Some of you may recognize the title of this article as the name of a popular song that began life in the 1950s. I know most of you didn’t grow up listening to music back then, but if you have any interest in the roots of popular culture, this little bit of music history may interest you.
Even if you couldn’t care less about the roots of pop music, the sentiments of that song remain an issue many of us carry with us today. Let me quote some of the lyrics so you’ll see what I mean.
“How many arms have held you?
And hated to let you go
I wonder, I wonder, I wonder
But I really don’t want to know.
How many lips have kissed you?
And set your soul aglow
I wonder, I wonder, I wonder
But I really don’t want to know.”
You get the gist? Even back then, more than a half a century ago, most people did not go through life, meeting virgins, falling in love, and bonding for life. Sure, there were cases where high school sweethearts fell in love, married and spent their lives together, but such cases—although they were idealized—were relatively rare. Most people then, as today, had a few miles on them by the time their love lives were over. Using the polite 1950s language of the song, their souls had already been set aglow by more than a few lips.
That’s simply a fact of life. The question addressed by this article is: How do we feel about those other lips our partner has kissed? Do we need to know how many there were? And how many are an acceptable number? How deep is our discomfort when that number is exceeded and what can we do about it?
The song in question went on to provide a suggestion about how such discomfort might be dealt with.
"So always make me wonder
Always make me guess
And even if I ask you
Darling don’t confess."
That message is pretty clear. I may be dying to know but I don’t need the answer. It could even make things worse for me. What if the number is higher than the one in my mind? Maybe ignorance truly is bliss.
As you might imagine, our discomfort around these matters is largely affected by three factors: gender, culture, and personality. First, males tend to be (remember that none of these statements is absolute!) more affected by their partner’s prior experience than females are. This is true not only for our species, but across the phylogenentic scale. In fact, in many species females specifically select mates whom they know to be experienced. Males, on the other hand, do the opposite.
The point is that we’re not the only species in which males are more concerned than females about this issue. It is an evolutionary / biological tendency rooted in larger concerns about paternity and resources. It may not sound that way when you talk to people about it, but this remains a core principle of evolutionary biology. It is also a good reason why interviews—despite our reliance on them in the social sciences—don’t always reveal the full picture when it comes to understanding motivation.
The second factor that influences our response is culture. If you are part of contemporary western life, this whole topic may seem rather quaint to you. Fair enough, as long as you are aware that within other cultural regions of the planet, women are stoned to death for the kind of behavior we’re discussing. In fact, they may be put to death for suspicion of it. If you are a member of that culture, you simply adapt to the rules and let them guide your behavior accordingly. There are few alternatives available to you other than defecting to another part of the planet (almost unthinkable) or death.
Within the Judeo-Christian western world there are still sub-cultures that don’t take kindly to the exploitation or mistreatment of family members. Images of fathers meeting young men with shotguns or brothers with vengeance in their eyes waiting for over-amorous dates are a staple of popular fiction (and non-fiction). Protecting the family name against disgrace (and what better way to disgrace a family than impregnating an unmarried daughter?) is justification for mayhem. Ultimately, this comes under the heading of reputation, another major theme in evolutionary psychology. It also ties in directly with concerns over all those previous “lips.”
The third factor that affects our response to previous lovers is the least predictable of all and the most variable. I have called it “personality,” an admittedly vague term. It covers a host of questions such as How “secure” are you? How prone to “jealousy?” The answers to those questions factor into how disturbed you may become by the number of times your partner’s soul has been set aglow before you got on the scene.
The fact that I Really Don’t Want To Know was a major hit and was recorded by more than a dozen artists back in the mid-1950s (and even more since then) underscores the depth of such feelings among us. The song’s lyrics struck a wide-ranging nerve. “I’m so scared to learn about your past sexual experience that I don’t even want to ask.” And it’s worth noting that the song did not just appeal to jealous men, the stereotyped target audience for such concerns. Les Paul and Mary Ford, a highly popular duo in the music business during the early to mid 1950s, enjoyed one of the most successful versions of the song. Their performance was carried by Mary Ford’s vocal. It reassured the world that a woman experiencing this form of “jealousy” was perfectly normal.
Some of you might be thinking that this isn’t “jealousy” in the conventional sense. There are no rival suitors to worry about. Those other lips did their kissing in the past. Unless some of them are still hanging around, we’re looking at something other than conventional jealousy. Whatever that something is, it’s widespread enough to fuel a popular song.
Perhaps the healthiest antidote to these feelings is offered in the lyrics to a hillbilly song—also a huge hit—from 1955. This is especially notable because country music culture (at least in the 1950s) was not the most enlightened or liberal. Nevertheless it sounded absolutely progressive on this issue we’re discussing. To quote from Webb Pierce’s record I Don’t Care:
"Well I don’t care
If I’m not the first love you’ve known
Just so I’ll be the last.
And I don’t care
If I’m not the first one you’ve kissed
Darling I’ll never ask."
The song’s release clarifies the message even further:
Just love me from now on
Be true to me
Forget about the past."
You can’t ask for more than that. But are we capable of it?
Credits: I Really Don’t Want To Know composed by Don Robertson & Howard Barnes (Hill & Range Publishing)
I Don’t Care composed by Cindy Walker & Webb Pierce (Cedarwood Publishing)
Illustration by Angel Chang