It’s a crucial scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and for my money ranks with Meg Ryan faking an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. Hugh Grant’s character, looking like the uncomfortable, repressed Englishman he is, fidgets and squirms at a table in a café as the upfront American he’s fallen for, played by Andie MacDowell, merrily lists her previous lovers.
There were various rolls in the hay (she was a country girl). One paramour had a hairy back. Another was a “shock”. There was a “disappointing” one and another, “who broke my heart”. Number 22 kept falling asleep (“that was my first year in England”). Number 27 was a mistake (“he kept screaming”); 28 was Spencer; 29, his father; 32 was lovely… and then there is the man she is about to marry.
That’s 33 lovers. “Not as many as Madonna,” she points out. But a great deal more than anyone should admit to – at least to a prospective partner. This is not my prudish hunch, but the very scientific finding of SeekingArrangement.com. The dating website asked 1,000 clients to name the perfect number of ex-lovers anyone should have, and the answer, from both males and females, was 10. Any more, claim the respondents to the survey, would be promiscuous; any less would betray an inexperienced fumbler, or a repressed loner.
So 10 it is, and I can see why. Nine lovers will have ironed out a person’s little idiosyncrasies, like popping in his mouth guard (“so I don’t forget”) before the first fumble. By number 10, she will have learned not to offer a running commentary during rumpy-pumpy. After 10 lovers, paranoia about one’s naked body disappears, and chatting to the opposite sex no longer unnerves. With any luck, out of 10 lovers, at least one will be great and inspire confidence in oneself – and thus in relationships.
By the tenth “friend”, even the most overprotective parents won’t pose questions like “are your intentions honourable?”. By then, too, nosy friends will have stopped studying each new candidate for sinister perversions or bunny-boiling tendencies. Ten previous lovers suggests a person is neither a commitment-phobe nor a desperado ready to hitch up with the first person who’ll have them.
If 10 has been deemed a good rule of thumb when it comes to admitting to past lovers, I should point out that some of us would rather die than discuss (let alone list) our exes with our present partner. It was a lesson that girls learnt at finishing school, like getting out of a sports car without showing too much leg. Bad girls did, and talked about it; good girls did, and kept mum. These charm schools did not wish to promote goody-goody Victorian morality, they just wanted to maximise students’ chances of bagging an eligible bachelor: numerous exes would intimidate, but secrets would titillate the chinless wonder with a country pile but without a clue.
Mary Killen, The Spectator’s agony aunt and queen of etiquette, thoroughly approves of such discretion. “Who wants their friends or strangers imagining them having 10, or any number, of couplings? Mystery is always best. Once graphic details, or even numbers, have been spelt out, they can never be forgotten.”
True, but in today’s confessional culture, reticence is worse than a hairy back. Health and safety are as much a part of sexual etiquette as they are of employment regulations. With the rise of internet dating, sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia and chilling reports of jealous rows ending in murder, a secret past is a turn-off.
Suddenly, making inquiries about a suitor’s romantic history is part of every courtship, as awkward but unavoidable as the moment when the bill arrives, and you don’t know whether to reach for your purse: are you going Dutch or do you risk offending him by intimating that he can’t afford to keep you in style?
“How many have you had?” is no longer a lubricious question but a legitimate one. Some men, of course, don’t need this excuse to divulge how many notches they’ve chalked up on their bedposts. Casanova, the notorious 18th-century ladies’ man, boasted more than 200 conquests. Mozart’s Don Juan turned his long catalogue of seductions into a delightful aria. And Warren Beatty’s biography claims that the Hollywood heart-throb managed to bed 12,775 women. More recently, we’ve had the 69-year-old Tony Blackburn admitting to 500 women, while Bill Roache – Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow – claims to have had over a thousand.
In comparison, Nick Clegg, who famously confessed to having slept with “no more than 30” women, sounds positively virginal – if not a little “vulgar”, as Matt Warren, editor of The Lady, puts it. “Going public with the number of lovers you’ve had is unforgivable.”
Especially, I’d venture, if you’re a politician. I can no more dissociate Clegg from his 30 lovers than Gladstone from his prostitutes, or Berlusconi from his glamour models. Knowing about the Deputy PM’s bunga-bunga past dents his dignity. Frisky Nick is a lot less authoritative than devoted (if henpecked) father-figure Nick.
Clegg’s full disclosure did prompt many a dinner-party game among Westminster-watchers: which MP has had the most lovers? (Readers’ answers welcome.) Some argue that a “colourful” past is a plus in parliamentarians, showing that they have a wide variety of experience.
Indeed, the liaisons of such MPs as Alan Clark, Jonathan Aitken and Mike Hancock (who fell for an alleged Russian spy) – to name just a few – are well documented. Flesh-peddling is part of the job, after all; and a scattergun approach to frolicking is, perhaps, understandable, given that Westminster allows all the emotional intimacy of a Moonie marriage ceremony. Others counter that politicians who have over-extended themselves on the sexual front in the past become more vulnerable to humiliation (or blackmail) should a bitter and twisted ex decide to wreak revenge.
For even among phlegmatic Anglo-Saxons, jealousy of the ex should not be underestimated. This cuts both ways. I know couples who are so insistent about keeping their sexual past a no-go area that their current partner suspects a former lover in every friend and at every party. All encounters have the potential for sulks, inquisitions and rows.
On the other hand, admission of a particular number of exes can lead to questions about dates, names and – yikes – rankings. For these obsessives, there is no right number of ex-lovers: 10 is as intolerable as 1,000, and as offensive as “mind your own business”.
Perhaps it is best to accept Matt Warren’s advice, which is that “there should be no upper or lower limit to the number of lovers one can admit to; that would be too prescriptive. The essential thing is the state of your current relationship. And if your partner does ask, bear in mind how the information you share will affect them.”
In other words, lie.