How Do We Best Define Sex?
When we're quality sex educators; when we are or aim to be inclusive, forward-thinking and do sex education in ways that can or do serve diverse populations, we will tend to define sex very broadly, far more so than people who don't work in sex education often tend to, even if and when their experiences with sex and sexuality have been broad. Often, the longer we work as sexuality educators, and the longer we also just live and experience our own sexual lives, the more expansive the definition becomes. If we live and/or work on the margins, like if we or people we serve are queer, gender-variant, culturally diverse, have disabilities, the diversity in our definitions of what sex can be will become even greater. I'd say that for me, at this point, I'd love to be able to define sex by simply saying "Sex could earnestly be absolutely anything for a given person." While I think that's ultimately the most accurate way to define it, something like that is also not going to be very useful for people a lot of the time.
Human sexuality is incredibly diverse, so much more so than any one person's sex life as they experience it usually is. We can't miss that when we work as sex educators for a long time because we see and hear about so many people's varied sex lives and sexualities.
So, if we want to be as accurate as we can when we talk about sex, a wide, flexible definition is important, especially if and when we are only using that word. It's important to be inclusive and express the real diversity of human sexuality, and also to help people have a sexuality and a sex life that is not only authentic and unique, but which doesn't limit them or feel limiting because they're only seeing it or hearing about it within the bounds of a box far smaller than truly fits all sex and sexuality can be, or which is the wrong size or shape for them as people, for their sex life and sexuality.
Of course, sex educators won't often tend to use the word sex, all by itself, very often the way that people often tend to do in daily life. We usually are and have to be much more specific with our language. When any of us are talking about specific kinds of sex, we will tend to make that clear: we may talk about genital sex versus non-genital, for instance. We'll use specific terms for certain kinds of sex so that, for example, when we're talking about penis-in-vagina intercourse, we'll say that, not "sex." People we counsel or talk with will often use "sex" as shorthand, and when they do, we usually have to ask them a lot of questions to find out what they're talking about. If they're asking about what kind of sexual healthcare they may need or what their health risks may have been, for instance, then knowing things like what KIND of sex they're talking about, what body parts and functions they have, what body parts and functions any partners may have is all vital information to answer questions correctly. If they're asking how to "have sex," we have to ask a lot of questions in order to answer that question with anything more than a glib, "However you want."
Often people we're providing education for want to talk about what "sex" is, and sometimes our broad definitions are problematic with their current conceptualizations of sex, their sexual ideals, religious beliefs, relationship borders or boundaries or in other areas. Obviously, some of those issues are not about a broad definition of sex being a problem, or even that person's personal views, but about a limited social or cultural definition or view being problematic. In other words, that's often about the world as a whole needing to keep changing and expanding how it views and presents sex and sexuality. But that doesn't mean we can just figure the world will catch up to us, because the people we educate live in and are influenced by that world. We need to work to try and strike a balance as best we can where we're accurate but where our language and terms also work well for people and the world they live in.
The fact of the matter is that it is sometimes, if not often, easier for those of us who are sex educators to use the term "sex" broadly in work than it is for people to use the term "sex" broadly in life. Most of us are already put on the margins just by virtue of our jobs, because a whole lot of people consider our jobs sexual deviance -- or the people who would do this job, sexual deviants -- already. We also often have more people in our lives, at work and outside work, who assume broad definitions of sex than people who don't work in sexuality. We usually are, as my friend Cory so often likes to say, non-representative of the general population.
I'm probably going to be stating the obvious, but one of the biggest issues with broad definitions of sex for many people is that socially, interpersonally, and in a lot of places, culturally, who has "had sex" and who has not "had sex" matters. Often, it matters a whole lot and can be seriously loaded. How it matters varies, but for example, someone who says they "had sex" and means that they engaged in clothed frottage (dry humping) or masturbation, and has someone else interpret that as them having had anal intercourse, can wind up with consequences like being accused of lying, being accused of cheating, being made to worry about health risks they likely didn't even have, or having gossip spread about their sexual status to many people that isn't true and can result in social stigmas or even, in some areas or situations, in violence.
By all means, I'm always going to be a fan of using more specific terms, and using more specific terms would be helpful for everyone to do so I always want to encourage people to do that and help by using specific terms as often as possible so they can have them to use for themselves. Understanding how broad sex is can help people understand why being more specific is often so important. For instance, if someone makes an agreement with a partner about not "having sex with" other people, they're going to want to talk specifics lest one or both of them wind up breaking agreements they didn't even realize they made, and causing strife in their lives and relationships they likely could have avoided. Does "having sex" that mean only genital sex? Only physical sex: what about cybersex or phone sex? Only sex with someone of a given gender? Does that include masturbation or pornography use? Defining what sex is and is not is also major when it comes to defining the difference between sex and sexual abuse. Defining all of what sex and healthy sexuality can be well also plays a big part in acceptance and tolerance for people whose sexuality or consensual sex life is or has been marginalized, viewed or treated as hypersexual, dysfunctional or "frigid," "perverse" or "deviant," categorizations which are often radically inaccurate with what we know about the diversity of sex, or based in bigotry or bias.
Defining sex and sexuality well is vital not just to sexual inclusion, tolerance and visibility but to inclusion, tolerance and visibility -- and compassion -- in general.
But in plenty of situations in life and especially with sexuality, people will use shorthand -- especially when it comes to privacy -- something we have to make and leave room for.
We've heard sometimes from readers and users who have been frustrated with the fact that our broad definition doesn't always work with their own specific one. Now, often, this is about having limited sexual or even general life experience and conceptualization, or limited exposure to all of what sex can be for people, something that will often change with time and more experience and exposure, but, we also want to always be refining what we do to explore ways that we can define sex and use that word in a way that is as inclusive as possible but which is also as useful as possible for diverse people.
I think it's entirely possible there is middle ground between the way educators like us define sex very broadly and the way some folks do so in a more limited way that we aren't seeing or haven't yet thought of yet, despite that fact that we tend to talk about this as educators all the time, and talk or think about this in some ways every day in what we do with the people we serve. Sometimes, a very targeted conversation can do things more general thinking or talking mostly with colleagues cannot, so I'm asking all of you to take part in that with us here.
I don't have the answers, nor would I suggest I know what the absolute "right" ones are. What I have is constant questioning, and I'd love to hear what you think about this and just read and listen to what you have to say to help advance and further inform my own thinking about it.
I'd love to hear about the ways you think defining sex broadly is helpful, but also the ways you think it can or may be problematic. I'd love to hear about your ideas of ways to bridge some of these gaps, and define sex in ways that are accurate, diverse and inclusive, but which also take into account the fact that most people live in a world where who has "had sex" and hasn't matters, and where it can be easier or more comfortable to just say "sex" in some situations. All of this is often especially weighty for groups like young people, people abstaining from certain kinds of sex, people in sexually exclusive relationships and agreements and people who are in cultures or members of cultural groups where having "had sex" in certain situations can carry serious social consequences. I'd love to hear from our teen and young adult readers, but also from our older adult allies.
Per usual, I just ask that everyone be mindful about making statements that may or do define other people, their sexualities or their sex lives, or make judgments about others. For instance saying "Sex is only intercourse, of course!" is not only not helpful, and not true for many people, it can also make folks who feel differently feel locked out of the conversation or made invisible. Saying "I have only defined sex as intercourse because..." is a lot more useful and also leaves room for people who have different experiences, conceptualizations and definitions. Talking about how someone else's definition doesn't work for you is okay, but please do so in a way that's respectful and kind and that can further conversation, rather than stopping it.
Because most of the discussions we have at Scarleteen happen on our message boards, rather than on the blog, there's a copy of this piece, and likely some discussion on it soon, posted there, if you have a preference in where you like to talk.
Thanks in advance for your important feedback, input and help!