I just saw it again – the “P” word. Promiscuity. And I saw it in an article written by a woman, referring to a period in her life when she was actively exploring her sexuality.
I loathe the term “promiscuous;” it’s judgmental and gender-biased, implying engagement in indiscriminate sexual behavior with multiple people, and even the nature of the definition suggests that it is behavior that is inherently bad.
Worse – we women use the “P” word, or an “S” equivalent, or accept their use when describing a woman who has had numerous sexual partners.
Men don’t refer themselves as promiscuous. And they don’t use derogatory terms when examining their sexual scorecard. Couldn’t women lead by example on this one, referring to periods of sexual diversity in other ways, and without any tinge of shame?
Dear old Mom
I remember my mother telling me (when I was in my twenties): Any woman who has slept with more than two men is promiscuous. On occasion, she would change the phrase to: Any woman who has slept with more than two men is a slut.
If I have a preference, I’ll take “slut” over “promiscuous” any day; it’s colloquial, even humorous at times, which doesn’t mean I’d like someone to hurl that label in my direction.
Still, promiscuous carries an air of dismissive disdain. Judgment. You know what I mean – as though some critical clinician has peered over his (or her) reading glasses, crumpled up his (or her) mouth, and pronounced said female specimen who has slept with two men, 22 men, or 102 men as little more than a tramp.
Tramp is camp
Yet tramp is camp, a term that makes me wistful. I picture Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth in Pal Joey, and I want to don a slinky dress, sidle up to a mike, and seduce a man with song… or at the very least, settle back in my Saturday morning comfort and comforter with a cuppa Joey, cruising cable for a classic film on TCM.
I admit I was both influenced by and amused at my mother’s remarks on the subjective subject of sexual partners. Apparently, despite telling me the only man she’d ever slept with was my father, she was cutting herself some slack. Was it “just in case” space, for one more man? Or might mid-century Mama have had a lover I never knew about?
At the time, my number was still in the single digits, and I assumed it would stay there. I’d meet a man, marry him, start a family, and pursue my dreams. Happily ever after, of course! It didn’t exactly happen that way, which leads us to the issue of numbers, and my contemporary cultural touchstone, still… Sex and the City.
Numbers (What’s your number?)
Doesn’t everyone learn life lessons and acceptable sexual mores from Sex and the City? I came late to that particular party, but found – even in my 40s – there was much to be absorbed from the antics of the fabulous four. And my experiences of sex and the single mom and sexual fantasy were at least on the same planet – even if only in my imagination!
There’s an SATC episode in which the women discuss their “number.” I remember one crude (but funny) line directed at Charlotte: “You’ve had a fair amount of bone in you.” And best I recall, the number for each of the characters in the show was probably 60 on the low end, to literally thousands, on the part of Samantha.
The episode was entertaining, but also thought-provoking; STDs and responsibility for one’s sexual health were part of the theme, as was the way women judge themselves on quantity (“I’m a whore,” Miranda says… ) while men take pride in naughty notches on the bedpost.
- Do I think teens should dive into sexual activity without regard to their age, health, or emotional development? Of course not.
- Do I believe that men or women should disregard feelings, or responsible safety measures? Another no. But neither should we disregard the soothing, rejuvenating, loving, thrilling, and vital experience of sexual contact – booty calls and all!
- Should we promote sexual activity that runs into the thousands of partners? Or do we call that “promiscuity” and deem it bad?
I don’t think we should promote ANY sort of number, or judge it. Sexual expression is personal, and as long as it’s between consenting adults and handled responsibly, it’s no one’s business whether you’ve mated once for life or once a week with a different partner for the past 30 years – unless for some reason it is a cause of concern or dissatisfaction for you.
Language, numbers, and perception
Honestly – who knows what the average number of sexual partners is — Google will reflect a Kinsey survey at four for women and seven for men — or you can try this age-sex-partner calculator, showing how you stack up against contemporaries, if you believe whatever assumptions may be built into its design, and if you acknowledge its clearly stated limitations.
And not the least of these is the still prevalentbself-reporting bias that dogs both sexes.
Given the breadth and diversity of human experience, must we hold purselves to any rules of thumb other than using them as the interesting, if unreliable statistics?
But what does matter are words and how we use them. Especially when we’ve grown so accustomed to them that we no longer examine how they shade our perceptions, and not in a good way!
In this case, the words are used disparagingly and for only one demographic – women.
Other P words
In exchange for requesting that we voluntarily banish “promiscuity” and “promiscuous” from our vocabularies, I propose a few other “P” words to be used on a regular basis, when referring to our sexuality:
and very, very personal.
Sexuality is life affirming; when romance, love, or superb sex present themselves, let’s give them a round of applause, and enjoy this truly precious form of human expression.
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