PQ 19.1 — How do I define “sex”? What activities are sex? What aren’t?

an illustration involving 6 Venn diagrams with a coordinated color scheme
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PQ 19.1 — How do I define “sex”? What activities are sex? What aren’t?

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Yes, this question! Everyone, take a look at this question. You would think it’s straightforward, no? And that people would agree on the answer.

But no, they do not.

Famously, there was a big kerfuffle in the 90’s when Bill Clinton was talking about whether he had sexual relations or not with a White House intern. I mean, clearly, Clinton had a stake to argue that whatever happened with Lewinsky wasn’t, y’know, sex-sex. That’s because he was in deep doo-doo. First off, because of the abuse of power involved. The boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss shouldn’t sleep with the intern, no matter where you work, especially without at least notifying HR. Not to mention that he was a married man who ostensibly didn’t have permission (of course the nature of the Clintons’ actual relationship agreement isn’t anything any of us could possibly know for sure)

But to be fair, in Lewinsky’s own words when she talked about it with her coworker Linda Tripp,  “I never even came close to sleeping with [the president].” And she added that “having sex is having intercourse.” She insisted that she and the president “fooled around.” Which according to official testimony was her performing oral sex on him and his engaging in some manual stimulation of her (fingering and, yes, somewhat inventively inserting a cigar in her).

Anyone who was around then can tell you it was a huge mess. Big news story. Everyone and their brother was talking about the scandal.

I was in high school at the time, and I remember going, “Wow, neither of them consider that sex? Really? Only penis in vagina is what other people count as sex?”

It didn’t really make a whole lot of sense to me, given my life experiences. Sure, PIV (short for “penis in vagina”) was the only kind of sex that could (maybe) result in pregnancy, but oral sex was incredibly sexual. And when I was giving oral (to men or women), it certainly didn’t feel like “fooling around” or less than vaginal sex. It was intimate, visceral, pleasurable in its own right.

It was sex. It was sex-sex.

And hello, are we really going to say that anal sex isn’t sex-sex? That it’s no big deal or nonsexual?  It isn’t like you’re playing cards or tickling each other, for heaven’s sake.

Oral, anal, or vaginal, it all involves STI risk. You know, sexually transmitted infections.

That was basically my definition for a long while of what “sex” was — oral, anal, or vaginal sex. Some people call these activities “penetrative sex,” but I tend to shy away from that term since I didn’t want to include vibrator play or manual stimulation under the same category, since while they’re fun sexytimes, I was hesitant to put them in the same category. They didn’t seem to pose the same level of risk. Those seemed like sexual activities, sure, but sex? Hmm… I wasn’t so sure.

And then when I got involved in the kink scene, things became even more complicated. Was BDSM play sex? Definitely not sex? Something in between? Kinksters argued about this among themselves. Some said, yes, even non-genital focused impact play (like flogging, spanking, etc.) is a form of sex.

Others said no way, definitely not sex (and there were a good portion of kinksters who identified as monogamous whose partners were okay with their doing BDSM play scenes with others but no oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse).

And there were still others who thought kink was something in between sex and not sex.

Being as Specific as Possible

Anyway, this stuff is complicated. So my new approach when negotiating relationship agreements with other people is to avoid talking about “sex” as a general umbrella category. And instead, I talk about individual acts. So if I’m talking about anal, oral, and vaginal sex, I’ll either say exactly that — or I’ll use an umbrella term that I’ve already defined to the person I’m talking with.

In the past, a former girlfriend and I collectively referred to these acts as “hard play” and everything else that carried a lower STI risk as “soft play.” (Kinky shenanigans, phone sex, hand jobs, tittyfucking, and a host of other activities.) And once we’d defined that, we then proceeded to use the shorthand, understanding all the while that risks rarely reached zero. (It did help that the former girlfriend in question was a physician, and we were able to have nuanced and data-driven talks about assumption of risk.)

Because I’ve definitely come to learn that when one person says “sex” and another says “sex” that they’re not necessarily talking about the same thing.

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This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions and answers, please see this indexed list.

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