This article by Stuart Haggas @GetStuart first appeared in FS Magazine, a publication of GMFA, here.
Photography by Chris Jepson: www.chrisjepson.com
How many guys have you had sex with? 1? 10? 100? 1,000? Is it a list as short as a tweet or as long as an encyclopedia? The gay scene provides countless opportunities for men to connect with other men for sex, but what’s the acceptable number of sexual partners to have?
FIGURE IT OUT
Let’s start with some sexy statistics. Back in 2010, The European MSM Internet Survey group (EMIS) asked gay men and men who have sex with men what they got up to sexually. The results showed a lot of variation in terms of how many guys you bonked within the last year. Just over half of the guys who took part in the survey had between one and five partners, but on the other hand nearly a third had more than ten sexual partners, with 5% of men having more than 50.
Just for fun, we asked FS magazine readers if they thought their magic number was an acceptable number of men to have sex with. The vast majority (89%) of those who replied said they’d had sex with an acceptable number of men. Just 11% of the men who replied to us considers themselves sluts. So what makes a gay man a slut? Let’s find out.
WHAT DEFINES A SLUT?
“Gay men enjoy sex,” says Paul from London. “Being a slut is not a numbers game, it’s about how you behave.”
“I don’t know that there’s necessarily a number of partners that makes someone a slut. My sense is that it’s more about being indiscriminate about quantity and quality,” adds Gilles from North Yorkshire.
“The number of sexual partners does not influence whether someone is a slut or not,” agrees Eric from Belfast. “I would define it as sleazy behaviour, like sleeping around when in a relationship that’s meant to be monogamous.”
“My definition of a slut would be someone who has sex just for the sake of having sex, whether they fancy a guy or not,” says Richard from Cardiff.
“It’s not the number that defines a slut, it has more to do with the attitude,” agrees Justin from London. “Someone who sleeps around casually with people they have little sexual interest in is probably more of a slut than someone who has many partners but who finds all of his partners attractive.”
“To me, a slut is someone who will literally fuck anyone or anything at any time,” says Zio from Bristol. “A slut is the guy who gives someone a blowjob in the nightclub toilet then goes home with a different guy. A slut is the guy who hangs out in saunas or cottaging spots with his arse in the air waiting for the next dick to come along and fill him. A slut is the guy who is always seeking sex and talking about his sexual exploits – when told ‘no’, they either keep pushing as if they’re going to change the other guy’s mind, or they turn into a bitch and suggest that you must be frigid for not wanting to sleep with them.”
Altogether, most guys who replied to us said that being a slut doesn’t relate to the number of guys you’ve had sex with: it’s more about attitude – although some believe the term has no meaning or definition at all on the gay scene.
“I don’t have one,” says Sam from London. “You say slut, I say ‘sexually successful’.”
“I would never refer to someone as a slut,” says Mark from Rugby.
“I don’t think there is such a thing,” adds Jamie from London. “It’s a derogatory term used by insecure people who have hang-ups about sex. Anyone who calls themselves a slut should really have a think about what that actually means.”
“Gay men are likely to have more sexual partners than heterosexual men,” acknowledges GMFA’s Matthew Hodson, “but the idea that we’re all out every night of the week bonking anything in trousers that moves is a fantasy. Most gay men have fewer than five partners in a year, and most gay men want to settle down with a long-term partner. Some gay men will have many more partners than that – and if that’s the choice that you make, you’re going to have to take greater care not to be involved in the transmission of STIs.”
THE AGE FACTOR
How old you are inevitably affects how many sexual partners you’ve ever had. Of the 16 to 24-year-olds who replied to our questions, over half had slept with less than ten men, about a third had slept with 11-50 men, 13% had slept with about 50 men, but none had slept with over 100 men.
There was a steady increase in the number of sexual partners among 25 to 34-year-olds, with just less than half saying they’d had sex with less than 50 men, and just over half saying they’d had sex with more than 50 men. Altogether, a third had slept with less than ten men, about 15% had slept with 11 to 50 men, a third had slept with 51 to 100 men, about 20% had slept with over 100 men, but none had slept with over 500 men. The number of sexual partners increased again once we passed the age of 35. Amongst 35 to 44-year-olds, the majority had slept with over 100 men (indeed, about a third now said they’d slept with over 500 men), and none had slept with less than ten men.
“To me, being slutty is more about attitude than number of partners – but it also depends on how many years you’ve been having sex,” says Richard from Devon. “One a week (which isn’t slutty) for over 20 years is over 1,000, but someone having sex with 1,000 men in a couple of years could probably be regarded as a slut!”
It’s obvious to say that the older you are the more likely it is you will have slept with more people. But does the fact that you are in your 30’s and have played with 300 men make you a slut?
David from London is one of the guys who considers himself a slut. “Sluts embrace new experiences and are generous with themselves,” he says. “There’s no limit. As long as the sex is consensual and fun there should be no shame in the plurality of it.”
Gary from London also identifies himself as a slut. “I cannot have an opinion about what makes other people a slut,” he says, “but my definition for myself is cheap, casual sex with multiple partners without any pretence of an ongoing relationship, and ideally not knowing their names or anything about them.”
“It’s not really something to be proud of but if you have a large sexual appetite you should be able to have sex with as many people as you like,” says Adam from Wakefield. “As long as it’s safe.”
“I think one partner is enough, but for many guys it’s difficult to meet Mr. Right,” says Mel from Cardiff, another of the 11% who said they are sluts. “You keep dating people. When it comes to having loads of one night stands, then the person tends to be a slut.” Mel also supports the idea of ‘slut shaming’ – the notion of being made to feel bad, guilty or inferior for having slept with too many men. “Because many times you have sex with people you don’t know and take risks.”
MULTIPLYING THE RISK
“If you have lots of sexual partners the chances of picking up an STI are going to be greater,” says GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “Even if all you do is cuddle and tug each other off, more partners will increase the chances of picking up crabs, which may be easily treatable but is pretty unpleasant all the same. If you have riskier sex, the range of infections you may pick up will increase.”
So is having lots of sexual partners something to be proud of, or it’s a bad thing?
“It’s a personal choice,” says Andrew from Nottingham, “but you should not see the next lay as just another notch on the bedpost. As long as you are safe and not hurting anyone, who you have sex with and how many people you have sex with is your own business.”
“As long as you are using protection and being responsible,” says Daniel from Harrogate, “then you can sleep with as many men as you want.”
“I went through a ‘slutty phase’ after splitting with my ex,” admits Dean from Bournemouth, “but I wouldn’t dream of cheating on my partner.”
“I’m neither proud nor ashamed,” says Carwyn from Cardiff. “I’ve had sex with several thousand men, but it was mostly one at a time. I don’t think there is an unacceptable limit. I’m fussy about who I have sex with; hence I don’t see myself as a slut. I can’t imagine describing any gay man as a slut.”
But some, such as Zio from Bristol, disagree. “A very high number of sexual partners is nothing to be proud of; it just shows that you lack self-control and probably have difficulty sustaining a long-term monogamous relationship,” he says. “You should be able to have sex with as many people as you want, but if the number you want is three or four different guys a day you should probably think about cutting back – and getting tested.”
“Ultimately it’s up to individuals to work out what’s right for them,” says GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “If what you want is to settle down with that one special person, then racking up the notches on your bedpost may not be helping you find him. If your idea of sexual satisfaction is sex with a different person every week, or every night, then you’re not going to be well suited to a monogamous relationship.
“When you work out what it is that you want, then you can try to make that desire a reality. Although there are people who started long term monogamous relationships with men they met off Grindr, the places you meet people for no-strings sex are not likely to be the places where you’re going to meet someone to settle down with.”
It’s for reasons such as the sexual health and wellbeing of the whole gay community that some believe gay men who enjoy large numbers of sexual partners should be ‘named and shamed’ – but it’s a notion that the vast majority of guys we spoke to disagreed with.
“I think it’s wrong and hurtful,” says Paul from Telford.
“I don’t think it would be my place to comment on anybody’s sex life,” says Sals from Manchester. “Ultimately, we should be focusing on ourselves, and if we’re happy with ourselves then that’s all that counts.”
“It says more about the shamer than the shamed,” says Mark from London. “Why should someone have the moral authority to judge another’s sexual behaviour?”
Antonio from London agrees: “It smacks of someone who needs to feel superior by pointing out others’ ‘flaws’.”
“Me and my friends joke about it,” admits Adam from Sheffield. “I think those who sleep with lots of guys disapprove of those who don’t and vice versa.”
“Slut shaming in a group of close friends is arguably just banter, and another means to have a laugh,” adds Chris from Fleet. “When it turns to social media and you’re being shamed by people you do not know, then it becomes a problem and I do think that people shouldn’t do it.”
But a few were in support of the idea. “I think it’s necessary for some people to be told that they’re probably risking their health by sleeping with so many people,” says Zio from Bristol, “and possibly hurting the feelings of the men they sleep with and move on from.”
“They should be brought to shame,” adds Jonathan from Derby. “Sleeping around is one of the common ways of spreading STIs and HIV. Those men will hurt others and eventually themselves.”
The overall consensus was that individual gay men shouldn’t take on the role of ‘naming and shaming’ – so should organisations like GMFA and THT tell gay men that they’re having too much sex?
“I don’t think it’s up to health agencies to say ‘You should have so many partners and no more’,” says GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “I do think we should point out that there are risks involved if you have lots of sexual partners though. I’m all for exploring all the options that are available for reducing the number of new infections and I don’t think we should limit ourselves to just saying that condoms are the only answer – they’re not. Gay men should have honest, clear information so they can work out what strategy is going to work for them.
“What’s really unhelpful though is the idea that ‘good boys don’t get HIV’. HIV is a virus, not a moral judgement. It doesn’t know the difference between someone who’s having 20 new partners a week and someone who gets it from their one and only partner.”
THE MAGIC NUMBER
“There is no ‘safe’ number of partners,” says GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “However, the more partners you have the more likely it is that you will be exposed to, and pick up, an STI. So if you have lots of sexual partners, it’s all the more important that you have a full sexual health screen on a regular basis. We recommend that all sexually active men, even if they always use condoms, or even if they’re in a monogamous relationship, test for HIV at least once a year (condoms can fail, and so can monogamous relationships). If you have lots of partners or you have unprotected sex, you should test more often.”
So in reality, your magic number should be ten or eleven digits long and be the number of your local GUM clinic.
To find out the risks of all sexual practices, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/how-risky-is.
Services that can help:
Do you feel ‘Out of Control’ about sex? PACE runs a workshop for gay men who are unhappy about the amount of sex they are having. Visit www.gmfa.org.uk/pace-groupwork.
FS says: Your guide to being a safer slut
It’s not up to us to tell you how many people you should sleep with. Your sex life is your own business and if you want to shag 100 people a week then that’s your decision and no-one should make you feel bad about it.
However with every sexual act comes a risk. A risk of picking up an STI or HIV. We constantly hear, “I’m not a slut so I won’t catch HIV”. Having this attitude to your sex life is completely wrong. HIV doesn’t care about you, your feelings or how many people you have slept with. All it takes is one time. So here’s a little guide on how to minimise the risk of picking up an STI or becoming HIV-positive.
Condoms: Using condoms while having sex is still one of the best ways to avoid becoming HIV-positive. And don’t forget the lube. Condoms break up to 6% of the time, but using plenty of waterbased lube can help prevent this.
For more information, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/condoms-and-lube.