Defining Sex

There’s yet another report showing that lots of people don’t consider oral sex to be sex. According to Sex Redefined: The Reclassification of Oral-Genital Contact, 98% of respondents said that penis/vagina intercourse counted as sex and 78% said that penis/anus intercourse counted. But only 20% said that oral-genital contact was sex. And predictably enough, some pundits are calling it the “Clinton-Lewinsky Effect.”

Similarly, the study Misclassification Bias: Diversity in Conceptualisations About Having ˜Had Sex’ reports that 95% said that penis/vagina intercourse is sex (although that dropped to 89% if there was no male ejaculation), 81% said that penis/anus intercourse is sex, 70% said that oral/genital contact is sex and about 50% said that manual contact of genitals was sex. I’ve seen this sort of research before and I think that there are quite a few reasons for these variations in definitions.

One factor is the fact that we still have a cultural definition that sex is intercourse and that everything else is foreplay. Even the term “foreplay” assumes that it’s something that comes before the main course. If we think of intercourse as the “home run” and everything else is one of the other bases, then we’re playing into this idea that it only counts if you go all the way. Getting to second base may be interesting for a given player’s statistics, but it doesn’t help the team win. If you’ll forgive my extending an overused metaphor.

Another element is that we’ve had a long history of saying things like “sex is how you make babies,” especially if we’re explaining sex to children. But that means that if you’re not doing something that has the possibility of reproduction, then it must be something other than sex. There’s actually a consistent logic to that.

Still another piece of the puzzle is that we’re still caught up in notions of female virginity. As long as define virginity as “not yet having had intercourse,” we reinforce the idea that anything else doesn’t count as sex. After all, how can giving a blowjob be sex if you can do it and still be a virgin? People often shift their definitions “depending on whether they want to maintain an image of being sexually experienced or inexperienced.”

There’s sometimes an element of heterosexism in this, as well. If we define sex as penis/vagina intercourse, then you have to have one of each for it to count. There are plenty of stories of queer people being asked “how do you have sex?” While that’s sometimes an attempt to rattle someone or to be obnoxious, it can also be genuine confusion due to a limited idea of what sex is or can be.

Since our definitions can change over time, it can get rather tricky to keep track of things. If someone used to think that a blowjob isn’t sex, but now they think that it is, does that mean that the blowjob they gave someone back then wasn’t sex (because they didn’t think so at the time) or that it was (because their definition has changed)? Greta Christina’s fabulous article Are We Having Sex Now or What captures this complexity quite nicely.

Many of my sex educator colleagues have been blogging and tweeting about how all sex is real sex, or that oral sex is real sex. And I’m glad for that- one of the challenges that sex educators face is overcoming resistance to seeing sex as more inclusive than simply intercourse. When we take a more expansive view of it, we widen our options. We have more items on the menu to choose from. We can let go of the rather inflexible ideas of what sexual “performance” is supposed to be. And we can discover more ways to experience pleasure.

Exploring how we each define sex can be an enlightening process. You may be surprised to discover ways in which you limit your choices, simply as a result of  whether you consider them to be sex or to not be sex. Last month, I wrote about how you can use yes/no/maybe lists to talk about your desires and fantasies. But I think you can also use them to start a conversation about how you define sex.

Take a look at this list sometime. Are there things on it that you don’t think of as sex? Or that might be sex sometimes and not other times? What would make it shift from not-sex to sex for you? Does it depend on who you do it with? How you do it? Whether you or someone else has an orgasm? I don’t think there have to be any right or wrong answers to this. All I’m suggesting is that you might find it interesting to figure out what your answers are. And it can be really useful to figure out if you and any sexual partners you have share similar definitions. After all, if you tell someone you want to have sex with them, you’re much more likely to have a good time if you have similar expectations.

So how about it? Is a blowjob sex?

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Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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