How many lovers is too many lovers?
As Lynn Barber admits to having slept with 50 men in two terms at Oxford University, Bryony Gordon ponders the sexual etiquette of multiple partners
Without meaning to be too intrusive, how many people have you slept with? Warren Beatty managed 12,775 women over 35 years, which works out at about one a day. It is said that Fidel Castro has had sex with two women a day for over 40 years - one at noon, one at dinner, and never twice with the same one - though whether he can still keep up this level of sexual rigour as he nears his 84th birthday is doubtful.
Castro’s lovers make Don Giovanni’s tally of 2,065 look rather measly, while Casanova’s 122 conquests seem positively pathetic. As for legendary swordsman Nick Clegg, who famously admitted to having slept with “no more than 30 women”? He’s practically a virgin.
But now there is a new addition to the list of the world’s greatest lovers: Lynn Barber, the journalist whose memoirs, An Education, were turned into a film last year. Barber revealed in the book, and on Desert Island Discs at the weekend, that she had slept with “probably 50 men” during just two terms at Oxford university.
Speaking to Kirsty Young, Barber said that in her first 18 months at Oxford, she had just one boyfriend. “My thinking after that was that I must get a boyfriend immediately and that I haven’t got time to waste going punting or to dinner with them. Why don’t I just go to bed with them first, eliminate them if they are no good and not waste time.”
Thanks to her forensic dissection of interviewees, the 66-year-old journalist is often referred to as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. So you have to hand it to her for her own brutal honesty. Yet Barber argues that it doesn’t matter how many people you have gone to bed with. “I would criticise more what I call the Elizabeth Taylor syndrome, where highly sexed women feel they have to marry the man they sleep with. Then they get divorced and do the same thing over and over again. This seems to be happening in America now.” Given that Barber went on to marry a fellow student, David Cardiff, with whom she stayed until his death seven years ago, you have to concede that she has a rather good point.
Yet her admission has caused a bit of an uproar - most likely because Barber is a woman. While men have long been forgiven their promiscuity, it seems that for a female - even in the 21st Century - admitting to a colourful sexual history is just not the done thing. Indeed, the only other recent example of a prominent woman revealing how many sexual partners she has had is the Girls Aloud singer Kimberley Walsh. Her number? Two.
A more amusing revelation came last month, when it emerged that throughout the sixth series of Sex and the City, the characters had 115 million indirect sexual partners. Pity the poor person who had to work that out. But while Carrie et al may be fictional, they are probably more in line with the modern woman than Ms Walsh.
A survey in March found that young women have three times as many lovers as their grandmothers did in the swinging sixties, with 10 per cent admitting they have had more than 10 sexual partners by the age of 24. Meanwhile, research published this weekend found that one in five men have had just one lover. Apparently, the demands of legions of nymphomaniac women are making them increasingly worried about their performance. Diddums.
So men are having fewer partners, while women are having more... could it be that finally, the sexes are balancing out? And furthermore, does it really matter how many people we go to bed with? Tracey Cox, a sex therapist, advises that the best answer to any query over previous liasons is “none of your business”. “If you do confess, especially if you’re female, I guarantee that no matter what number you say, it’ll be too many. Even if you’ve only had five,” she sighs, “it will still be four too many.”