- Not everyone has the same definition of “having sex.”
- A survey asked gay, lesbian, and bisexual people what “having sex” means to them.
- For people with penises, it was pretty clear that penetration was the most-common definition.
- But for people with vaginas, it wasn’t so clear.
When you think about what the word “sex” means to you, you may think about the “traditional” definition — aka penetration. But when it comes to what the word means to a broad range of people, it turns out there is no standard definition for “having sex.”
A new study, published in The Journal of Sex Research, set out to define what “sex” means to different people, and to center gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in that conversation, as these studies have often focused on straight couples.
Researchers asked participants which sexual acts they would qualify as “having sex.” The list for people with penises included “69”, oral-genital stimulation, “rimming” (mouth to anus stimulation), mutual manual-genital stimulation, frottage (rubbing penises), anal intercourse, and self-stimulation on the phone or computer.
Of course, penetrative sex reigned as the supreme definition , with 90% of participants with penises saying that they’d define that as having sex. But it’s worth noting that around 50% of these participants also included mutual oral stimulation as having sex.
For people with vaginas, however, there wasn’t as clear-cut a definition. A majority of participants ranked a few things as counting as “having sex,” with 70% saying that “69,” penetrations by a dildo into a vagina, and both partners using a double-ended dildo would be defined as “having sex.” A majority also said that scissoring (rubbing genitals), penetration by a dildo into an anus, mutual manual-genital stimulation, and rimming all counted as sex in their book.
But it turns out even these “clear-cut” definitions of what sex is can change if they’re not happening to us. The study also found that when asked about these sexual acts in the context of their partners cheating, participants across the board defined more acts as “having sex” if it’s part of cheating than they defined for themselves. This is a big reminder to have conversations about what cheating means to you with your partner before it happens.
The fact that different people have different definitions of sex isn’t exactly news. It makes sense — in a world that usually defines “sex” as penis in vagina intercourse, that definition isn’t going to make sense for all couples. And it’s perfectly fine — everyone can and should have their own definition of sex that they feel comfortable with.
But it can also be dangerous. In fact, authors of the study said that it can cause issues when everyone has a different definitions of sex, to get the proper care from doctors. Even if you don’t define oral sex as “sex,” for example, your doctor still needs to know that you’re technically sexually-active so you can get the proper care you need.
So feel free to define sex however you feel comfortable, just be aware when it comes to comprehensive sexual health, some peoples’ definition of “sexually-active” may be a bit more conservative than yours.