Ultimately, rather than their partner’s capital-N Number, the guys I spoke to said qualitative aspects of their partners’ pasts were more troublesome than anything quantitative. For two of the guys, both of whom described their girlfriends’ previous numbers as high, learning specifics about their girlfriends’ exes bothered them much more than the numbers. The 26-year-old said that when he learned about his girlfriend and one of her ex’s former rendezvous locations, the couple had a big fight. “It’s always worse when you have a specific location or detail or something,” he said. The 36-year-old agreed. “[He was] the best lover you’ve ever had, but he treated you like shit, so you think he’s an asshole, but really, aw, if he was just a nicer guy, then it’d all be great—that’s like, the worst conversation to have,” he said. “By the time I was in my late 20s, I wouldn’t ask. In my mind, it’s not my business.”
Others also spoke about anxieties about being compared to exes. The 32-year-old said his wife only has a couple of men in her past, which makes it easier for him to let go of anxiety about where he falls in her sexual rankings. “My gut reaction would be self-consciousness about if I was the biggest or the best, or if she was happy with me, or if the guy before me was better than I was,” he said. The 26-year-old said that his girlfriend’s number didn’t trouble him at all when he first learned it, near the start of their relationship. But as their relationship progressed, it started to bother him—which in itself bothers him. “I don’t know if I’m too sensitive or it’s something that happens when you get more attached to someone,” he said. “Suddenly you start feeling more jealous about things from the past.”
This was maybe the most intriguing theme running through my conversations. It’s not that these men judge women for having active sexual pasts. It’s that the women’s sexual pasts lead these men to judge themselves.