Sex & the Ghost: Searching for values in a numbers game

single_lifeOne of the things I love the most about being back in Washington, D.C., once a year is the joy of reading a great newspaper — on dead tree pulp. There is nothing like reading an old-fashioned analog newspaper to help you see the ghosts drifting through the lines of inky type.

Which brings us to a ghost I have been thinking about all week. The excellent Style section of the Washington Post recently ran a haunting article about the state of sexual ethics among some young women on university campuses and in the jobs that come right afterwards. Clearly, this was some kind of post-Sex & the City meditation.

The main focus is on “The Number.” What is that? This refers to a debate among young women about the meaning — the moral significance even — of the number of men with whom they have had sexual intercourse. What is too few? What is too many? Should one be able to remember all their names?

Perhaps it is best to keep a diary or even a computerized, annotated list. And, in the end, what does this “numbers game” say about love and life? Are there limits of any kind? At some point, is the soul damaged? Actually, the Post did not ask that last one. I did.

It is interesting to note that this article was written by Laura Sessions Stepp, a reporter with experience at religion coverage. But tricky issues of faith, the Bible and centuries of Judeo-Christian values never appear, even if traces of the past seem to haunt some of the voices who tell their stories. Listen to this:

Jennifer Broussard, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania a year ago, used to tally up her companions on a sheet in her organizer, attaching dates and footnotes. She’d dial up a girlfriend to ask things like, “What counts? What doesn’t? I’m about to pass my benchmark. Is this guy worth it?” …

These women analyze their numbers as if they were comparison shopping for the right size and color of shoes. They tell each other that sex is separate from love. And few adults tell them any different. Sex education teachers lecture on body parts and disease, and we know that parents would rather throw themselves in front of a truck than talk in depth about sex and romance.

Is sex the same as “hooking up”? Does it add a new number to the list to double up and sleep with an old, discarded boyfriend? What if a young women sleeps with a few too many men and then meets Mr. Right and, gasp, he is the kind of man who might care if his fiance has, well, worked her way past a certain number? Who can see into the future and see if any particular moral standard will be required? Does using the right “protection” for your body also protect your heart?

So maybe 10 is a good number and number 11 needs to be the husband, the real thing. How does that sound? Or is 10 too high? Who can tell? And, oh, is honesty a requirement? Back to the Post story:

By the time the third or fourth year of college rolls around, a little creative accounting may be required.

Julia Baugher, who graduated this month from Georgetown, wrote about numbers in her sex column for the student newspaper. “If x = Number [that women] say they’ve slept with,” she wrote, “then the Actual Number is x + Number she wishes she hadn’t slept with.”

“I used to be really [picky] about my number,” says Baugher, who keeps a running total on a computerized spreadsheet with side comments such as “weird teeth” and “future med student.”

“I said everything counted,” she continues. “I was approaching double digits and I didn’t like it, but I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it.”

Then she read “The Catholic Girl’s Guide to Sex,” which offered advice on clever accounting tricks. It doesn’t count if you are drunk. You were on vacation. It was an accident.

It seems that this is the only kind of advice that is available these days, even at on a modern Catholic campus. The wisdom of the past remains safely out of sight, even if it is not totally out of the minds of these young women. This story did leave me curious about one thing. Are there any priests at Georgetown?

A personal note: Doug is traveling and I am on the road, as well. So we are both away from computers much more than normal. This will affect our ability to post every day, which is our goal. I am reading your comments and doing what I can to respond. And I keep reading the God-beat news. I simply takes me longer to get from the reading to the blogging.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • louis

    The main focus is on “The Number.”

    this link doesn’t appear to work on my powerbook

  • tmatt

    Thanks! I have the link fixed. I couldn’t tell what was wrong, but replacing it did the trick.

  • Molly Douthett

    Is this story newsworthy because the tallying of partners is being done by women?

    Just askin’…..

  • tmatt

    That’s one reason I said that this was a Sex & the City meditation. I really think that was the news hook.

    But I think “The Number” is a sign of an ongoing debate AMONG WOMEN on sexual ethics and whether the trends of the modern age — the Sex Rev — are leading to happiness or not. What made it a ghost, for me, was the stuggle to find a standard in all kinds of places, but not in the traditional source of a standard — religious traditions.

  • Mike

    Hmmmmm….I hate it when that nasty Natural Law invades my conscience. Of course, rather than recognition and repentance, I prefer rationalization and statistical manipulation.

    It is woeful how we leave out discussing the psychological and physiological effects of multiple partners. How can we hope for lasting marriages when we short circuit, by promiscuity and contraception, the very means God gave us to assist in that longevity? A hound dog can’t find its way home if its nose is overwhelmed by the scents of many other ‘owners’. ;)

  • Karen B

    I found this story very sad. It makes me very glad I got safely out of college nearly 20 years ago and missed the temptation to imitate the Sex & the City girls…

    I will pray for the girls in the story to find redemption, hope and a restored purity, not to mention TRUE AGAPE LOVE through faith in Christ.

    And a trivial closing comment: Terry you’re totally right about the Washington Post being a great read. It’s good online, but even better in print! Thanks for sharing such material for thought, prayer and reflection.

  • Ellyn

    I think we can all agree it is sad and disgusting. It is also discouraging seeing young ‘women’ applying rules and theories more suitable to junior high playground games to a very adult activity. If you are playing ‘girlie’ games, you are too young for sex.

    The only other thought that comes to mind is a reminiscence of an old children’s laxative ad from the ’60′s (anybody out there remember Fletcher’s Castoria?) in which a mother muses about the unreliability of prunes as a cathartic, “Is one enough? Are six too many?” That darned phrase flits through my mind anytime any discussion of numbers comes along.

  • Brad Roberts

    It is interesting that this article came out recently…a similar article exists in the NY Times…except this one involves high school kids.

    I don’t have any kids and these stories aren’t making me in any hurry to have any.


  • Brian

    To Karen, who wrote: “I will pray for the girls in the story to find redemption, hope and a restored purity, not to mention TRUE AGAPE LOVE through faith in Christ.”

    Wow, you have been brainwashed, sister. Ok, now, I am not against religion, or even Christianity, in theory. Christianity in practice (and almost always Catholicism), however really tends to frost my wiener. “TRUE AGAPE LOVE…” what is that anyway? Agape is a greek term, they had three types of love, Eros, philos, and agape.

    Eros is sexual love, it is the way you are meant (by GOD) to love your girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse, it is fulfilling, it is a deep interpersonal relationship that binds two people closely and fulfills a deep-seeded desire in all human beings for this type of interaction (a desire placed there by GOD).

    Philos is “brotherly love,” as in Philadelphia (from the greek roots for brotherly love and city), the city of brotherly love. It is familial love, the way you love your brother, mother, or grandmother. You wouldn’t want to have sexual relations with any of these people (hopefully), but you care for them. This is yet another building block of human relationships. Jesus preaches about this kind of love, “loving your neighbor,” thats what this is all about. The Christian ideal, under Jesus, is to have Philos toward pretty much everyone. Jesus doesn’t allow for many exceptions to this, in fact, he doesn’t really allow for any. I guess the loophole is that, although you have to love everyone, you don’t have to like them all.

    Anyway, AGAPE, which you make such a big deal about, is a love of a thing. You have AGAPE for your dog, or your favorite guitar. While agape is certainly part of human nature (you are bound to want things, and to love those certain things), it is hardly fulfilling of any specific natural need in human social culture. You’d be mighty depressed if you didn’t have either Eros or Philos in your life, but you sure don’t need agape. Additionally, it is almost blasphemous, in my humble opinion to love GOD (a supreme being) as you would love a doily. You also shouldn’t have EROS toward GOD, as He is not a human being. Philos, is more like it, though.

    Then again, the Catholic Church is horribly contradictory on almost everything, and has codified some really blasphemous teachings in the past (including various forms of idol worship, which I won’t get into). I really believe that people can take “the rules” too far. Wasn’t it Jesus himself who said that if you follow that one special rule, to love your neighbor, that you’d always be set? I think it was.

    Also, Karen, you sounded a little like you were judging a bit there. You were, weren’t you… There’s another problem with strict rule-based religion, we all-too-often fall into that judgment trap (“oh no, she’s breaking the RULE!”), instead, religion should be common-sense-based, love your neighbor, there is the ultimate guideline… use that as a basis for your common sense to do its magic, and suddenly you will find out that you are acting like a good person.

    I mean, in many ways, I believe that sexual intercourse belongs in a committed relationship, one with horribly (in the good way) strong Eros. When two people are in love, they get married, they have sex. There shouldn’t be any other rules. The Catholic Church, however, lays on the guilt trip like a stereotypical Jewish mother, over basically anything.

    If there is a God, he wants us to minimize suffering, to create happiness. The Catholic Church creates guilt through rules and ignorance, which is the opposite of happiness.

    If you want my advice, take off your judging hat, and go out and make someone happy. If you are married, have wild and crazy sex with your spouse, trust me, it’ll brighten their day. Give some little kid a Hershey bar. Help out at a soup Kitchen. You are allowed to make yourself happy too, and guess what? You don’t have to be guilty about it.

    Here’s what you should be guilty about (and nothing else should invoke guilt): 1) Causing any sort of pain, suffering, or detriment to any human being, for any reason. 2) Not making any effort to help make other people happy.

  • gregory


    You are right that English uses the word “love” to mean a slew of different things whereas other languages have different words to connote the subtle nuances of “love.” We use the same word to say “I love my wife” as we do when we say “I love my sister” or “I love this sweater.” It’s confusing, but in English, we’re not blessed with a broader vocabulary!

    Concerning the piece above, if anything, it sheds some light on what to expect on college campuses. I’m actually an alum of Georgetown (their grad school, however), and while I was there I felt that the Catholic influence provided a pleasant background but had very minimal personal influence, unless one wanted it to. As you probably expect, the priests rarely invaded students’ “privacy” about what they should and should not do. “Relative morality” prevailed, but, in fairness, it’s basically the same on any other American college campus.

    It’s interesting that this girl felt the need to express her angst over the number of sexual partners in a campus newspaper column, as if a means of public therapy. Obviously, anyone who would think less of her for choosing to have multiple partners and then going public with her personal angst regarding “how many partners are too many?” should be skewered. I’m just wondering, does her mother think this is appropriate?

    One thing these kids need to reflect on is when (or if) they ever find Mr. (or Miss) Right, as the column says. One with whom you share your soul with surely care about who else you’ve shacked up with. How we behave has consequences. Are we so dumb nowadays that we don’t recognize this?