The American Sexicon: On Our Changing Definitions Of Sex


A recent study found that “a surprising number of older men did not consider penile-vaginal intercourse to be sex.” Any number would be surprising — but do we need to agree on what sex is in order to enjoy it?

Researchers at — of course — the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University asked 204 men and 282 women, most of them straight, “Would you say you ‘had sex’ with someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was …,” and then offered 14 specific options. Eighty-one percent believed anal intercourse was “sex,” although the percentage dropped among the youngest and oldest men. Seventy-one percent thought performing oral sex (amusingly abbreviated OG) counted, while 73% said receiving it did. Ninety-five percent considered penile-vaginal intercourse sex — but only 89% if the man didn’t ejaculate. Annoyingly, coverage of the study doesn’t mention what respondents thought if the woman didn’t come. Is it possible that the scientists didn’t think to ask? If so, we wouldn’t want to sleep with them.

Oddest of all, only 77% of men 65 and above considered P-in-the-V to be sex, which — since many of them were heterosexual — does raise the question of what they’ve been doing all these years (or, perhaps, what they’ve been calling it). It would be interesting to see a longitudinal study of these attitudes — my guess is that behaviors like anal and oral intercourse have become more accepted as sex as they’ve been more openly discussed (and depicted in Internet porn). Still, hooking up (another phrase worth exploring) without p-in-the-v reveals some of the nuances of the “sex” definition, at least for heterosexual people. Many women have probably had the experience of the guy who gets frustrated because you’re doing oral but not “sex,” or the feeling that non-penetrative acts are somehow lesser. These feelings can be damaging, and clearly partners need to come to an agreement on what they’re comfortable with and what they enjoy. But do they need to share a definition of sex? Do we, as a society, need to share such a definition?

One of the Kinsey researchers noted that the study has practical implications, as it’s harder for doctors to screen for and treat STDs if they and their patients have different definitions of sex. But this could, perhaps, be solved simply by asking about specific acts rather than about general “sex” — if the Kinsey Institute can do it, so can doctors. And while it might be a good idea for couples to discuss what sex is, it may not matter if one calls it “whoopie” and the other “consecrating our union to the Lord,” as long as they both enjoy it. Really, what we may need more than a shared definition of sex is a shared morality of sex, which, unsurprisingly, is devilishly hard to (sorry) come by.

On The New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog, Macy Halford describes psychologist Paul R. Abramson’s Sex Appeal: Six Ethical Principles for the Twenty-First Century. The principles are:

1. Do No Harm
2. Celebrate Sex
3. Be Careful
4. Know Yourself
5. Speak Up/Speak Out
6. Throw No Stones

They sound solid, but as Halford points out, some are more difficult to practice than others. She writes, “‘know yourself,’ in particular, seems like something one could labor at for a lifetime without ever mastering (or even understanding fully what such a thing implies).” I’m more worried about “Throw No Stones,” which Halford interprets as “don’t judge people for what they do behind closed doors.” This sounds like a great idea — but we as a society are addicted to judgment. When Washington DC legalized gay marriage, the local branch of Catholic Charities decided to stop granting spousal health benefits to any of its employees, gay or straight — because people who have gay sex don’t deserve health insurance. As Double X’s Jessica Grose points out, women were shamed, then unshamed, then shamed again for having casual sex — a spiral so complicated that Grose’s piece has already spawned two rebuttals. Even as I argue for men’s and women’s right to fuck who they want, I’m not entirely non-judgmental either — I tend to “throw stones” at people who cheat in monogamous relationships, even if their cheating doesn’t directly affect me. The American desire to dictate what other people do in their bedrooms — or their football fields, their airplane lavatories, their semi-private-alcove-behind-the-band-rooms — runs wide, and it runs deep.

Sex — what it is, what it should be, how people should do it — seems like one of the very last things we’ll ever agree on. But as Halford says, lists like Abramson’s may be a good start — and studies like the Kinsey Institute’s may help too. Historically, much about sex has been shrouded in darkness and shame, and as sexual practices become more acceptable for public discussion, it becomes harder to demonize them. It’s a cliché that the key to good sex is communication — but I can think of worse clichés. And ultimately, what’s good for couples — mutual respect, openness, and understanding — may be good for society as well.

IU Study Finds No Consensus In Definitions Of ‘Had Sex’ [EurekAlert]
Sexual Ethics For A New Millennium [New Yorker Book Bench Blog]
The Shame Cycle [Double X]
Sexual Shame Is So Hot Right Now [Broadsheet]
Hookups Versus Domesticity: Go! [True/Slant]
Catholic Group Dodges Gay Marriage [Broadsheet]

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