Monday, March 15, 2010

Is It Sex Yet?

The Kinsey Institute released a fascinating study last week that showed that adults don't agree on what "sex" is.

95% of people said that penile-vaginal sex was "sex," but 11% said it wasn't sex if the man didn't have an orgasm, and 18% of men over 65 said it wasn't sex if a condom was used. (They don't appear to have asked whether it was sex if a womn didn't have an orgasm during intercourse.) Only 80% of respondents said that anal intercourse was sex, and only 70% said that oral sex was.

It's no wonder then that the teens I work with don't seem to know what "sex" is, either. They routinely tell me that oral sex isn't sex.

And I routinely tell them that I think it is. And that so is any kind of physically intimate behavior with a partner. In fact, I think it's sex if you've moved beyond any behavior you would comfortably do with someone else in a public setting.

The cultural belief that it's only sex if Part A goes into Part B is harmful on so many levels. It pressures teenagers to take risks that they may not be ready for. It leads some teens to engage in unprotected anal sex rather than lose their virginity. It devalues most sex between gay men and lesbians. It's why men with prostate problems or other medical conditions that lead to untreatable erectile dysfunction give up all sexual contact with their wives, because they can't do the "real thing." It makes sexual play goal-oriented, with one behavior privileged over others, rather than honoring all the ways partners can give and receive pleasure. It makes people who prefer other sexual activities feel they have to have intercourse anyway.

I could go on and on.

What would change if we adults think, practice and teach young people that sex is physical intimacy with a partner, designed to give and receive pleasure, and that it is the relationship that is important, not the specific acts?

Tell me what you think.


Anonymous said...

I love this post. I agree. My husband and I saw a therapist once. She had us each fill out forms in advance. They asked about everything even remotely related to our relationship, including sex. Specifically, the first question was "how often do you have intercourse," with some categories to choose from. The second was a follow up about whether that frequency was OK, too often or not enough. I ended up writing a paragraph on the back about how the frequency of intercourse isn't indicative of the amount of physical intimacy in our relationship, or to my sexual satisfaction. The therapy was just for a short term and focused on one issue, so I never explored why she and her forms were so focused on intercourse.

Desmond Ravenstone said...

Next week, I'll be co-leading a workshop on safer sex and dating. One of the sections is called "alternatives to intercourse". I can just imagine someone asking if I mean "alternatives to sex."

Instead of talking about _having sex_, as though it were a definable "thing" separate from who we are, why not talk about _being sexual_ with someone?

Father Anonymous said...

Excellent post, which lays out why this seemingly trivial semantic question is genuinely important.

During the Clinton-Lewinsky, brouhaha, I had several discussions about the specific question of whether fellatio was "sex." (Since, obviously, the then-President thought it was not).

It seemed, based upon my entirely unscientific sample, that people born before 1960 OR people from the south and west were far less likely to consider it "sex" than younger people or northeasterners, including some older ones.

Jeff said...

I found this post thought-provoking. The argument for broadening the definition of sex to include a variety of activities is persuasive. Using the term "being sexual" in place of "sex" also makes sense. But, I must admit, part of me still considers these other sexual activities, including oral sex, to be "foreplay" or just "fooling around" and not sex. This shows how difficult it will be to broaden the cultural definition of the term.

Saskia said...

At 23 I'm probably still one of the young people, but I thought I'd respond anyway. I had this exact discussion with my roommate the other day - she said she hadn't had sex with this guy, she had just fooled around. I said that was sex, too. I've always thought that anything that carries the risk of an STI is sex, whether or not vaginal or anal intercourse is involved.