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Counting, And Other Games For Children

December 3, 2008

Over at Feministing, there’s a community post with the tittilating title “Oral Sex.” The poster, Yellow Wallpaper, talks about a class participation question for a human sexuality class that raises the issue of defining sex.

The question itself is interesting, and at least several people in the discussion thread have a definition that replaces the conventional and narrow penis-centered view.*

But one thing that came up again and again was the degree to which het folks were invested in a penetrocentric** definition — that a penis (or some penis-substitute) goes in a specified orifice. There seems to be two leading reasons for this: (1) that people want to keep their number of sex partners low, and to be able to define the count to know other people’s number of sex partners; and (2) that people need to know what “sex” is to know what “cheating” is.

I’ll take these in reverse order.

(2) Cheating ought to be whatever the people in a relationship agree it is, and it need not be “sex.” If I went out to a bar and kissed some woman and my spouse found out about it, she’d be crushed. I’m not confused about that. It doesn’t need to be “sex” for me and my spouse to decide that we’re not allowed to do it. I know because we’ve talked about what our rules are and come to conclusions that suit us. I’m always a little sad to see that people want to have rules laid out for them instead of making their own decisions.

(1) Unless one is a sex or public health researcher, rules for what counts as sex so that one can count don’t really serve any purpose that I can respect. The reason for this counting is to slut-shame, or to defend against slut-shaming. Those readers who have gotten through the book know my view is that “slut” as a concept is a byproduct of a view of sexuality that I reject, and that has got to go.

I’m reminded of the stories I’ve heard and read (though I can’t recall where) about women going home with partners they have hooked up with or dated before, just because new partners would add to their “number.” That thinking seems like a part of the school-aged “bases”: more about pecking order than genuine interest in the sex itself. But it persists, as far as I can tell, basically indefinately in some quarters. On my account, that’s a sign of cultural pathology, and specifically a cultural immaturity about sex. In a tabloid way, we’re more interested in who did it and with how many people, than we are in anything we could learn from.

This is not to say that I think defining sex is unimportant. On the contrary: I think it’s very important. How we define sex forms how we think. If we think only penetration with a penis counts, are we not saying that lesbians are inherently “other,” wierdos whose sex isn’t sex? (Yellow Wallpaper makes this point in her Feministing post.) I think the way we talk is how we think, and definitions do matter. That’s why I think that we shouldn’t work our definitions around these secondary issues.

*Mine, FWIW, is this: “A reasonable attempt, by at least one participant, by physical interaction to produce orgasm in another.”
**Not a word you’ll see elsewhere, but I mean something different than simply “heterocentric” and that seemed to get the point across.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. jaclynfriedman permalink*
    December 3, 2008 4:40 pm

    Bang on as always, Thomas, though I will quibble with your definition of sex – do we need to be orgasm-driven? There are lots of ways to derive pleasure from sex with orgasming or even attempting to orgasm. I tend to define sex (as opposed to the more nebulous “fooling around”) as the point where one or more partners comes in naked (or latex/protection-clad, but not clothed) contact with another person’s genitals, with the intent to pleasure.

  2. December 3, 2008 5:07 pm

    It had occurred to me that the focus on orgasm was entirely debatable, and it’s not an accidental distinction. Like so many things, my own experiences color my thinking, and if genital touching with the intent of pleasure is sex, then so is a lot of BDSM that I don’t really want to rope in. And there’s a whole politics, as you may know, of how much of BDSM is sexual, and it implicates whether people are doing cross-orientation play.

    Like this: if a lesbian-identified woman slaps my testicles, or puts a chastity device on me, are we having sex? That’s not a purely theoretical question. There are women I know who are pretty comfortable playing with men in ways they consider non-sexual BDSM, but for whom having sex with a man would be a big deal.

    I guess, when I think about it, I’m more comfortable saying that genital stimulation that is not orgasm-focused is “not sex” than I am saying that BDSM involving non-orgasm-focused genital play is sex. But I recognize that it is a value judgment.


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