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What Is Sex? The Wrong Question.

March 4, 2010

Via Jill, Broadsheet has coverage of a survey that shows that the entire endeavor of determining what “counts as sex” is rather a pack of silliness. Or, at least, that’s how I choose to interpret the results because it agrees with my view. I do that frequently.

Check out the silliness:

“two out of ten people did not concur that penile-anal intercourse was sex, and three out of ten said ‘no’ to oral-genital activity, as did half of the respondents about manual-genital contact.” And, while 95 percent classified penile-vaginal penetration as sex (one has to wonder what does count for the remaining 5 percent), that number dropped to 89 percent in cases where the man doesn’t ejaculate.

I can wing a bullshit, arbitrary definitions just fine, and I have before. Hint: mine is not penetrocentric, I don’t think there’s anything about Tab A in Slot B, or any other slot, that I want to put on a pedestal. But really, I think the whole thing is a bit of a fool’s errand. I’ll repeat my older post (I do that frequenly, too):

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.

This counting thing is not really good for anyone. What “sex” is does not even begin to answer the question “what is cheating,” a separate inquiry in a relationship.* It doesn’t do anyone much good.

But it sure can do some harm. The whole endeavor lends itself to making value judgments about whose lives and bodies matter and whose do not. Just think for a minute about how the possible definitions can (and do!) invalidate the life experiences of gay, lesbian, bi, and pansexual folks; folks who have a trans history and don’t have anatomy that the culture associates with the gender they live; non-binary-identified folks like genderqueer folks; people with disabilities whose bodies operate better for them (or only) by having partnered intimacy in ways that don’t get recognized. Aside from the silliness of the counting game, that playground game leaves out a lot of folks that I don’t want to see kicked off of my playground.

What is “sex”? That’s not an inquiry I want to engage in.

*There are more than a few poly folks in the world and for some people, PIV intercourse with other partners is fine. Some couples play with others only as a pair, some folks have broader poly relationships that do or don’t have different sexual constraints … If a couple’s arrangement is, “PIV with outside partners are okay on odd Thursdays, oral on Tuesdays and BDSM only during the last week of the month and never during Lent”, it’s their relationship to define.

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42 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2010 6:36 pm

    For what it’s worth, I really want to know about the 5% of folks in that survey who don’t consider penis-in-vagina intercourse to be sex! What the hell is included in THEIR definition of “sex” (elbow on ankle perhaps? ..or maybe finger-behind-ear?)

    But I can’t work up as nearly much outrage as you have about this question, Thomas…. or any at all, really.

    Gregory A. Butler

    • Kearstyn T. permalink
      March 5, 2010 3:44 am

      After reading on Jezebel that the percentage of men over 65 who did not consider penis-in-vagina intercourse to be sex was much higher than the overall results (23% vs. 5%, to be specific), I wondered if this was as a result of the wording of the question itself. The question they were asked was: “Would you say you ‘had sex’ with someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was …,” the wording of which may have caused some confusion among the respondents. Many of the people could have said that they would not have said that they had sex with someone after p-i-v intercourse because they do not discuss their sex lives and therefore would not have said that they ‘had sex’ at all. Another potential misreading of the question could have been that many people do not refer to sex as sex; again, they would not have said they ‘had sex,’ instead referring to it by some other phrase. Statisticians usually spend a lot of time carefully wording their questions in order to avoid this type of misunderstanding, as improperly worded questions can result in hugely skewed data, which may be the case in this study.

      • March 5, 2010 10:44 am


        Plus, there might actually be people who don’t use words like “penis” or “vagina” and may literally not know what those words mean.

        Depending on the education level of the person, or the community they grew up in, or the type of sex education they had (or didn’t have) maybe folks just don’t talk like that, or perhaps don’t even have the vocabulary to express themselves like that.


        About 20 years ago, there was an OBGYN in a small town in Southern Utah who had preyed on the women of the community for years.

        It was a small town, about half White Mormon and half Mexican Catholic, the kind of place where almost all of the women got married in their teens and ended up having 10 or more kids.

        But, most of these women literally did not have the vocabulary to describe the fact that they were being sexually abused in the examining room by him every time they went in for a checkup

        When the secret came out, and the women were questioned by detectives, most of these women – all married women with multiple children – literally did not know what the word “penis” meant!

        I was astonished by that when I originally read that story – but it kind of made sense, due to the isolation and conservatism of their community.

        Gregory A. Butler

    • March 5, 2010 11:20 am

      I dont consider penis-in-vagina to be sex.
      Rape is not sex even if there is a penis being put into a vagina for example.
      So penis-in-vagina as a definition of sex does not work in my world.

      • March 5, 2010 12:58 pm

        What about penis-in-vagina contact that was based on ENTHUSIASTIC CONSENT?

        I would HOPE that is the sense that the survey writers intended when they made up their questions.

        Gregory A. Butler

      • Kearstyn T. permalink
        March 5, 2010 12:59 pm

        Could you explain why you do not consider penis-in-vagina to be sex? Your explanation may help illuminate why others also do not think penis-in-vagina intercourse to be sex, since those of us who do think p-i-v is sex are obviously having difficulty understanding why others do not consider this to be sex.

      • Kearstyn T. permalink
        March 5, 2010 1:01 pm

        Also, I do agree with you that rape is never sex, no matter what is being done by the rapist to the victim.

      • March 5, 2010 5:39 pm

        Movie: I dont understand what you’re asking me.
        The definition of sex as penis-in-vagina doesnt work as there are many examples where I consider penis-in-vagina not to be sex. For example rape.

        Kearstyn: As I just said and you repeated and agreed with. I dont consider penis-in-vagina to be sex as there are many occasions where penis-in-vagina is not sex. Rape being the most obvious example.

        Therefore I do not consider penis-in-vagina to be sex by default.

      • March 5, 2010 5:43 pm


        You seem to be playing overly literal word games here, and you are coming across as really pedantic.

        Gregory A. Butler

      • March 5, 2010 5:54 pm

        Im just answering a question.
        You asked:
        “For what it’s worth, I really want to know about the 5% of folks in that survey who don’t consider penis-in-vagina intercourse to be sex!”
        and I wasn’t in this survey and I have no idea about their reasoning but I thought my perspective would give you an idea about on perspective that would exclude penis-in-vagina from being sex.
        Because if I answered a survey that asked:
        “Do you consider penile-vaginal penetration to be sex?” I would probably answer “no”.

        I am not in any way trying to play any literal word games here, its just not the way I define sex.
        I dont see anything pedantic about it and Im quite annoyed about the fact that you do.

      • March 5, 2010 6:11 pm


        I followed your link and your blog is written in a foreign language that I do not read – so maybe there is a language barrier going on here or something.

        Gregory A. Butler

      • Kearstyn T. permalink
        March 5, 2010 6:40 pm

        Mattias, the survey was not asking if ALL instances of penis-in-vagina intercourse are considered to be sex. The survey was asking people to define the minimum amount of sexual contact they have before they define what they are doing as sex. Just because someone is having p-in-v sex does not mean it is rape, and rape does not necessarily involve only p-in-v. The survey is presuming that the two people involved in the sexual contact are consenting to the situation.

        What I think you may actually be trying to say is that many people would not consent to p-in-v at any point in time, and therefore would not consider p-in-v to be sex. That could be one possible explanation for the discrepancy in the survey, however it is an unlikely one given that the group of respondents whose answers we are trying to understand are overwhelmingly heterosexual and male.

      • March 5, 2010 6:55 pm

        Movie: Yeah, Im swedish, but the language barrier is not the issue here.

        Kearstyn: Ok, do you have the exact phrasing the survey used when they asked the question?

        And no, thats not what Im trying to say.
        Im trying to say that if I was answering a survey that asked me if I
        consider penile-vaginal penetration to be sex I might answer no.

        But the answer in this instance might just as well be more about simple errors. People misreading the question or checking the wrong box or whatnot.

      • March 5, 2010 7:03 pm


        I’m a straight man who is a native speaker of American English.

        If i was given a survey and asked “is penis-in-vagina intercourse sex?” I would say YES, because that is a type of sex.

        I would assume that they were referring to CONSENSUAL SEX and not RAPE – but, quite frankly, rape can involve sex too (violent, brutal sex that is nonconsensual on the part of the person being raped, but sex nonetheless).

        So I really don’t get your confusion here.

        Gregory A. Butler

      • March 5, 2010 7:06 pm

        Movie: There is no confusion on my part, the confusion is all yours. 🙂

      • March 5, 2010 7:14 pm

        I’m not confused Mattias.

        We have a difference of opinion on a linguistic question in a language that I am a native speaker of and you speak as a second language.

        As it happens, I’m correct and you are wrong.

        Gregory A. Butler

      • March 5, 2010 7:27 pm

        Well, thats where you are confused.
        Im not talking about sex as a linguistic question, but a personal one.
        What does one consider to be sex? On a personal level.
        Being a rude jerk does not make you right, it just makes you think you’re right.

      • March 5, 2010 7:34 pm


        Not all rapes involve sex, and not all rapes involving sex include penis-in-vagina intercourse, but that is a feature of many rapes.

        And it is sex.

        Violent, brutal, non consensual horribly abusive sex, but sex nonetheless.

        So yes, penis-in-vagina intercourse is a type of sex, irregardless of consent.

        And that’s as true in English as it is in Swedish, Mattias.

        Gregory A. Butler

      • Kearstyn T. permalink
        March 5, 2010 7:37 pm


        The exact wording of the question is this:

        “Would you say you ‘had sex’ with someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was …,”

        The respondents were asked to complete the sentence with one of fourteen different options of varying sexual contact.

        I am assuming that the creators of the survey assumed that oral-genital contact was less intimate than penis-in-vagina intercourse, and assumed p-in-v to be less intimate than penis-in-anus intercourse.

        In general, the more I learn about how the survey was conducted and worded, the more critical I am of the accuracy of their results.

        Also, Gregory, while I do appreciate your attempt to help me clarify what Mattias is saying, I do not think it is appropriate to make such generalizing assumptions about his understanding of the topic based on his primary language. The fact that a person’s first language is not English and yours is does not automatically mean that the person disagreeing you does not understand what you are trying to say. Granted, Mattias and I may not have been on the same page for part of this discussion, however that is most likely due to one or the other of us not being specific enough when stating our views. Lack of specificity does not equate lack of language skills or lack of understanding.

      • Kearstyn T. permalink
        March 5, 2010 7:55 pm

        Also, Gregory, I take issue with your statement that rape is sex. Rape is NOT sex. Rape is NEVER sex. Rape is about power and control; sex is about pleasure (though that pleasure may be achieved through situations involving power and control). The difference between the two is that sex is consented to by all involved parties, and rape is one person forcing him- or herself upon another without his or her consent. Rape, while it may look, smell, taste, or be otherwise akin to sex and involves acts of a sexual nature, is never sex.

      • March 5, 2010 8:02 pm

        I understand your perspective, its a very common one and I understand it very well.

        But, what is “sex”? On a personal level?
        My understanding of the word linguistically is in line with what you are saying.
        Even though I on that level as well have strong objections to calling rape sex in any way or form.

        But on my personal level, what do I define as sex in my life? Then it differs even more.
        And unless I’ve misunderstood the survey completely, they are asking about it on a personal level, not a linguistic. (I’m mocking you here, sorry, but you’re being a jerk.)

        I’m talking about it from my personal point of view which is the perspective that I consider to be relevant for the topic at hand.
        Don’t you agree?

        Kearstyn: Ok, well, that question leaves a big uncertainty in what counts as “most intimate”. I do agree with your assumptions on how the people behind the survey ranks intimacy but that differs from my personal views and makes it sort of difficult for me to answer.
        I would be more prone to answering that phrasing with a “yes”, but not definitely.

        And thats a big problem with sexual surveys and studies, they are very often very normative and that might work on a general level but they cant really tell us much about anything else since there are to many unaccounted variables.

      • March 5, 2010 11:40 pm


        I live in New York City, in a heavily immigrant neighborhood, and I’ve spent most of my adult life as a construction worker, working mostly with immigrants.

        So I’m used to trying to communicate with folks who do not speak English as a first language – and it’s very common for there to be communication barriers because of that.

        That’s why I made that assumption when I followed Mattias’ link and it led me to a blog entirely written in Swedish.

        Then I figured out that he had a rather pedantic and rigid definition of sex that he was stubbornly defending.

        But, based on my life experience, I assumed (incorrectly) that it was a language thing.

        As for rape – it actually IS sex – abusive, violent, nonconsensual sex used as a weapon to hurt other people, but sex nonetheless.

        Gregory A. Butler

      • Kearstyn T. permalink
        March 6, 2010 1:22 am


        You are not the only person who has worked closely with immigrants that do not speak English as their first language; I am a part-time writing tutor at a major U.S. university, and many of the students I see on a daily basis are ESL students. I have found, for the most part, that so-called “language barriers” are a direct result of the person whose primary language is English either failing to be specific enough with his or her word choice, or using vocabulary that the non-English speaker is not familiar with. Neither of these causes has anything to do with the non-native speaker’s intelligence or comprehension skills. The solution to resolving these misunderstandings is not to simply dismiss the issue by saying that the person you are speaking to does not understand what you are saying; rather, you should ask the person you are speaking to to explain what he or she means. Moreover, I have often found that ESL students from countries with better education systems than the U.S. often speak English much better than native speakers, and have a much better grasp of the nuances of English words than most Americans, though many Americans assume that their intelligence or comprehension is lacking if these non-native speakers disagree with them.

        I also find it highly ironic that you would criticize Mattias for what you view to be a pedantic definition of sex when you are espousing a rather pedantic view of rape. Not only is your definition narrow, but the way you are presenting your view is extremely paternalistic. You offer no explanation as to why you define rape as sex, though you demanded that Mattias explain why he does not automatically assume p-in-v to be sex, thereby implying that your definition of rape, the definition of a heterosexual male who will most likely never be raped, should be accepted by me, a non-heterosexual female who experiences harassment from men on a daily basis because of my gender, solely on the basis of its source (i.e. you). You give no evidence or reasoning for your definition being the “correct” definition of rape, though it is clear through your repetition and emphasis of the word “is” that you believe your definition to be the one, true definition. Had you offered some sort of explanation for your views, I would be more willing to consider your argument valid, but because you did not I can therefore only dismiss your insistence on defining rape your way to be an insistence of your general superiority – a view of yourself that you have yet to prove.

        Although it’s a bit off topic, and this response is getting a bit long, I would like to take the time to explain why it is important to not say that rape is sex, for your own edification. Merriam Webster defines sex as sexual intercourse, which is defined with a series of examples of intercourse and has the connotations of something which occurs between two people. Rape, on the other hand, is defined as something which is “carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against the will usually of a female or with a person who is beneath a certain age or incapable of valid consent,” which has the connotations of something which one person forces upon another. It is the connotations of these two words which are the most important to pay attention to, for the connotations of words reflect how they are interpreted by society. Because the connotation of sex is something occurring BETWEEN two people, this connotation implies that both people have a say in what actions are taken. The connotation of rape, in contrast, implies that the victim had no control over the rapist’s action, because the connotation is that one person FORCED something UPON the other. There is no implication of consent in either the denotation or connotation of rape, as there is in the denotation and connotation of sex. Therefore, when you say that rape is sex, you are implying that rape victims/survivors had some sort of control or say in what was happening during their rape. Stating that rape victims had any control over what happened to them implies that they are somehow at fault for what happened to them. This is known as blaming the victim. No woman who has been raped is ever at fault for her rape, and none of the women I know who have been raped would ever call rape sex; sex is something they do with a partner – rape is something that was forcibly done to them.

        I hope that you now understand why it is important not to call rape sex, and if you still disagree with me, I would appreciate it if you framed your disagreement through actual reasoned argument instead of assuming that you can prove your point through repetition.

        Thomas – what is your opinion on this subject? I am very curious as to whether you think rape and sex to be different acts, or if you think that rape is sex.

      • March 6, 2010 1:24 am


        I’ve been around immigrants my whole life, I really don’t need the ESL lecture.

        And, speaking as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a parent, I really don’t need the lecture on rape awareness either.

        Thanks anyway.

        Gregory A. Butler

      • Kearstyn T. permalink
        March 6, 2010 2:03 am


        If you read my response, you will note that I am merely pointing out why your response to Mattias was unsuccessful. This has nothing to do with your amount of experience with non-native speakers.

        Also, while I am very sorry that your parent sexually abused you, and would like to reiterate that, as a victim, you had no fault in what was done to you, said abuse does not give you the right to define rape in such a way that it blames other victims for what happened to them.

      • March 6, 2010 2:05 am


        You’re still lecturing.

        Gregory A. Butler

      • Kearstyn T. permalink
        March 6, 2010 2:13 am


        No, I am making an argument. You, on the other hand, are attempting to silence me through dismissal because you do not like what I am saying, but have no actual argument with which to contradict me.

      • March 6, 2010 2:24 am


        I’m not trying to “silence” you – I just really dislike and resent being lectured, ESPECIALLY when it’s about stuff I know about from personal experience (communicating with non English speakers and being sexually assaulted in this case).

        You can keep on lecturing – I just refuse to listen.

        But nobody’s telling you to be silent.

        Gregory A. Butler

      • March 6, 2010 9:34 am

        Gregory: Just because you have experience with both non-native English speakers and sexual assault does not mean you are right in discussing these topics.
        And you didn’t have a problem with lecturing when you where the one doing it.

        Your experiences does not represent anyone else’s experience and you can still be using words and phrasing in a way that puts blame on victims. Or handles the question of a language barrier in a bad way.
        You were quick to dismiss and delegitimize my argument by claiming your own superiority due to being a native English speaker, even though I clearly pointed out that the language wasn’t the issue here.

        And as Kearstyn has pointed out as well, sex is something that happens between people, rape is something that is done to someone. And I dont find that differentiation to be pedantic, I find that differentiation to be crucial in our way in moving forward to a society that better deals with rape victims and rapists as well as people with a non-heteronormative sexuality.
        And here we might have a language barrier, I dont know how you interpret heteronormative, but it is heterosexuality with the primary sexual act being the penis in vagina thing.

      • March 6, 2010 11:14 am


        I don’t need the lecture from you either, dude.

        Gregory A. Butler

      • March 6, 2010 12:07 pm

        Gregory: I didn’t need a lecture form you…
        And I disagree, in my opinion you need a lecture.
        Maybe more about how to argue and discuss things without being a jerk then the things I went on about, but still.

  2. Jean Seberg permalink
    March 4, 2010 11:27 pm

    Oddly enough, I am a public health professional (getting my Masters currently) who’s specialty is in sexuality and health (NOT reproductive health). Though I completely understand and sympathize with your wish to explode the hierarchy of sexual acts we have set up for ourselves, something that is helpful about asking this question is that helps us gain a sense of what “sex” is for individuals. Documenting that “sex” is something different for all sorts of folks is important, particularly when we are trying to talk to people about potentially risky sexual behaviors.
    I would contend that there is a possibility that this information could be used to help us better communicate about “sex” rather than retrench harmful stereotypes about legitimate sexual acts.
    And I disagree that these discussions necessarily lead to value judgements, that is just part of the bullshit we have built into the system we have right now. But if we simply all started talking about the full spectrum of human sexual expression as legitimate then there is no inherent hierarchy of acts.

  3. March 5, 2010 6:35 am

    I disagree somewhat about the importance of this, because the question of ‘what is sex’ is one which has unexpectedly smacked me in the face before. As a woman who is primarily interested in other woman, I can still vividly remember being at a party, with friends, within my comfort zone, and then being shot completely out of the water by someone saying ‘but non-penetrative sex doesn’t count’. Leaving me sitting there thinking, this person who I liked is trying to completely invalidate every sexual relationship I’ve had, and a lot of the sexual relationships my friends have.

    I really, really do not like being caught off guard that way, so it’s definitely an enquiry I want to engage in, because I want to make sure I’m surrounding myself with people who have views that won’t upset me when I least expect it.

    • March 5, 2010 11:39 pm

      Yeah, the whole “what is sex” thing irritates the hell out of me, too. The first time I did the whole P-in-V thing, my boyfriend didn’t orgasm. I told my friends this story of me losing my virginity and they were like “Well, if he didn’t finish, it might not count”. Here I’d had this rite of passage that was a big deal to me – a rite of passage that hurt and made me bleed, by the way – but apparently since my boyfriend didn’t get off, it’s like the whole thing never happened.


      If we have to define “sex” at all, let’s campaign to define it around a WOMAN’S orgasm. Men have had their turn. 😀

  4. March 5, 2010 4:25 pm

    It’s funny … this is one of those questions that used to be really important to me. I remember keeping a mental tally of how many men I’d had sex with, and that number was really personal — I wouldn’t tell anyone! And I would actually have arguments with people about whether oral sex was sex!

    It’s so weird to look back on that. I try to trace what changed my mind, and it wasn’t discussion really, just experience (coming into BDSM, etc). And I wish I knew better how to convince people to see it differently, because the whole dialogue really is so toxic.

  5. March 5, 2010 11:32 pm

    Gregory: perhaps you can’t work up any outrage over the popular definition of “sex” because it happens to revolve around exactly what gets you off. I wonder how you’d feel if “sex” referred to cunnilingus – and if you went down on a woman who for whatever reason didn’t climax, you and your friends would engage in a long and serious debate of whether or not it was really sex after all.

    Kearstyn: whether rape is “sex” depends on whether one defines sex according to the physical aspect or the emotional one. Some people revolve the definition of “sex” around the idea of happiness/pleasure/intimacy/consent, while obviously many, many others think it’s “insert tab A into slot B”. I can see why you’d say that rape is never sex; I can also see why others would say that it is.

    Me, I don’t call anything “sex” anymore. I’d use the phrase “naked stuff” instead, to cover the whole continuum of pleasurable physical things you can do with a consenting partner.

    • March 5, 2010 11:36 pm

      Perverse Cowgirl,

      I’m the opposite of you, I call ALL of it sex – penis-in-vagina, oral sex on a man’s penis, oral sex on a woman’s labia/clitoris, penis-in-rectum, finger in rectum, finger in vagina – pretty much, if it involves contact with the buttocks, genitals or breasts for purposes of sexual gratification of one of the parties involved it’s sex to me.

      Gregory A. Butler

      • March 6, 2010 12:22 am

        Your way makes sense, too.

        I just think it’s silly to reduce the concept of “sex” to a single physical act. It’s so much more complex than that…as you and I and I hope many other people figured out once we got out of high school. 🙂

  6. March 7, 2010 6:31 pm

    For the record I agree it’s silly trying to come up with a universal definition of sex. Paradoxically once you realize that it becomes surprisingly easy to universally define “good” and “bad” sex.


  7. Wendell permalink
    March 7, 2010 10:59 pm

    I think this post is the nail in the coffin for me “keeping track” of the quantity of partners I’ve had. Thanks for the wake-up call. Thankfully, I already have a bit of groundwork laid, in that with a new partner I’m interested in their sexual health (not “history” which invariably implies quantities), and what they like. Period.

  8. Maggie permalink
    March 12, 2010 3:29 pm

    I define sex as “anything two or more people do together, usually with the general aim of someone maybe having an orgasm as a result.” Which is why my “number” is higher than other people would make it.

    • March 12, 2010 3:56 pm

      That’s not actually a definition, so much as a description. I’m not for a definition, but I’m just pointing out that this isn’t one (because of “usually”). By its literal terms, it makes sex everything people do together, which makes every baseball game an orgy with tens of thousands of participants.

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