At least for heterosexual men, the word slut apparently embodies a heuristic for judging the threshold at which a date is no longer the right marital stuff. So where does "the number" cross over from nubilely chaste to, well, slutty? Dowd offers several definitions:
- Less than 20
- The would-be male partner's number, minus one or two
- "Enough to do what I'm doing."
That last one strikes me as the ideal response to this impertinent but seemingly unavoidable line of inquiry. Unsolicited (and probably unheeded) advice to single heterosexual male readers: your winning line is "I'm looking to add just one more."
In more formal terms, the dating game represents a form of network construction. Each player -- we can call him or her a "node" -- is looking to form a link. Unlike other networks such as the blogosphere, however, supernodes with many connections are not desirable. Quite the opposite. (So much for the old French pickup line, "Vous êtes une super-nana.")
To compound matters, this isn't exactly easily verifiable information. So each participant has the incentive to obscure the real number. Dowd taps into an old source of folk wisdom: the pressures on men and women in this aspect of dating, as with so much else, are assuredly asymmetrical.
I strain to think of another network where the number of links conveys such negative information, at least once it crosses a certain threshold. This one may be best left as an exercise for the reader.