Love & Sex

Why Do We Make Sex Lists?

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Investigating the cultural obsession with chronicling our sex lives.

I started a sex spreadsheet because my boyfriend had one, and was completely surprised that I didn't.

"It makes it so easy to remember everybody," he said. Carlos was a sex addict, and had 175 entries on his spreadsheet back in 2009, some of which were just listings like "Hooker in Reno" or "That girl", with little notes next to them like "Drunk" or "Hmm." He tried to put them in chronological order, though, and the whole spreadsheet was accessible through Google Docs so he could update it from anywhere.

Most of us don't have the problem of trying to catalog the several hundred sexual partners we've had by our thirties, but for me, even the dozens were starting to blend together. I went through kind of a busy period at the end of high school and had a lot of one-night stands. As I got older and farther away from those escapades, first the experiences, and then the names and faces, started to recede into the oblivion of my encroaching memory loss.

I felt bad about forgetting people: not that the sex had been great, necessarily—this was before I realized girls could ask for what they wanted and even, dare I say, get it—but it seemed a bit disrespectful to not at least try to remember the names of people who had physically entered my body. I'd write down the name of my surgeon if he was wrist-deep in my abdomen looking for a gallbladder. 

So I made a Google Doc too. It's pretty simple: name, short note. I have a sidebar column for anyone that wasn't actually penetrative sex: the ladies who were part of threesomes, the frantic memorable makeouts that deserved more than being forgotten entirely. The listings for the main penis-insertion section are roughly in chronological order, although some of them have years next to them, presumably because Past Me was worried that I would not realize in which year I had been sluttiest. The notes range from "once in back of van" to "uncut, likes sounding." Sometimes the stories are a bit longer: "Great smile, muscular, in Colorado–climbed over the roof to fuck me." The whole thing is automatically numbered, so I can keep track of how many partners I had in the past year or so, for the sake of medical paperwork. It's pretty simple.

When I delved into other people's lists, though, I started to get some fascinating responses. Right after I made mine, my  friend Megan said, "Really? You have a spreadsheet? Can I see it?" I shared it with her, and she was so pleased that she made her own. Hers had listings like "French guy 1" and "French guy 2", and notes on rhythm style and cock size. "I mostly just wanted to be able to tell people my number, but it got kind of fun to remember what they were like," she told me.

"It's more like a memorial, a plinth at a WWII cemetery – 'these are the ones who have trod here and fallen'."

Another friend, Jonathan, sent me an OpenOffice document. Thirty pages worth of detailed notations, each entry for each guy included a photo, some identificatory information (like their address, or in one case, a Social Security Number). The blocks of text included not just physical descriptions, but how they'd met, what the sex felt like, and a touching exegesis on Jonathan's emotional state pre- and post-union. It was a fascinating read, especially given the way it chronicled a downward shame spiral that culminated in a life-changing moment (where they vowed never to repeat said experience again). It was more like a novel than a bare-bones list of sexual partners, and each entry could have been a separate short story. 

My friend Erik sent me his PowerPoint. I have no idea if this was something he gives to sex partners, something he just keeps around for personal reference, or something that he rents out conference rooms with a slide projector for, but it was simple, with plenty of photos and clean lines–exactly what you hope a PowerPoint would be. Each slide was one lady, with a nice big photo, and short bullet-point notes on either her, their relationship, or the encounter. Why a PowerPoint? Because it was funnier than a simple document.

Every time I asked, I got some fascinating responses. Almost universally, people started the list because they were worried about forgetting a partner. This included even people who had very short lists, partners they could count on both hands. One guy who kept only a non-chronological list of first names, said, "It's more like a memorial, a plinth at a WWII cemetery – 'these are the ones who have trod here and fallen'."  

The different divisions people made in their lists were interesting as well: one young woman from Australia said she divided her list into people she met on a sex website, people she slept with before her first long-term relationship, and people after the long-term relationship. Most people have different columns for men and women. Some separated by category of sex act, some by whether or not they had been emotionally involved with the person.

A woman named Sarabeth told me she'd struggled about including her rapist on the list: that she didn't want him lumped in with fun, happy sexual experiences. Along that vein, more than one person said they had people on their list that they really wished hadn't been there: painful experiences, non-consensual experiences, or reflections of bad decision-making. Why was that? Perhaps it was similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous need for a fearless self-inventory, no matter how much it hurt, or if it was just out of a sense of completion. An older married woman said she thought keeping a list at all just made it harder to process feelings and let go, that she preferred to not revisit any of her past lovers, mentally or otherwise. Oddly, a lot of the men I spoke to said they kept mental lists because reading a written one was too depressing.

"Two women responded that they valued the list as a way to keep track of their emotional growth."

Women seemed happiest to talk about their lists, although few could tell me exactly why they felt so strongly about keeping them. A recently-married woman, Emily, speculated that it was because women are expected to know the number of their sexual partners when asked, whereas it's OK for men to have had so many they've "lost count." Two women responded that they valued the list as a way to keep track of their emotional growth. When asked why she kept a list of sexual partners as opposed to, say, primary school teachers, 30-year-old Jennifer responded, "I guess although both partners and primary school teachers can have an impact on your life, you choose your partners (unless you don't, which is a completely different matter) but you don't choose your primary school teachers. Each one, to me, represents a decision I've made, which reminds me of where I was at in life at the time and what I learned from the experience (and associated experiences)."

A woman named Adelaide said, "To some extent I use who I was dating/sleeping with to keep track of where I was emotionally/mentally at any given point in my life, the way some people measure their own personal time lines by bad things that happened to them or what kind of fashion/music they were into." 

Sasha, a pillar in the polyamory community, showed me her partnership map, which organizes her partners' relationships to each other, and their relationships to her in color-coded categorizations. She said she started the map because the first question she gets asked is, "How many partners do you have?" Her map includes people with whom she has an emotional connection but not necessarily a sexual one: heart-felt relationships that are equally as valid in one's constellation of partners as people with whom you have squashed body parts together. Conversely, she has had some sexual partners that aren't on the map at all: it's a current outline of her emotional and romantic space, and she updates it whenever relevant.

"Showing the map is a way to provoke thought," Sasha told me. "I kind of want someone to think about their best friend who they tell everything to and recognize that this too is intimacy and no less valuable than their wife/husband." She also added that she considers the map and its updates to be part of the chronicle of her life, along with her blog posts, her Facebook status updates, and her Google calendar, where she marks important conversations, first kisses, and other meaningful events. By setting up yearly reminders of memorable moments, she can reconnect with people she might have shared them with.

Someone sent me a link to Amy Webb's TED Talk about creating her own dating website algorithms to "beat the system" and find true love more effectively. I wondered if the lists were an effort to do that: to lay out our past history so we can narrow down more effectively what we might be looking for in the future. The lists might be more about figuring out what we do and don't want in a partner than in merely cataloguing our pasts.

The more I asked, the more in-depth, fascinating responses I got. I told my roommate about my informal research project, and he said, "You know, this seems like it could be a really excellent conversation starter for the rest of your life. It's good to have a way to connect with people on an emotional level." People's lists are so personal, even meaningful to them, way more than I anticipated from the first moment of just wanting to jot down a few names and cock sizes.