Defining sex: what counts?

Emma Whitney debunks the myths surrounding what defines sex

Set to the sound of a free soft tempo beat, the Busy Bodies video depicts a cartoon man and woman cuddling. A voiceover explains that “making a baby” happens when a man and woman, who are in a close relationship, show their love in a very special way through sexual intercourse. While undoubtedly sex must be explained to children in a simplistic manner, this narrow definition presented to the majority of us in primary school set the tone for an entire generation’s view of sex that it is for baby-making and not for pleasure, thereby giving the act a singular purpose and rendering anything outside of that inherently sinful or strange. 

“Focusing on the reproductive aspect of sex in sex education and in our cultural view overlooks female enjoyment of sex…”

Indeed, when you google the definition of sex, it is clarified as “including specifically sexual intercourse,” which itself is narrowly defined as a penetrative act shared between a man and woman. Upon deeper reflection, it quickly becomes apparent that this type of sex is alien to many groups of people. LGBTQ+ people, people with vaginal/erectile dysfunction and those who simply don’t enjoy vaginal penetration may not identify with the notion that sex must constitute a penis plus vagina. This idea of sex consisting of vaginal penetration stems from the lingering cultural expectation (especially in a society that has only come around to the idea that sex isn’t inherently evil) that the purpose of sex is only to make babies. Focusing on the reproductive aspect of sex in sex education and in our cultural view overlooks female enjoyment of sex, as only 20% of women can orgasm from penetration alone. Female sexual pleasure has long been a taboo topic and the so-called “orgasm gap” in that women are far less likely to finish than male partners is indicative of the sexual inequality in our society.

Another aspect of viewing sex as penetration-only is its exclusion of LGBTQ+ people. LGBTQ+ sex can take a variety of forms and just because there may not be penetration does not mean that it is any less valid. Framing LGBTQ+ sex as only being legitimate sex if there is a phallic object involved is harmful because it further leads to the fetishization and othering of gay people. Sexual activity is as much about pleasure as it is about reproduction and the term shouldn’t be reserved for sexual activity that can lead to a baby.

When it comes to the notion of virginity, determining sex to be penis in vagina raises some questions. What constitutes virginity? Our framing of the act of having sex for the first time or “losing your virginity” is problematic. Calling the experience “losing your virginity” makes it seem negative, in that you are losing something by having sex for the first time. Do we call anything else a loss when we do it for the first time? The language that we use around sex is harmful, especially for women. Even to this day there are associations with virginity and a person’s moral value, which is undoubtedly unfair as sex does not make you a good or bad person it is morally akin to taking a walk or cooking dinner. People’s definitions of having sex for the first time vary from person to person, especially for the LGBTQ+ community. One person having oral sex may constitute their first time, while for another person it may not. 

“Human sexuality is complex and there is no exact recipe for how a sexual experience should go…”

We must remember that sex is a deeply personal experience and not something that can be up for public debate. What one person does may not match with your sexual preferences and that is perfectly ok. Human sexuality is complex and there is no exact recipe for how a sexual experience should go as long as all is consensual, of course. 

Reservation of the term “sex” for the specific penis-in-vagina type of penetration is just one of the conversations that we need to have around our attitudes when it comes to sex and sexuality. Ireland has only very recently begun to broach honest and open conversations about sex and it is obvious that there is much left to discuss. The fairly open-minded Ireland that we live in today has come a long way from the society that banned contraception until 1985, but the conversation isn’t over and we still have a long way to go.