As a teenager, I was fascinated by sex. Thanks to being uptight and a bit of a geek, I also had a natural tendency to try to fit everything — including sex — into boxes. I was obsessed with learning about sex, figuring out everything I could so I could neatly categorize it in my brain.
A decade later, I know far, far more about sex than I did in my teenage years — and I have much, much more experience — but in the process I’ve shattered a lot of my basic assumptions. At this point, I’m not even sure I could effectively define sex.
Sex? Shouldn’t that be easy to define? Well, let me rewind.
I lost my virginity during freshman year of college in the dorm room of a guy I’d been dating for a matter of days. At the time, I viewed penis-in-vagina intercourse as the height of intimacy, as Real Sex. It was clumsy and painful and mediocre, like sexual intercourse all too often is the first time around, but it also felt significant. I hadn’t just fooled around; no, I now had real sexual experience!
The first inkling I had that my model of “virginity” might be flawed came later in the semester. My boyfriend and I had broken up, and I had been flirting with another guy. He was still a self-described virgin and we wanted to hook up, but, in his own words, I wasn’t “special” enough for him to lose his virginity to.
So he wanted to have anal instead.
Being a massively insecure (not to mention horny) eighteen-year-old at the time, I agreed. I personally thought it was a silly distinction, but I was still so wrapped up in our culture’s ideas about virginity that I didn’t call him out on it. After all, true sex had to involve a penis and a vagina, right?
A couple of years later that I realized, if vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse both “counted” in my definition, why didn’t oral sex? And when I bought a strap-on and used that for anal and vaginal intercourse, wouldn’t that count too? Thinking about it, I realized the definition I had held was too narrow and decided that yes, oral sex and penetration with a strap-on also "counted." I went from saying I’d had eight sexual partners to over twice that many.
After college, I spent more time in BDSM spaces and poly communities, and my idea of sex further fell apart. I didn’t stop thinking about how many people I’d had sex with because it was silly, but because I wasn’t sure where the line was.
Where is the line between sex and something that’s not quite sex? If we only include penis-in-vagina intercourse, that would mean cisgender gay people can’t have sex, which is obviously silly. When sex is considered to be something more than that it’s usually limited to oral sex, anal sex, and vaginal intercourse. By that standard, a lackluster blowjob would be considered sex, but a fist in a vagina or a mouth on an anus wouldn’t be, so some people add manual stimulation in as well.
You could define it as involving genitals with each other or another part of the body. Still, that wouldn’t be perfect, as it would still exclude some anal activities. Furthermore, what about activities like BDSM? While some people consider kink and sex to be totally separate, others point out that they are sexually aroused and invested in the activities even when their genitals aren’t involved. Would it be more effective to define sex by the state of arousal, the intent behind the activity more so than the actual manual details? Of course, then to get back to our lackluster blowjob, that might not qualify if the giver (or receiver) isn’t aroused.
I’m not the only one I know who has struggled with what exactly “sex” means. One night after a party, two of my friends (one very close to me) spent some alone time together. Nosy person that I am (and having that kind of relationship with him), I asked if him if they had had sex. He hesitated before responding, “Well, we got naked and touched each other…”
I gave him a hard time for months afterwards, not for hooking up nor for not neatly defining sex, but because I personally thought that was the least sexy way to describe such an activity.
But in all seriousness, if it’s so tricky, how much does the definition of sex even matter?
Sex is more of a concept than an act, and it’s a blurry one at that. While I still wouldn’t consider a fierce makeout session to be sex, I’m also not sure I can offer a definition of sex that’s stronger than, “I know it when I see it.” Even if I see it, I don’t always know it, since one person’s idea of “fooling around” is another’s “sex” and yet another’s “hardcore but nonsexual BDSM.”
I’d be inclined to forget the whole thing if sex wasn’t such a big deal in our culture, but it is. We still talk about virginity as if it means something significant, and sex shows up all the time in the media, from advertisements to mainstream movies to pornography to advice columns. The obsession with sex is a part of our society, and it’s not going anywhere soon.
How do you define sex, and how much does that definition matter — or not matter — to you? Would you go for an arousal-focused or a genital-focused definition, or something else entirely? How has your understanding of what “sex” is changed over time, if it has at all?