What is Sex? No, Seriously.

[Image] A lit up red sign reading "Sex in Progress"

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby
Photo by: Jean KOULEV

A while back, I wrote a post on my personal blog about how my lack of a definition for sex (and, thus, sexuality) caused me issues understanding asexuality as it related to me. So, I thought that I would try to examine the topic a bit more closely.

What is sex?

This is a question that I have been struggling with for years without any formal answer to it. When I was younger, I thought that sex was simply the act of one man penetrating one woman with his penis. But as time went on, my definition grew to include people who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. When I did this, my definition moved from centering the phallus and the act of penetration to centering sexual touch and orgasm. In this definition, I thought that sex was an act between two people with the goal of one or both of them having an orgasm.

This then shifted again as I started hearing about the possibility that more than two people could be involved in sexual activity at a time, and it shifted again when I found out that consent was an active process that is continuous, shifting, and explicit. At this point, the definition was something to the effect of “sex is an act between two or more actively consenting adults with the goal of one or more of them having an orgasm.” In this definition, the acts themselves aren’t really defined, you could really have a thing for shoes, masturbate looking while licking someone else’s shoes, and that would be considered sex (in this definition). Likewise, sex would also include touching, groping, massaging, or penetrating with the goal of, orgasm.

But then things shifted again. As I started reading more about sex positivity I learned about the move by many to remove orgasm as the center of sex. The reason is that there are many people in the world who enjoy sex but do not have the ability to have an orgasm. This doesn’t necessarily make it so that they are broken people or that they have a sexual dysfunction or something, but instead that they have sex like everyone else, just without orgasm.

This, truthfully, fucked over my definitions of sex. If it isn’t centered around particular parts of the body or particular acts or particular goals. What is left to define sex? It is just a case of “sex is what I call it?” Or, even worse, “I know it when I see it?”

So, hitting a bit of a bump in the road at this point, I did what every 25 year old person would do when faced with this question: I asked my mother!

After my mother stopped laughing at the fact her 25 year old, married daughter asked her this question, the conversation continued much like the development of my personal definition. We went through definition after definition countering each one with an example of sex that didn’t fit. Eventually, she too got stuck. But throughout my discussion with her, the conversation seemed to center around intimacy-which she defined as physical and emotional closeness-and genital manipulation.

Then I went over to my facebook, and I started asking my friends about it. Again, this conversation took much the same form as the last, moving from definitions based solely around penetration towards more broad definitions. For a while, however, there was one definition that stuck (until it was ultimately defeated yet again). This definition is that sex is a consensual act between two or more people which includes penetration and/or orgasm.

While I do still have issues with both of those ideas, somehow the combining of them seemed to make a lot of sense. But shortly after this was posted, someone mentioned that sex is something that you could do by yourself and should be about something pleasurable. I really like this idea that sexual pleasure or sexual arousal is a part of the definition, but this reconstruction of sex as something that you can do alone, without penetration or orgasm, really sent the discussion all the way back to square one.

While these discussions didn’t really get me the definition that I was looking for, I did find some things that seem to be rather important to the definition, should there be one. Placing consent and pleasure at the center of the definition, as the place that all sexual activity originates, is one such idea I found to be extremely important.  Further, the fact that emotional and physical intimacy seem to be recurring themes, while not perfect by any means, suggests that these also play a role in sex in someway, even if it is just a socialized, scripted one. And lastly, the idea that orgasm and penetration, while both very problematic defining attributes of sexual activity, seem to be very culturally linked to the idea of sex as a whole.

Being that I had a long trip of self-discovery prior to asking others for their input, I am sure that I am biasing the analysis in some way. But, more than that, I am not really surprised that the conversations seemed to center around what it did. Rather, I am surprised that, while everyone I asked seemed to treat the question in such a blasé manner, no one had a clear, consistent definition which they stuck to.

But, what are your thoughts on the matter?

Given that I have yet to come up with a consistent definition of what sex is, perhaps you can help me out. Tell me your thoughts or the definitions that you use in the comments below. Perhaps, with your help, we can plug this whole in the English language once and for all!

2 thoughts on “What is Sex? No, Seriously.

  1. I think the problem is even worse. You keep including consent in your definition of sex. That’s very noble and everything, but I’m not sure it reflects the reality. I would argue that rape is sex, just (really) bad sex. If you were to ask the women of (say) Afghanistan there would be some who would only know non-consensual sex. So are you trying to define what sex is or what it should be?
    Another option is looking at the word’s etymology:
    “sex (n.)
    late 14c., “males or females collectively,” from Latin sexus “state of being either male or female, gender.” “Commonly taken with seco as division or ‘half’ of the race” [Tucker], which would connect it to secare “to divide or cut” (see section). Meaning “quality of being male or female” first recorded 1520s. Meaning “sexual intercourse” first attested 1929 (in writings of D.H. Lawrence); meaning “genitalia” is attested from 1938. Sex appeal attested by 1904. ”
    Which doesn’t help you at all, but it is interesting that the word has only been used for the act since 1929. If we wanted the English language to be consistent here (which we don’t) “sexual intercourse” would mean only intercourse between a male and female of whatever species, everything else is just “intercourse.”
    How about this definition: sex (n.)
    the things that society doesn’t want you to do in public.

    • I don’t think that it is noble to include consent in the definition of sex. I think it is the only way to go about it. In my opinion, rape is not a subset of sex, but rather a subset of violence. Even if the violence isn’t of the intensely physical kind that can sometimes accompany rape, it is still deep, painful, (often systemic) violation of one’s body by another.

      As for your definition: I worry that that makes sex so unbelievably broad as to make it useless. I mean, things that society doesn’t want you to do in public: breastfeeding, vomiting, standing on one leg and hoping to work, etc.

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