With how many people did people used to sleep? It’s hard to tell. Language changes, and there’s the problem of bragging. Take the French. Stendhal in his treatise on love is expansive on the seduction strategies of his friends (hide under the bed; announce yourself so late in the night that kicking you out would already be a scandal), but in The Red and the Black Julien Sorel sleeps with exactly two women—and for this they cut off his head! A generation later, the dissipated Frédéric Moreau hardly does any better in Sentimental Education. Flaubert himself mostly slept with prostitutes. In Russia, one could always sleep with one’s serfs, as Tolstoy did. (He felt terrible about it.) But peers, acquaintances, members of one’s own class? America was the worst. Henry James in his notebooks wonders if he should write a story about a man, “like W. D. H. [Howells], who all his life has known but one woman.” James had known zero women! Twenty years later, there was Greenwich Village. Edna St. Vincent Millay, riding back and forth all night on the ferry, was the most promiscuous literary woman of her time. But her biographer puts the grand total of her conquests at fourteen, and some of these, according to a rival biographer, are questionable—and three were “well-known homosexuals.” So ten. For the modern college senior, this is a busy but not extravagant Spring Break.
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