March 9, 2010

Kinsey Institute Study Finds No Universal Definition of “Had Sex”

A new study by researchers at the Kinsey Institute has added more evidence that Americans do not share one, universal meaning of sex.

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A new study by researchers at the Kinsey Institute has added more evidence that Americans do not share one, universal meaning of sex.

What Is Sex?

As I noted in an earlier post , we here at the Kinsey Institute and Kinsey Confidential are concerned about what underlies individuals’ meanings of “sex” and “had sex.”  Some research has already revealed that there is some disagreement about what we mean when we say we had sex.

A team of researchers at the Kinsey Institute, led by Associate Research Brandon Hill, used a sample of nearly 500 Indiana residents to reveal, yet again, that there is no shared definition of sex:

  • Responses did not differ significantly overall for men and women. The study involved 204 men and 282 women.
  • 95 percent of respondents would consider penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) having had sex, but this rate drops to 89 percent if there is no ejaculation.
  • 81 percent considered penile-anal intercourse having had sex, with the rate dropping to 77 percent for men in the youngest age group (18-29), 50 percent for men in the oldest age group (65 and up) and 67 percent for women in the oldest age group.
  • 71 percent and 73 percent considered oral contact with a partner’s genitals (OG), either performing or receiving, as having had sex.
  • Men in the youngest and oldest age groups were less likely to answer “yes” compared with the middle two age groups for when they performed OG.
  • Significantly fewer men in the oldest age group answered “yes” for PVI (77 percent).

Why Do We Care?

Many sociologists, like myself, are concerned with how meanings are created and sustained and, more importantly, how they vary across time and cultures – how these meanings are socially constructed.

Just looking at the US, we could rewind 60 years to see the days when oral sex was widely considered taboo and a form of sodomy (i.e., illegal and immoral sexual practices – anything other than heterosexual vaginal-penile intercourse).

Or, we could fast forward 60 years to see what sexual practices have fallen out of favor or become more widespread.  Or, for a more contemporary example, we could look at how “hooking up” and casual sex has replaced traditional dating and courtship on US college campuses.

But, beyond these fascinating academic interests, it is crucial for health reasons, especially sexual health, that we acknowledge that the meaning of sex varies from person to person.

One key example is being questioned by one’s doctor about sexual practices and the number of sexual partners.  If you tell your doctor you have not had sex, or are a virgin, yet you have engaged in anal sex with your significant other, your doctor will assume you have not had sex and will not prescribe that you get tested for sexually transmitted infections.

As the researchers on this study noted in their interviews with the media, the absence of a universal definition of sex may mean that people may be engaging in sexual practices that entail some degree of risk for sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, yet assume what they are doing does not count as sex and fail to effectively protect themselves.