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Body counts and the insidious normalisation of misogyny

Ahead of the release of her new book, The Pocket Guide to the Patriarchy, writer Maya Oppenheim explores the sinister rise of body count shaming

I am thrilled to say nobody has ever asked me what my body count is. Yes, I’ve had ex-boyfriends attempt to make me feel guilty for not being a virgin when we met, as well as grow obsessively jealous of former partners. But fortunately, nobody has unambiguously, outrightly, asked me about my body count.

But what exactly is a body count? While traditionally referring to the number of people killed in a conflict or disaster, the phrase has taken on a whole new meaning in modern-day vernacular. Now, it just refers to the number of people you have had sex with in your life. You only have to look at the word’s etymology or the TikTok videos, where strangers on the street are interrogated about their body count, to understand the term’s loaded connotations.

Much of the discourse that surrounds body count is misogynistic, revolving around shaming women for having slept with multiple people. Take this wildly preposterous hypothesis espoused by Andrew Tate: “A body count is probably the number one most easiest way to judge the value of a female... I think 99 per cent of the world’s problems would be solved if females walked through life with their body count on their forehead because it would prevent disintegration of morals... All the idiocy would disappear, all the degeneracy would disappear, families would return.” Tate, who once referred to married women as “property” that their husbands own, has also argued that it’s “disgusting” and “revolting” for women to have lots of sexual partners.

Given Tate’s burgeoning popularity, he is clearly not alone in subscribing to such an explicitly misogynistic worldview. After all, a quarter of young men aged between 18 and 29 who had heard of Tate agreed with his views on how women should be treated, with as many as 28 per cent of men between 30 and 39 backing his outlook on women. It is also worth noting the discourse around body counts is not a niche one: TikTok videos posted with the body count hashtag have been viewed 629,000 times by Britons in the past week, and six million times around the world during this period. Figures show the hashtag has been viewed 917 million times around the world in the last three years.

When asked about the body count discourse, Louise Firth, of leading domestic abuse charity Refuge, notes that while “consensual discussions about previous sexual partners and relationship history can be healthy in new relationships”, these must be “respectful conversations without judgement and without one partner” heaping “shame” on the other. “This trend exists purely to shame women,” she adds. “If a man is incessantly questioning his partner about her previous relationship history, judging her and attempting to shame her this could be a warning sign for coercive control.”

To me, this newfound obsession with body counts feels like an example of misogyny pushing its way back into the mainstream. Body count discourse often goes hand in hand with slut-shaming of women and gendered double standards – routinely hinged on male entitlement and biologically deterministic fallacies that posit men have higher sex drives than women. In recent years, a far-right renaissance – which can be glimpsed in online grassroots movements but also in political realms – has been coupled with an acrimonious backlash against gender equality, with the two issues feeling undoubtedly connected.

Misogyny and a deep fear and aversion to gender equality are unifying forces within the far right – the social glue that ties a toxic mess of disparate forces together. Although, the far-right spectrum is in no way a cohesive, homogenous global movement, misogyny and male supremacy are at the heart of many far-right movements.

“Misogynist influencers are using ‘body counts’ as a new way of shaming women who have had multiple sexual partners,” Callum Hood, head of research at the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, explains. “It’s part of a broader regressive project that argues that women should not enjoy the same freedoms that men do, in this case by arguing that women who have sex with multiple partners are worth less than those who don’t.”

Hood notes Tate’s “breakout success – powered by social media algorithms that boosted his controversial content – has introduced these ideas to a wider audience”, and argues we are now witnessing a wave of misogynist influencers echoing his same “call for a return to traditional gender roles, with fewer freedoms for women to choose how they want to live”. In Hood’s view, there is a “new wave of misogynist influencers” who adopt extreme far-right views in an explicit attempt to “get noticed” and increase their follower count. “This sharpens concerns that misogynist content could serve as a gateway into a broader far-right worldview,” he adds.

While Georgie Laming, of Hope not Hate, argues the “‘body count’ trend may seem like a trivial conversation [...] there’s a misogynistic undercurrent to it where women are scorned for their sexual activity and men are applauded for it”.

And if an article published in the Cambridge student university newspaper Varsity from 2021 is anything to go by, discussions about body counts are depressingly and disconcertingly prevalent among young people. “A person’s body count is the number of people they have slept with,” the article states. “Like most young people, it is a question I’ve heard numerous times.” The journalist later goes on to say that “in the post-Love Island world, we take for granted that this kind of information [body counts] should be readily available, part of a sexual fact file to be provided to anyone on request.”

To sum up, it feels like attitudes to love and lust are growing wildly more polarised. On one side, more people are disrupting the traditional boundaries of heteronormative monogamous relationships. You get the sense it is more acceptable than ever before to have a threesome, go to a sex party, pursue a polyamorous relationship or co-parent with a friend (this must be caveated with the fact I wasn’t alive during the so-called Swinging Sixties, so it is hard for me to compare our current era with the past). Yet on the flip side of this increasingly divided spectrum, we are faced with growing numbers of opportunistic culture war-stoking politicians and a burgeoning far-right, who obsess over the sanctity of the heteronormative nuclear family and push virulently anti-LGBTQ+ policies and rhetoric. Those who go around interrogating and chastising women about their body counts would fall into the latter camp.

Maya Oppenheim is a journalist and the author of The Pocket Guide to the Patriarchy, which is out this Thursday (August 31). Buy the book here

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