October 13, 2009

“Doing It”: Doing What? What Do We Mean By “Sex”?

"I got to third base last night." "We hooked up." "They did it for hours!" When we talk about sex, what do we mean?

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We talk a lot about sex in the United States.  But, do we even know what we mean when we talk about it?  From person to person, “having sex” or not can mean completely different things.

Defining Sex

A quick visit to Dictionary.com gets you the following definition of the word “sex”: to engage in sexual intercourse.  But, considering the vast number of sexual activities that can fall into the realm of sex, this definition seems a bit narrow.

A few months ago, MSNBC highlighted something that we have already known here at the Kinsey Institute: people in the US can’t agree on the defintion of sex.

This article at MSNBC highlights a study conducted by researchers at the Kinsey Institute, in which they found a sample of 600 hundred undergraduate students to vary in defining sex.

While most of the students defined sexual intercourse (vaginal-penile sex between a woman and a man) as sex, fewer considered anal sex as sex, and the majority did not count oral sex as sex.

A few other interesting details: men were more likely to count mutual masturbation as sex than were women; those who had engaged in oral, but not vaginal, sex were less likely to count oral sex as sex.

If certain acts count as sex and others don’t, what does that mean for determining whether you’re a virgin or not?

Why Does It Matter?

The way individuals define sex and the way we define sex as a society has implications for both individuals and society.

For our health: When your doctor asks the number of sexual partners you have had, if you only report the number of partners with whom you have had sexual intercourse, then you are overlooking the sexual risks that come along with oral and anal sex.  If you have only engaged in oral sex, and do not count that as sex, you might tell your doctor that you’re a virgin – and she may decide that it is not necessary to check you for sexually transmitted infections because you presumably have had no risk for contracting them.

For our relationships: Healthy romantic and sexual relationships require open communication.  If you and your partner have decided not to engage in certain sexual activities, or at least to delay engaging in them, it is important that you are both on the same page about what those activities are and why you have decided not to engage in them.  If you have decided you are not yet ready to have sex with your partner, it’s best to be sure that they know what that entails – is it just sexual intercourse, or does it also include oral and anal sex?

For our society: We could benefit from a bit more clarity in our societal definitions of sex.  We can see how vague and subtle we are about sex just by referencing it as “it”, as in “doing it”.  What is “it?”  If we think back to the controversy surrounding former President Bill Clinton’s relationship with then-intern Monica Lewinsky, much of the anger and talking past one another could have been avoided if there wasn’t disagreement over whether oral sex counted as sex.

Reaching A Definition

I’m teaching a course on sexual diversity this semester.  On the first day of class, I had the students get into groups to decide whether a series of situations could be considered sexual and whether they counted as sex (e.g., a woman masturbates to orgasm, a woman and a man engage in deep kissing and mutual touching for an hour).

There were some general patterns, but for a few situations the groups did not agree.  The consensus of the activity created a list of a few different components to consider when deciding what counts as sex: is it consensual?  is it pleasurable?  is it arousing?  what happens?  how many people are involved?  what are your intentions?  what meanings do you give the situation?

What’s clear is that the definition of sex is anything but clear.  But, for the sake of our own health and well-being, sense of self, and relationships, it’s important that we are as clear as possible about what we mean when we say “sex.”