While a recent Kinsey survey pointed this out, it’s not news to anyone who does any kind of sexuality education that people have a mighty hard time agreeing on what “sex” means. It’s very common for someone to figure that what sex means for them, the way they have experienced or classified sex, is what it is and means, or should be and should mean, for everyone. As with most things sex and sexuality, many people presume the personal to either be completely universal or completely unique, when in fact, it’s usually somewhere in the middle. Suffice it to say, more often than not, personal or cultural definitions of sex are also frequently sexist, heterosexist or gendernormative, even though many of us in the world, and many of our sexual experiences, don’t fit in those tiny boxes.
We get asked what sex is at Scarleteen a lot. We also ask our users what it is a lot, because (possibly just like you) we don’t always know what someone means when they talk about sex or having sex. As sex educators, researchers, therapists or other sex workers, when most of us say “sex” we’re usually using a broader definition than your average Joe, because we know all too well how diverse sex and sexuality truly is.
It’s obviously important if you’re seeking information about sex that you know what those providing the information mean when we say (and hear or read) “sex,” so I thought I’d make it crystal clear.
What do we mean when we say “sex?”
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If we say sexuality, we mean the physical, chemical, emotional and intellectual properties and processes and the cultural and social influences and experiences that are how people experience and express themselves as sexual beings. Some aspects of all those things are very diverse and unique, others are very common or collective.
If we say someone is having sex, or doing something sexual, we mean they are acting from their own sexuality, looking to express it and/or to try and experience or explore a feeling of general or specific sexual desire, curiosity and/or satisfaction.
When we say “sex,” what we mean is any number of different things people freely choose to do to tangibly and actively express or enact their sexuality and their sexual feelings.
If “sex” was the answer, the questions would be things like “What am I doing to try and feel good sexually or to express feeling good sexually? What am I doing that feels sexual to me (or to me and a partner)? What am I doing that feels like a way to express my sexuality, or my sexual desires and/or feelings about myself or others?”
When some people say “sex” they only mean penis-in-vagina genital intercourse. The trouble is, there are a good many people who don’t or can’t have that kind of sex, or don’t have that kind of sex every time, but who still have active, fulfilling sex lives. Some other people use it to mean any kind of genital sex with someone else. That definition can have its flaws, though, too. When we mean those specific things, we’ll say that we’re talking about those specific things. When some people say “having sex” they mean something that can only happen in some kinds of partnership — like a marriage, or a strictly male body/female body partnership — but when we mean specific partnerships or relationships, we’ll be specific.
When we say “sex” we’re talking about a very big picture. That’s because what sex is or isn’t for any given person or partnership not only differs a whole lot from person-to-person, it also can differ a whole lot from day-to-day for any one person: the way they had sex yesterday may not be the way they’ll have sex next week. One person might consider that only intercourse or oral sex is sex, but someone else may both define sex differently and have what’s sex for them without doing either of those things. And defining what sex is just by a given activity or action, without talking about people’s motivations and desires really doesn’t work: after all, rape isn’t sex, even though things like intercourse or oral sex are forced in rapes.
What activities can be “sex” when we’re sexually motivated to participate in them?
- Masturbation (doing some of the things on the list below with oneself, not a partner)
- Kissing/Making out
- Petting/Stroking/Sexual massage
- Breast or nipple stimulation
- Frottage or tribbing (rubbing against genitals or rubbing genitals together, when clothed, called “dry sex”)
- Mutual masturbation (masturbating with a partner)
- Manual-genital sex (like handjobs, fingering or deep manual sex, which some people call “fisting”)
- Oral-genital sex (to/with a penis, vulva, anus)
- Penis-vagina sexual intercourse
- Sex toy-vagina or sex toy-penis sexual intercourse
- Anal sex (like anal intercourse with a penis, toy or hands)
- Talking in a sexual way/sharing sexual fantasies/sexual role-play
- Sensation play, like pinching, touching someone with objects in some way or spanking (which may or may not be part of BDSM)
- Cybersex, text sex or phone sex (with or without masturbation)
- Fluid-play (when people do things with body fluids for sexual enjoyment, like ejaculating on someone in a particular way)
- …or something else entirely.
Some of those activities or practices are things people can do alone, others require another person or a sex toy. Some people who do any of those things with partners do them with one partner at a time; others with more than one partner at a time. They don’t all require that individuals or their partners are a certain gender, or that a person’s body looks or acts a given way or has a certain set of abilities. Some people have enjoyed or later in life will enjoy all of those things, some people absolutely none, but most people have enjoyed or will enjoy some. Which of them people enjoy is highly individual and isn’t based on a person’s gender, sexual orientation, age, shape or size, race, character, religion or anything else like that.
In every healthy relationship (including with oneself!), all of those activities are optional. None are required.
In case it isn’t obvious, there are some overlaps in that list: like, oral sex that involves an anus is a kind of anal sex. There are also some potential places where one activity kind of collides with or can blend into another (should people choose to do so), like if two people are engaging in frottage where one has a penis and the other a vulva, and they choose to turn that into genital intercourse. As well, there is no one way to do any of these activities “right” or “wrong” or to be “good” or “bad” at them: all can be done and enjoyed (or not) in a vast variety of ways, differing from person-to-person, partnership-to-partnership, day-to-day or even from minute-to-minute.
Despite the media and others often presenting it as such with their approach or their language, rape or other sexual abuse is not sex: when we’re talking about sex, we’re talking about consensual sex (sex everyone involved wants, freely chooses and agrees to do and actively participates in), where when there is more than one person involved, what’s going on is sex for both people, and wanted by both people, not just one. While for some people who rape, it is sex for them, it is certainly not sex for the person or people they are raping or have raped.
Part of that is the understanding that just doing a given thing, or having it done to you, doesn’t mean something is automatically sex for everyone. Whether or not it’s sex depends on if it is motivated by/about sexuality for everyone involved, not just one person. There may be times that something you think of as being sex in one situation isn’t in another at all. Rape is one example of that. For another example, if someone chooses to have sex with a partner that involves fingers being inside her vagina, that doesn’t make that same action sex when she is at the gynecologists office getting an exam, something she doesn’t find to be sexual at all or have any sexual motivation for. But even though inserting fingers into the vagina is sex in some situations, it isn’t in all of them, and what makes that action sex isn’t the action itself, but the motivations and feelings of everyone involved. We can’t accurately define sex solely as this action or activity or that one. Just because kissing was part of sex with your girlfriend yesterday doesn’t mean it’s sex when you kiss your Great-Aunt Ida at a family dinner tonight.
Again, if we say someone is having sex, or doing something sexual, we mean they are acting from their own sexuality, looking to express it and/or to try and experience or explore a feeling of general or specific sexual desire, curiosity and/or satisfaction.
P.S. Sometimes when we say sex, we’re using it in a whole different way altogether, which is when we are talking about the way people are assigned or possess a biological or anatomical sex, such as male, female or intersex. For more on that, see the link on gender below.