Written by Lynn Enright
If you’ve been on TikTok at all recently, you’ll have likely noticed a resurgence of videos discussing women’s ‘body counts’. Here, Lynn Enright explores when the sexist notion first took off – and why it’s sadly back.
When Adele conducted an Instagram Live to promote her new album last October, encouraging fans to ask her about her life and work, she was baffled by one question in particular. “What’s my body count? What does that mean?” she wondered aloud when presented with the enquiry, before swiftly moving on without answering. Adele perhaps does not spend much time in certain corners of TikTok, where talk of ‘body counts’ is commonplace, with #BodyCount having accumulated more than 530 million views.
In case, like Adele, you need a quick explainer, it’s very simple. In internet slang, body count means the number of sexual partners you’ve had – so if you have slept with 10 people, your body count is 10. On social media, and on TikTok in particular, it has become a sort of prank. “What’s your body count?” zoomers ask each other on the street, dissolving into faux-embarrassed giggles. The person asking the question and the person answering the question are often strangers to each other – and while some are happy to answer directly, there is often a suggestion that they are lying. It’s become such a major TikTok trend that there is now a proliferation of variations, with young TikTokers asking their grandparents their body counts, for example, and others performing satirical takedowns of the whole notion.
Body count videos might have started as a silly prank – but with millions of people watching the videos, they have, perhaps inevitably, prompted a more serious discussion.
“What is interesting about this trend,” Apryl Alexander, an associate professor in public health at the University of North Carolina, points out, “is that this was historically a conversation among friends and romantic partners, but now people are answering it openly.” Now, it has become the kind of question you might fire at one of the most successful musicians in the world. It’s just a joke… it’s just an innocent question… except, of course, it’s not… When people engage in body count chat online, more often than not, they are reinforcing existing sexist ideas about how much sex is too much sex.
“I hate the whole trend,” Alexander says, “because it can evoke shame regardless of what number you report.”
A common theme in #BodyCount content is that women underreport their number while men are more likely to exaggerate. It’s a supposedly modern conversation that trades in tired, old cliches. “All of it centres on ‘traditional’, heteronormative stereotypes and gender norms about how a person should behave sexually or perform gender,” Alexander says.
Treena Orchard, a feminist scholar and associate professor at Western University in Ontario, says the conversation “reflects the really contradictory representations of sexuality in general. We’re supposed to enjoy [sex], it’s healthy, who gives a shit about your number – but then under the surface is the cultural bedrock [of misogyny].”
Like Alexander, she is fascinated by how such a hoary concept has come to be seen as somehow risqué or boundary-pushing on social media. “It is so interesting,” she says, “because it’s borrowing from something that’s been around for a long time but trying to make it hip.”
You can dress it up however you want – with an edgy new name that has connotations of violence or with jokey gimmicks like body count-guessing filters – but the trend is just “an amplification of [a misogyny] that is always with us”, she points out.
The idea that women’s sexuality is something to be policed and monitored is ever present, depicted in Shakespeare and on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Princesses should be pure and pop stars ought to save it for someone special. In Western cultures, in the decades since the introduction of the pill and as the power of religious organisations has diminished, it has become common to have sex before marriage. Still, though, it’s best not to have too many sexual partners: that’s the message women get.
From Miranda’s closely guarded purity in The Tempest to Britney Spears’s disputed virginity in the 1990s, women have been expected to strike a perfect balance between being sexually desirable and respectably chaste. The #BodyCount trend is just the latest iteration of an ongoing sexual standard.
Of course, since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, it has been possible to rebel against that in many cultures – but if you are a woman who speaks openly about enjoying sex with multiple partners, you can expect to encounter rage and ridicule, whether that’s on TikTok or in the mainstream press.
“Women have always been shamed for having multiple sexual partners, whereas men have been celebrated. The #BodyCount hashtag is just a new way of getting that message out there,” says Grace Alice O’Shea, a sex and intimacy educator.
“At its core, there is a great fear of women. A lot of people are actually afraid of what women could do if they were to live their lives without shame – if they were to live their lives in a way that men are allowed to live their lives,” she posits. “Historically, women had no say over how many children they had. And when you have women having children regularly, that keeps women at home, it keeps them occupied, it gets tiring. That’s only changed in the last few decades, with the introduction of birth control.”
The prospect of a woman having a high number of sexual partners and enjoying her sexuality frightens people, O’Shea says, because “it symbolises something much bigger. It symbolises that women aren’t as easy to control now. It’s not as easy to keep us at home and keep us busy and keep us distracted.”
Oloni, an influencer who has become the most trusted sexpert for Gen Z in the UK, recently went viral for calling out the insidiousness of the #BodyCount discussion.
“I do not like the topic,” she said on her Laid Bare podcast, before a clip was shared hundreds of thousands of times online. “Your preference for wanting a woman who is less experienced comes from patriarchy; it comes from women historically being policed through their sexuality and society not seeing that sex is for women – that is where your preference for having a low body count is coming from.”
O’Shea points out that there is also a creeping fear that women who have a higher number of sexual partners might cultivate different standards in what they seek in a sexual partner or in a romantic relationship in general. “Women have so much more freedom now to date and to explore and therefore figure out what is a healthy relationship. That frightens people because it goes against the status quo; we’re not used to thinking about women having all of this choice,” she says. Some men see a sexually empowered woman and feel insecure. “They’re thinking, ‘Oh, she’s had loads of sexual partners. She knows more about sex. She’s had more experiences with men, so she’s going to be harder to please or harder to impress.’”
When she teaches sex education in schools or to younger audiences, O’Shea often receives questions about the physical aspects of having multiple sexual partners. “I come across questions like ‘Does the vagina get looser the more sex you have?’,” she says. “And ‘Do the labia hang lower the more partners you have?’ These are really harmful myths about women’s bodies that are in no way based in truth. There’s still so much misunderstanding about basic anatomy.”
Sex education has been seriously lacking in most cultures for generations, and in the absence of robust scientifically accurate information about our own bodies, harmful myths that perpetuate patriarchal stereotypes have been allowed to flourish. Take the framing of virginity as something that young women protect and young men take. This mainstream and widespread trope disempowers girls, teaching them that their first experience of sex will likely be painful, setting them up for bad or even dangerous sex.
If we are to have truly modern and genuinely open conversations about sex, they will need to start in our education systems, says Alexander. “We need to have better conversations about consent and healthy relationships in general in order to foster healthy sexual decision-making in a person’s life.”
“Gen Z is pretty savvy as well as being more inclusive and diverse in general and that’s really promising,” says Orchard, adding: “Misogyny is not going anywhere until patriarchy is disassembled.”
That, she says, is obviously a huge project and one that requires vigilance. Just when you think we have made major progress with the #MeToo movement, the so-called King of Toxic Masculinity Andrew Tate pops up on social media, indoctrinating a new generation of boys and men in vile misogyny (before, thankfully, being booted off the platforms).
“We need more people involved in the [destruction of patriarchy],’ Orchard says. “We need men to stand up because they are often silent. Young men, yes, but also older men.”
O’Shea agrees: “What we really need is a lot more empathy on both sides, to the point where men can speak really honestly and vulnerably about the challenges of being a boy or being a man. And for them not to be shut down and told, ‘Well, you’re a man, you have privilege, you don’t get to talk about this.’ We need to support young men in finding much healthier ways to explore what it means to be masculine. And to embody whatever it means to be masculine in a way that doesn’t rely on being dominant, violent and aggressive.”
There is a long, tired history of women being shamed for having sex, and if we are to truly disassemble the power structures at play in that, we will need to have genuinely open and difficult conversations. It’s not as simple as asking a stranger, “What’s your body count?” In fact, ceasing to ask that question would be a good place to start.
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