Sex & Relationships

What Is Sex?

Our definitions of sex are all over the place. Why does it matter?

In my recent piece, "10 Things Not to Say to a Lesbian," one of the questions never to ask was "So, how do lesbians do it?" The inside joke is that many of us have actually asked ourselves, though not usually aloud, "Wait, did we have sex?" Since many people consider "sex" to mean penis in vagina, the lines for what constitutes sex for queer women can blur easily and often.

It’s an interesting question, and not just for lesbians: What is sex? The answer is something that nobody can agree on, though many have tried. Planned Parenthood looks to the dictionary for a definition: “People define ‘sex’ in different ways. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as ‘sexually motivated behavior.’ This sounds right to us. But not everyone agrees with the dictionary or with us. People all have their own definitions of what ‘sex’ and ‘having sex’ means.”

Personally, I adhere to the Salt ‘N’ Pepa definition, which counts as anything that makes me want to shoop.

Discussions about what sex is often devolve into increasingly more specific and narrower rules, as people try to pin down a precise explanation. This is evidenced by this humorous Reddit thread: “The number of times a person has had sex with another person in heterosexual relationships represents the number of male completions per unit time,” said one. “I would count each removal of the pants that ends in any number of orgasms,” said another. In the sitcom "Seinfeld,"  Elaine asks Jerry when he believes sex is taking place, and he says "when the nipple makes its first appearance." So keep your shirts on, folks, and you're in the clear.

As a Kinsey Institute study proffered, a culturally agreed-upon definition of “having sex” is important for medical research and clinical practice. If “having sex” to me means farting on a cake until orgasm (don’t Google that, Dad), then researchers are going to have a hell of a time gathering accurate data on sexual behavior. The Kinsey study, “Misclassification bias: diversity in conceptualisations about having ‘had sex’,” published in 2010 in Sexual Health, surveyed just under 500 participants in order to figure out what qualifiers and acts people considered “doin’ it.” Or, put more scientifically:

To our knowledge, this is the first study of a representative sample to assess attitudes about which sexual behaviours constitute having ‘had sex’ and to examine possible mediating factors (gender, age, giving/receiving stimulation, male ejaculation, female orgasm, condom use or brevity).

The results were, unsurprisingly, mixed. The highest percentage (90 percent) believed that penis-in-vagina sex was sex. This is the Gold Standard for hetero sex, “reaching home base,” what many talk about when we talk about sex. But that means around 10 percent of respondents didn’t count penis-in-vagina sex as sex. This also excludes gays and lesbians, of course, who would be considered virgins no matter how many orgies or Goddess Circlings they participated in.

Thirty percent thought oral sex wasn’t sex, and 20 percent thought anal sex wasn’t sex, despite the fact that both acts have the word “sex” in the name. Perhaps even more confusing is the orgasm factor. Eleven percent of people said it wasn’t sex if no male ejaculation occurred. Conspicuously absent was any mention of the female orgasm. Maybe they fell asleep before getting around to it. Manual genital stimulation counted more when it was received (48 percent) than when given (44 percent), and among men, “the oldest and youngest age groups were significantly less likely to believe certain behaviours constituted having ‘had sex’.”

Why does age play a factor in all this? Can we blame Bill Clinton? One group of researchers has done just that. Researchers at the University of Kentucky-Lexington think that Bill Clinton’sinfamous admission that he "did not have sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky may be the reason so many young people today don’t consider oral sex to be sex. Also published in 2010 in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, the study surveyed 477 college students about their views on sex. Researchers found that 20 percent of those students considered oral-genital contact to be sex, compared with nearly 40 percent of a similar sample surveyed in 1991.

"Our respondents were adolescents after the Clinton-Lewinsky era, which our comparisons of data over time suggest may have been a turning point in conceptualizations of oral-genital contact," they noted. Pinning all the blame on Clinton would be too much of a low-hanging cigar, however.

Other sources for the changing perceptions in attitudes on sex noted were access to comprehensive sex ed, increasing TV portrayals of sex, and cultural beliefs. Oral sex (and anal sex as well) isn’t tied to the cultural narrative about virginity and purity like penis-in-vagina sex is. The prevailing thought among some misguided evangelical folks is that you can blow or plow whomever you want, as long as no hymen is involved, and still get a thumbs-up from Jesus. Since you’re not really having sex the biblical way, you’re technically still a virgin, the thinking goes. Since a woman’s chastity is tied to her morality and character, the purity stakes are even higher, which in part explains the tendency not to count oral sex as sex, since doing so may boost a woman’s “number” to sluterrific proportions.

Of course, as in such discussions, both online and off, many are quick to point out that no one has real authority over what counts as a sexual act, that the experience is entirely subjective and varies not just from person to person, but culturally as well. The Sambia tribe in Papua New Guinea participate in a ritual where younger men fellate older men in the tribe in order to ingest their manliness and become strong and virile. This isn’t considered sex, but a rite of passage. In certain Latin American cultures, a man who is the insertive partner in same-sex relations isn’t considered to have had gay sex.

Then there’s situational sex, where one is in prison or a single-sex institution. Does that count? What about using sex to curry social favor or protection? What about porn stars and sex workers? Must they count those acts of sex where money was exchanged, even if it’s their job? What of kinky sex and fetish sex? Does a well-placed foot count, or a helpful balloon? Perhaps most importantly, why do we care? Why do we attach such significance to a number or a definition that doesn’t ultimately require any?

Partly, it’s neurological. Our brains categorize and compartmentalize data in order to make sense of the world. For instance, the word “dog” inevitably conjures an image of what a dog looks like, though no doubt my idea of a dog (a black Yorkshire terrier, for some reason) will be vastly different than yours. We have beliefs and ideas of what “real” sex is and we carry those ideas into our relationships, cocktail conversations, and countless all-caps-riddled YouTube comments, sometimes with very little thought about how they might be limiting or even downright silly, as the Reddit pants comment illustrates.  

As Greta Christina put it in her essay, “Are we having sex now or what?”:

[Y]ou have to know what qualifies as sex, because when you have sex with someone your relationship changes. Right? Right? It's not that sex itself has to change things all that much. But knowing you've had sex, being conscious of a sexual connection, standing around making polite conversation with someone thinking to yourself, ‘I've had sex with this person,’ that's what always changes things. Or so I believed. And if having sex with a friend can confuse or change the friendship, think of how bizarre things can get when you're not sure whether you've had sex with them or not.

Christina talks at length about her experiences working at a peep show, hosting orgies, about consent and reciprocity and pleasure and sadomasochism, concluding ultimately that she still doesn't have the answer to the question of what is sex.

But that is also the point, and maybe we should be spending more time enjoying sex than trying to define it in a way that will satisfy every person. Now somebody bring me a cake; I’m feelin’ lucky.

Anna Pulley is the author of The Lesbian Haiku Book (with Cats). Follow @annapulley on Twitter. 

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