You may have been told that sex is ‘something a man and woman do when they love each other very much,’ but we’re guessing that somewhere in your teens you discovered that definition definitely doesn’t cover the width and breadth of sensual activity.
Sex, for being such an (almost) universal experience, is something you’d think we’re all able to define pretty easily – yet ask someone and you’d be surprised at not only how different our definitions are, but also how easily they may fall apart.
More than Biology
Sex has a very clear definition in biology – it’s how reproduction occurs. However, clearly even not every heterosexual amorous coupling can result in pregnancy. Infertility issues aside, we know that couples in their 60s and beyond still have sex lives that keep going strong long after havings kids are a possibility, so we can discount that particular definition right off the bat.
Most straight people would quickly agree that sex doesn’t exclusively refer to a penis-in-a-vagina; after all, there’s also anal sex. Then of course, there’s oral sex―which some people don’t even consider ‘real sex,’ maybe because there’s no penetration. But even fewer of those same people would consider manually stimulating a vagina to be ‘sex,’ but that does include penetration. Entering a gray zone, are we?
The fixation on penile penetration for what constitutes sex poses a real issue – not only does it exclude large swathes of the population that don’t have sexual contact with penises at all, it also leads to ignorance and misinformation about safer sexual practices. Recent research suggests that a majority of lesbian and bisexual female teens had no idea they could get an STI from another girl.
Pretty hard to get a sexually transmitted infection if you ‘weren’t really having sex,’ right? A prime example of why language and the way we talk about sex matters, especially when it comes to our health.
Your Sex Life, Your Definition
Obviously ‘sex’ will mean different things to different people – based on physiology, orientation, and, whether we like it or not, societal influences.
Now think about all the times we’ve been lectured on sex, whether it be to abstain from sex, doctors asking us if we’re sexually active, or researchers asking participants about their past sexual behavior. If we don’t have a universal definition for sex, is this data true?
A study about what sex is and why it matters was conducted at the University of Missouri St. Louis and found that people had diverse definitions of sex. Some mentioned that it was a “loose” term while others defined sex strictly but seemed motivated to bend their personal experiences to fall out of the definition. On the other hand, some participants labeled their ambiguous sexual acts as sex. Basically, personal definitions for sex are often an image of self-reflection.
However the definition we choose to espouse is this: sex is erotic stimulation – be it mental or physical – that can be solo or partnered, to cause pleasure.