Love, Sex

What Counts As Sex?

how to define sex

What constitutes sex and what doesn't? Fifteen years after Lewinskygate you'd think we'd all have it figured out, but it seems we don't. Teenagers who haven't had intercourse are having oral sex and calling themselves virgins. Heterosexual couples who are in the early throes of a relationship say they still haven't gone all the way even if they've heavily petted. And average Americans are still writing letters like this one to Savage Love:

My wife and I were recently regaling each other with anecdotes from our past, and she easily had the most interesting story: It seems that when she was a young woman in college a fellow student invited her over for lunch. He quickly had her clothes off and was kissing her, although he was still dressed. Then he brought out a vibrator. He applied the vibrator, she had an orgasm, and then she called a halt to the proceedings. Did she have sex? Now, I think anytime you've had an orgasm you've had sex. My wife's view is since he never got his clothes off and she never saw his cock, she didn't really have sex.

Dan Savage, in his Savage Love way, said that, yes indeedee, the wife had had sex as surely as the writer would have had sex if Dan had jerked him off while stimulating his prostate. Why? Because if such an act was videotaped and then played back for one's partner, the partner would never say: "At least you didn't have sex with him!" Oral Sex: Love It or Hate It?

In an amusing sort of way, we like Dan's answer, but we still don't think it's as simple as all that. After all, we've been told for years that sex is something you can get pregnant from (and last we checked, you could not get pregnant from a vibrator or oral sex or anal sex for that matter). We've also been told that gay people have sex, but we also know darn well that gay sex does not involve any risk of pregnancy. And then there is the whole orgasm argument (made by the writer above), which states that if you've had an orgasm, you've had sex. But if that was the case, millions of women around the world who've had babies would still be virgins. Does The Venus Butterfly Guarantee An Orgasm?

A grittier definition of sex might be any activity from which you might contract an STD. Of course, that doesn't exactly fly either, considering you can get HPV and herpes from genital-to-genital contact, without any penetration or oral sex.

And then there's the active participant thing: If the other person does all the work (as in Lewinskygate and the vibrator story above), is the recipient actually partaking in sex, or just receiving a nice, pleasurable present? Or is it the other way around: is the service provider just a provider, and not in fact partaking in sex?

We don't want to tell you what is sex and what isn't. But we do know this: sexual activity includes pretty much everything laid out here, and a lot more. And maybe, the best way of settling this whole argument of what constitutes sex and what doesn't would be for us to start using the term sexual activity instead of sex. Everyone, after all, knows what that is. And they know if they've partaken in it themselves.