low double-digit “number” made me something of a man of the world, but I knew I was hopelessly "outmanned," so to speak.

So what is a boy to do?

Well, I decided to take the “negative” and turn it into a “positive.” Relationship jujitsu, if you will. This woman’s past was something I couldn’t possibly just sweep under the rug. So, if we were to make anything of ourselves, I had to learn how to turn her past experiences into something good, something healthy.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard. It was really just a change of attitude on my part, nothing more. And I found it easier to make the change when I realized that this woman’s sexual past was just as much a part of who she was as the rest of her previous experiences. Her former lovers combined to make her who she was –- this angel I met one day on a college campus –- just as much as her family and friends did. The fact that my overly sensitive male ego felt threatened by her sexual past was no reason for me to force her to hide who she was.

You see, that’s what you do when you refuse to face the “numbers” question. You force your partner to bury past experiences –- bury herself, in fact -- in order to sooth your own fragile ego. And that’s not love. That’s ownership. So I made the conscious decision not to go that route. Seeing that I was faced with such an experienced partner, I really didn’t have much choice, anyway. It was either accept or leave.

Now, it wasn’t a completely smooth process, mind you. I still felt pangs of jealousy from time to time, and, I’m sad to say, she occasionally used her colorful past as a weapon to hurt me, when it suited her. And we’re no longer together. Sometimes it’s just not possible to keep a truly passionate relationship going –- the fire in the heart burns out too quickly. But for the most part, this woman taught me to accept what I could not deny. I guess that’s just part of growing up.

There are situations in which asking a new person "How many partners have you had?" is just not done. Maybe you and your date are minors stuck in high school, where slut-shaming and virgin-shaming abound. In that situation, it's really just too rude to ask a person a question that -- if answered honestly -- would give you information that could lead to him or her being socially ostracized or worse if it got around.

Or perhaps you're in a situation in which your match has been made for you, and the only way you can convince yourself go through with the arranged marriage is to pretend that your intended is everything you could hope for; in this case, asking challenging questions is probably counter-productive.

But if you can't bring yourself to ask that question because you fear the answer might intimidate you ... well, you probably need to grow up a bit.

If you're an adult who has full control over the types of relationships you pursue, asking a date "How many partners have you had?" is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. It's a chance to find out more about this new person you're thinking of sleeping with or are eyeing as a prospective life partner. When you think about what's potentially at stake -- why wouldn't you want to ask this question? Divorce is expensive. Maybe you shouldn't ask it on the first date, or even the third ... but it should come up sometime.

I view this question as a conversation opener. I'm not looking for someone to blurt out "15!" and then clam up. It's a question that should lead to more questions. How does he or she define "partner", for instance?  Does he count someone he hung out with a whole lot all through college and grew very fond of, but just kissed once or twice? What about someone she met at a concert, had the most passionate sex she ever had with, and then never saw again? What about someone he dated casually over the course of a year and had sex with a few times, but she wasn't into him and he wasn't into her and they just drifted apart? What about that 72-hour Vegas marriage?

What's his approach to dating? How does she look at love? How does he handle conflict? How does she treat her lovers? These are all things you can find out when you ask a person about his or her past partners. And it seems to me that learning this about the person you're thinking of entangling yourself with is pretty important.

And the numbers do matter. You might find out that your date has been with far fewer people than you, which isn't a red flag per se, but now you know he or she might have less experience handling relationship conflict, less sexual skill, and greater romantic expectations.  Or you might find out that the person has been with a lot of other people, but has had no long-lasting relationships. That might be due to bad luck, or you might be dealing with someone who pursued the wrong kind of partners. Or maybe he or she just isn't interested in the long term. It's worth trying to find out why that is; maybe your relationship with him or her will go differently (and better), but maybe not.

And if you're inclined toward short-term relationships and don't care so much about a partner's emotional constitution, love philosophy and relationship style ... there's the matter of personal health. It's entirely possible for someone who has slept with only one person in his entire life to be infected with herpes or HIV, and it's likewise possible that someone else who has slept with 300 people has a bloodstream pure as the driven snow. But the odds of exposure increase with every lover.

So, a good followup question to "How many partners have you had?" in most every situation is "Have you had a test for STDs recently?"

And if the answer is "No", the next question should be, "Would you be willing to get one?"

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