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Coupling

A mother’s tally

Is it wise to count your children’s sexual partners?

By Marianne Jacobbi
March 7, 2010

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A friend called yesterday to say that her 24-year-old daughter was in love again. We talk all the time about our sons’ and daughters’ love lives, or lack thereof. Our conversations run the gamut from “Does the boyfriend stay in the guest room when he visits for the weekend?” to the kind of concern I was hearing in my friend’s voice. “It’s her third serious boyfriend.” Translation: Her daughter was up to three intimate partners, as far as Mom knew.

My friend felt guilty about the private tally she was keeping. She hadn’t shared the exact numbers with me, but I got it: The count was inching toward a place that was outside Mom’s comfort zone. She’d never told her daughter about the arithmetic in her head or about her own personal tally from decades past, from before she was married. Still, she couldn’t keep from counting. This was, after all, her little girl.

We moms count, of course, because we’re protective, and we worry about our children’s physical health and emotional well-being. We count because we’re grown women who were once young and know all about double standards and the many cruel words in the English language for girls who sleep around (more words than there are for men). We count because we go on Facebook and watch reality TV and we’re hip to “hooking up” and “friends with benefits” but don’t always get how it works. Is a friend with benefits a lover who doesn’t count or a friend who does? Is it considered casual sex or safe sex? You discount your feelings, but what’s the cost? You add him to your tally, but what does it all add up to?

We count, too, because we can. We know a good deal -- too much, perhaps -- about our kids’ personal lives, far more than our own parents knew about ours. Many of my friends took their daughters to the doctor to get their first contraception and some even had heartfelt talks after “the first time,” like you see in those tear-jerker scenes with Sally Field on Brothers and Sisters.

When I ask, a friend in her 20s tells me that, yes, women her age do count. She and her friends have had conversations about “how many.” But she said her idea of a high number might differ from mine, given our 30-year age difference. And even though they’re close, she says she’d never talk numbers with her mom. “Never! Why do you think they invented the generational divide?”

The biggest reason we moms count is because we came of age before the numbers game became deadly. We came of age before HIV and the other frightening acronyms that can steal your future and fertility. We know there are odds to everything and the higher your numbers, the higher your risks. (Unless you’re Warren Beatty, that is. He’s reported to have had thousands of partners and still managed to marry at 54 and father four children.) We just want the numbers to be on our child’s side.

The 2010 Statistical Abstract, published by the Census Bureau, offers 2002 data on the number of opposite-sex partners in a lifetime that US men and women have had. In some ways, it’s an old and not surprising story: Men have more partners than women do. According to the data, among men ages 15 to 44, the median number of lifetime sexual partners is 5.4. For women, it’s 3.3. And nearly a quarter of men and 10 percent of women say they’ve had 15 or more partners by age 44, which may have to do with relaxed sexual mores, people marrying at a later age, and divorce.

Numbers like these are enough to strike terror in a mother’s heart. This is one curve where you hope your child will score low. My kids are in their 20s, and I’m lucky we’re able to talk about most things. So should we have the tally talk? Probably not, although I’ve done my homework and know just what I’d want to say to my daughters and son: “When it comes to love and sex, know the risks and make it count, whether it’s your friend with benefits or the love of your life.” Now I promise to keep quiet.

Marianne Jacobbi is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. She lives in Cambridge. Send comments to coupling@globe.com. Story ideas: Send yours to coupling@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to ideas we will not pursue.

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