A few weeks ago some friends and I were discussing the recent date of a male member of the group. He said that he did not have sex on his date. But, after he described the encounter (in which both he and his partner had an orgasm, but did not have intercourse) one of our friends disagreed with him and argued that sex did occur. So who’s right?
There is actually no consensus on what constitutes “sex.” As you can tell from the above conversation, there are differences in what people consider “sex” and many factors influence whether a person thinks sex has occurred.
In heterosexual samples, the vast majority of participants (about 97%) consider penile-vaginal intercourse to be sex. Slightly less (about 83%) consider anal sex to be sex. Less than 25% consider oral sex to be sex, and 15% or lower think genital touching is sex. Orgasm increases the likelihood that people view certain behaviors as sex. If an orgasm does not occur, the number of people who think the act in question can be classified as sex decreases slightly (94% for vaginal intercourse, 79% for anal sex, 18% for oral sex, and less than 10% for genital touching).1
How people define sex is not the same as what they consider to be infidelity in an exclusive relationship. For example, only about 2% of participants feel that phone sex or cybersex is real “sex” (see this post on how cybersex can be good your relationship); however, about 80% of participants define this behavior as unfaithful if done with someone outside of a monogamous relationship.1
Definitions of sex also change slightly when considering a same-sex partner vs. an opposite sex partner. In some respects, the definition of sex is broader for same-sex couples (such as a higher percentage endorsing oral sex as sex for two female partners than they do for a female with a male partner). Definitions of sex also broaden in more established relationships; people include more behaviors as sex with a partner they have been dating for three months vs. a one-night stand. This means that the emotional connection with a partner also plays into definitions of sex.2
People’s definitions of sex might also change depending on the situation. Even when a certain behavior fits our personal definition of sex, we may not label it as sex (and vice-versa). After all, Bill Clinton did NOT have “sex” with that woman. One reason might be to manage our number of sexual partners; we may be more likely to label certain behaviors as sex if we want to increase our number of sex partners.3
On the flip side, broadening your definition of sex can open up new opportunities. In long-term relationships, couples often follow a sexual routine that includes the same sequence of activities (kissing-touching-intercourse-orgasm. Repeat next Tuesday night.). By expanding your repertoire you may find new ways to be with a partner and retain more options if intercourse is not possible or not desirable. For example, in his podcast, Dan Savage talks about how when we are not in the mood to have intercourse we may avoid any type of closeness with our partner, when instead we could choose from the many other options available for sexual activity. Tonight, try having sex without intercourse (or without doing whatever you typically consider to be sex). It might be an exciting change.
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1Randall, H. E., & Byers, S. E. (2003). What is sex? Students’ definitions of having sex, sexual partner, and unfaithful sexual behaviour. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 12, 87-96.
2Trotter, E. C., & Alderson, K. G. (2007). University students’ definitions of having sex, sexual partner, and virginity loss: The influence of participant gender, sexual experience, and contextual factors. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 16, 11-29.
3Peterson, Z. D., & Muehlenhard, C. L. (2007). What is sex and why does it matter? A motivation approach to exploring individuals’ definitions of sex. Journal of Sex Research, 44, 256-268.
Dr. Amy Muise - Sex Musings | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Muise’s research focuses on sexuality, including the role of sexual motives in maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships, and sexual well-being. She also studies the relational effects of new media, such as how technology influences dating scripts and the experience of jealousy.
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