Who doesn’t know what sex means? I mean, how much more basic does it get? Penis goes in vagina, insert Tab A into Slot B, and ta da! Instant sexytime.
Except, not. A study at the Kinsey Institute found that among their subjects, no single generation or gender agreed on what “had sex” means. According to the study, 95% of the subjects agree that penile-vaginal intercourse counts as sex. But if there is no ejaculation? Then 11% say that sex did not happen. 30% believe that oral sex isn’t “sex”, and 20% say that anal sex isn’t “sex”. So what does this prove? Well, for all our societal obsession with sex, we can’t even agree on what it is.
Personally, I’d like a definition of sex that isn’t patriarchal, phallocentric, heteronormative and/or just woefully unclear. Take a look at how dictionaries have struggled to define ‘sex’.
The American Heritage Dictionary
-n. 1. Coitus between humans. 2. Sexual union between humans involving genital contact other than vaginal penetration by the penis.
Vague and unhelpful. Also, what do we consider ‘genital contact’? Anybody touching anybody’s genitals? Wow. Then my gynecologist is a huge whore.
World English Dictionary:
-n. The act carried out for procreation or for pleasure in which, typically, the insertion of the male’s erect penis into the female’s vagina is followed by rhythmic thrusting usually culminating in orgasm.
Kudos for the description in this one! The WED really walks you through from beginning to end. But boo for weaseling out with words like “typically” and “usually”.
Meriam-Webster Student Dictonary
-n. Sexual union especially involving penetration of the vagina by the penis
This is Webster’s ‘kid-friendly’ definition of sex. I guess by ‘kid-friendly’ they mean ‘pretend other forms of nonprocreative sex do not exist.’
The Oxford English Dictionary
-n. Sexual relations or union between the sexes. Intimate sexual contact between two individuals involving penetration and typically leading to orgasm, which serves (between a male and a female of various species) as the means of sexual reproduction and (in humans) typically expresses feelings of love and desire; any form of sexual contact of this kind between members of the same sex.
Well, look at this whopper from the OED, the big kahuna of dictionaries! Like the others, the OED refers to penetration, orgasm, and reproduction. But it also introduces the ideas of intimacy and love. (Hah! Good one, OED.)
As you can see from these varying selections, defining sex is not as easy as it sounds. Still, here are some problems with the above definitions:
1. Not all sex is between men and women. Structuring a definition of sex around the “union of the sexes” is not only heterosexist, but it’s also terribly inaccurate.
2. Not all sex involves a penis and a vagina. Even within a heterosexual context, there are other sexual acts that don’t involve penile-vaginal intercourse. So do we just nullify oral and anal as not sex?
3. Not all sex is penetrative. This is yet another relic from our phallocentric society, and the reason behind the idiotic “how do lesbians have sex?” question. Our society has structured our definition so strongly around the presence of a penis that people are unable to comprehend how anyone might have sex without one. Likewise, we’re unable to think of sex outside of a binary that involves one person penetrating and the other being penetrated.
4. Not all sex involves orgasm. So defining sex as an act that “culminates in orgasm” is problematic. Sadly, defining sex in those terms would nullify a depressingly large amount of heterosexual women’s sexual encounters. (Also, according to the Kinsey study, significantly fewer people considered an act ‘not sex’ if there was no ejaculation than if there was no female orgasm. Because male pleasure is more important than female pleasure. Duh.)
5. What about consent, dictionary? I find it incredibly telling that none of these definitions even allude to the idea of consent. Guess what? A “union involving penetration of the vagina by the penis” could also describe a rape. That is not sex. The fact that the dictionaries don’t even mention that sex is consensual is a prime example of our pervading rape culture.
So what does this all mean? I’m starting to think that maybe sexual acts mean different things in different contexts and with different people. It’s just striking that such a significant aspect of life is so ill-defined, that despite all of our conversations with friends and public debates and pointed legislation—despite the fact that everyone is always talking about it and thinking about it and writing about it and, well, doing it, we still can’t agree on what ‘it’ actually is.