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 vaginal 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!


The question of "what is sex?" has bitten me in the ass so many times over the years in both professional educational situations and personal relationships that I pretty much have given it up. I did hear of one definition that I liked, though I think it still needs some work. It was the way a polyamorous couple defined "sex" with other people:

"Sex is anything that increases the probability of orgasm."

That seemed to work pretty well for them. I know that for myself, I tend to go with the idea that while orgasm isn't necessary in order for sex to have happened, if somebody had one, then you definitely had sex. Then again...that's a personal definition, and I've gotten out of the habit of trying to foist my personal definitions on anyone else, even my partner.

Another habit that I've gotten into is to never ever


use euphemisms when talking about sex, especially with a partner (or potential partner). No joke: the euphemism "Leave some mayonnaise in the jar for me" was once the cause of a huge fight between me and my then-girlfriend. Now, I use proper anatomical terms and definite action verbs and I am precise.

Of course, while that helps with the physical stuff, what about the mental? At which point I roll my eyes, shake my fist at the sky, and am glad that my own sex education work doesn't have to deal with this particular question very much.

With the orgasm-based definition, can I ask how you'd think about that knowing that some people orgasm when they do not want to, or when being sexually assaulted or abused?

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

...but that's because I think of sex as an action or event, not necessarily as automatically good or bad. So yes, if someone forced an orgasm on someone else, they would have "had nonconsensual sex" i.e. rape.

There's good sex, and bad sex, and sex crimes. If it's within the context of abuse, I would still define it as sex. Then again, I'm not Republican (whups, sorry, was that out loud?).

I also want to reiterate: this is how I think of it - I don't expect anyone else to agree with me. It just helps me make sense of the world, a bit.

For a while, especially during my high school years, I was conflicted about what I considered sex. The majority of my peers regarded sex as PIV intercourse only, and all that other "stuff" was just expected, was just "foreplay" as was typically referred to. That didn't seem quite right to me, although I accepted it because I was younger and it was easier to get caught up in a group mindset.

Not to brown nose, of course, but Scarleteen has certainly helped me straighten out my personal definition. I consider oral sex, manual sex, dry sex, masturbation, and PIV intercourse as sex (I'm sure I'm forgetting a few apologies.) Obviously, in my current situation, each "type" of sex carries certain weight. Like you stated in your blog, Heather, there are certain stigmas associated with who has done what "kind" of sex.

For me, now, is classifying things such as sexting, cybersex, phone sex, etc. I personally don't view them as sex, so much as I view them as sexual activities. It's a small discrepancy in my mind, and it's not a big deal. I'm just more likely to refer to them as sexual activities when talking about them. Like, when my partner is here, we have sex, and I could be referring to oral sex or PIV intercourse or manual sex. But if my partner is away and we decide to engage in phone sex, I'm more likely to either it call it by that specific name or refer to it as a sexual activity. (Although I suppose phone sex with masturbation WOULD be sex but...gah...I'll get around to that).

And just because something is a sexual activity, not sex, does not take away from the satisfaction of meaning that is behind it. I've had very meaningful, incredible phone sex and lousy PIV intercourse.

I'm sorry if this makes little's much easier to understand in my own head! I hope this isn't too narrow or anything, and I also hope it's of some use.

It may help you understand the world, but it's factually incorrect. You're making it just about body contact, when it's about the brain and the mind.

Sex is actually in the mind, not the body. All the reactions we have for sex, are in the mind. Sex is emotional and chemical, because the reactions are in part provided by the hypothamalus. In an unconsentual situtation, it may be sex for the rapist in *their* mind, but not the person it is happening to, because that person's mind is not consenting. Just like a person have a medical exam in the vagina or anus is not 'having sex'. They're having physical conact.

I struggle with this because I have a husband with dementia and children who are 17 and 20, and I would like to explore my sexuality without my children either feeling I lied to them or that I betraying my husband (their father) in a way that upsets them.

For the moment, I think I am defining sex as genital sex. For now, I won't betray my husband by having genital sex with someone else. That leaves me room to explore my interest in dominance. But then that might be just as upsetting to my children. What I am doing so far is both modeling and taking kinky photos with a group I feel quite comfortable with. That allows me to explore some roles by play-acting and to at least feel sexy.

Ideally, I would wait to have genital sex with anyone else until my husband no longer knows who I am. But I don't think I will last that long--that is likely to be more than 5 years from now and we haven't had sex in three years. At least I will wait until my children are a little older, at least more independent and maybe more understanding of moral complexity.

pictures with a group I feel comfortable with, which allows me to explore roles in a play-acting way. I tell my husband I am going to my photography group, but not that I am posing in the nude.

In an ideal world I would not have genital sex until my husband didn't know who I am, but I don't think I can wait that long (it could easily be 5 years). So I will wait for my kids to be a little older--more independent and perhaps more aware of how complicated moral choicses can be.

I think your blog was well written and timely for me as you have expressed several similiar ideas. I am interested in what you were saying as often articles talk about sex, but don't define what they are talking about, and i think that it is important to know exactly what they mean. i agree very much with you that where possible or necessary refer to the specific sex. That was a conclusion that i came to in fiddling around in a paper I am considering writing as I think kids need guidance as there is too much available at a young age without proper guidance, and it is so critical that they have that to prevent sexual problems in their lives. I was a researcher, and since retiring, it is still in the blood and so I research several topics and the one that started me on this one was sex for senior, and the articles I read were rediculous basically because none of them defined what they were talking about, and it was similiar with articles for kids. Anyway keep up your good work, and good luck on sex education.

I always thought that intercourse was always only, as you say, penis in vagina, and that is still to me today intercourse. Yes, there is anal sex, but I would hardly call that intercourse. I call it sex and abuse, unless, of course you like that sort of pornography, which incidentally is the main sort of pornography today. And, as I said earlier, I agree that we need a good definition of sex, and I am also concerned about the guidance sex educators or anyone gives people and especially the young. Imagine, telling a young girl that anal abuse is intercourse, as this article suggest and so do many other articles. Call a spade a spade, and call sex what it is and abuse what it is. As for me, I still don't get off on anal crap, as I don't even consider it as sex, although I suppose it is, but definitely not intercourse. And also I will tell you that this is one area where I am bias because I consider sex to be wonderful and pure and clean but as a person with several courses in bacteriology, I consider feces and the anus and inside bowel not so clean. It's purpose is to get rid of waste. The purpose of the vagina however is sex, I think.

I'm not personally in agreement with defining any sexual activity AS an activity -- without considering the motives and emotional and psychological dynamics involved -- as abusive, and think that's very problematic for a lot of reasons, one of which is that that also means we'd have to be defining certain activities as NOT being abuse, regardless of motives or dynamics, right?

In other words, vaginal intercourse is also certainly something that can be an abuse or assault, too. Feasibly, one person could have a life experience in which the only way they have experienced vaginal intercourse is during sexual assault, while the only way they have experienced anal intercourse is in a loving relationship where that activity was wanted by all parties and consensual. What then? What about someone without a vagina or partners with vaginas for whom the only genital intercourse or interlocking in their relationship is and can be anal sex? Just some things to think about.

I do think it's also important to add, with your last statement, that we know it's problematic to define the "purpose" of certain body parts like you are, and defining the vagina as having a solely or primarily sexual purpose is particularly problematic since it also plays a very big part in reproduction and childbirth (as the vagina is also the birth canal) much of the time. And even when we're talking about vaginal intercourse, it might be helpful to remember that a penis isn't part of plenty of people's sexual relationships, including some people who still have vaginal intercourse with partners. One more thing to think about when talking about or conceptualizing intercourse, expressly, may be the definition of the word, which is, most simply, connection between individuals -- so, feasibly, there are a LOT of kinds of sex and partnered sexual experiences, if not all, we could call intercourse!

I'm not going to invest much time in debunking what you've said here about anal intercourse, but I think it's also worth noting that there is bacteria in the vaginal canal as well, and anal intercourse does not involve anyone entering someone else's bowel.

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

For awhile there, I thought that you would not publish my last comment, but now I have to rewrite my paper because you did publish it even though we seemed to have different opinions, and more than that, you replied to what I wrote, and I love you for it; but it all come back to the foundation that we must build on, and I am not saying that at the end of the day the decision for some will be that they consider that there is 2 types of intercourse or even more, and I have no problem with that, but I am saying that at the beginning, and especially for the young, call a spade a spade and call abuse, abuse, for I would think that the word abuse means doing something with something where it was not the real intent of the thing especially if it is against the will of that person; and I would think and hope that young people at least can start off with purity and wholesomeness.

But in your paper you do refer to 2 types of intercourse, and that to me is not giving the right sexual education to the young. You are defining the sexual activity of anal sex as intercourse, and some may consider it as that, but not me, and I hope our young people don’t either.

I am not sure what you mean by –“ without considering the motives and emotional and psychological dynamics involved -- as abusive, and think that's very problematic for a lot of reasons, one of which is that that also means we'd have to be defining certain activities as NOT being abuse, regardless of motives or dynamics, right?”

To me, abuse seems to be clear, and it is not that I disagree with that in all cases, but without defining what is abuse and what is not abuse, it is still obvious that some of us would consider anal intercourse abuse of both structures, and some would consider it abuse of the woman or other man, or whatever, and some people would not consider it abuse at all, and I have no problem with that; but i do have a problem when a sex educator defines the activity as intercourse for a number of reasons such as that is telling kids that it seems ok and of course I support our dictionaries and language where intercourse is clearly defined.

In regards to vaginal intercourse, of course that can be abused such as with sexual assault, but that is not to say that they should therefore have anal sex as there is counseling and most go on to have a loving relationship with vagina intercourse. In regard to a loving relationship where there anal sex, I think that is too gross even to talk about and usually initially abusive especially to women and kids but also to other men also, and it is not something that I want to think about or to occupy my mind. There is a lot of other more suitable types of sex or even intercourse sex, if you want to call it that, that I would go through before I hit bottom on that one. .

As for debunking what I said about anal intercourse, I don’t know how you could do that anyway. And the bacteria the vaginal canal are good bacteria and not as many varieties as in the intestinal tract. But I never knew that anal sex does not involve anyone entering someone else's bowel. I thought that it at least reached that far, and the end results have to go somewhere.

I don't have the time to address all of this today (maybe someone else will comment on it who does have time), but I do want to remind you to please keep the ground rules laid out for the discussion here so that it has the chance to be the most productive and inclusive it can be.

In terms of a lot of your statements above, and any you may make further, I think that comes down to owning what your own sexual preferences and desires are with more "I" statements and less judgments, and being sure you are leaving room for others who may or do have different preferences, desires and experiences, okay?

You might also just want to take a look at the term "intercourse" as it is used with most sexology, sexual health and sexuality study. I think you may be using that term in a way that assigns a meaning to it which is very atypical. In typical use in the field, "intercourse" assigned to a sexual activity is usually used to simply describe a kind of sex where there is entry of one body part into the orifice of another. In sex education, using that term to describe any sexual activity is about describing the physics of the thing; it does not imply any sort of blanket approval or encouragement -- or blanket disapproval or discouragement -- for that physical action simply by using the word "intercourse."

I think you may also want to research how the term abuse is typically used in these fields.

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

I think the lack of clarity in terms of what exactly "sex" is can definitely cause problems for people in relationships who aren't explicit with each other about what they consider it to be. Back in my straight girl days (I am a trans guy), I had a boyfriend cheat on me and give as his reasons the fact that we "weren't having sex yet" in the relationship, when we were regularly having oral and manual sex, because he considered "sex" to be PIV intercourse and was put out that I hadn't agreed to do that with him yet.

This brings to mind a story a friend of mine told me a few years back. She was working at a summer theater program where a lot of cast and crew members would have casual sexual relationships during the season. She was involved with a guy in the cast one particular year and was pretty upset near the end of the summer when she mentioned something about the sex they'd had and he said he hadn't thought of what they'd done as sex at all because it didn't include PIV intercourse (which my friend doesn't really enjoy). I don't know the specifics about exactly what they were doing, but it consisted of activities that she very much felt were sex and he didn't. I think it made her feel a lot less comfortable about the relationship in retrospect because they weren't on the same page at all about what they were doing with each other.

I have huge problems with defining sex as PIV intercourse only, because not only does that leave out a huge range of sexual expression for heterosexual people, it ignores the very wide range of queer folks who can't even have that sort of sex within the bounds of their regular relationships. I do still have a vagina, although I am not generally into penetration and my partner is a genderqueer person who's had a vaginaplasty. Does this mean I suddenly can't "have sex" any more? I definitely beg to differ.
Ultimately, I don't know that I have a good definition of what sex is. I can feel pretty turned on when getting a massage or my ear bitten, but I wouldn't consider either of those sex on their own. They're potentially sexual, but not "actual" sex to me. If there's consensual genital contact either on my part or my partner's, I would generally say that counts as sex, but there are times when we both like to touch each other's genitals as part of our pre-bed snuggling and it's sweet and intimate, but not sexual at all. I am in favor of a pretty broad definition of sex, but I have to admit that I'm not sure exactly what that definition would look like.

While specifically about heterosexual (and one assumes, cis gender) couples, a study just came out the other day around some of what you've brought up in your first couple paragraphs that speaks to it very well:

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

I'm a very regular reader and not so regular poster on the boards and Scarleteen in general. Before I spent time here my definition of sex was pretty much the fairly standard sex=penis-in-vagina-intercourse. Now, I am much more open minded and my mindset has pretty much changed to "sex is any activity that a person or people do that give them some kind of sexual pleasure." If people feel sexual in some way by standing across a room and waving at each other then that is sex to me.
However, that is not really a commonly accepted definition and if I'm talking to others, I tend to use the penis-in-vagina-intercourse definition because people, or at least those in my social sphere, just don't seem to get it.

So I really like the current Scarleteen definition because it is inclusive. Because it makes me feel good to know that whatever activity feels sexual to me IS sexual to me, and that its ok to feel that. I'm not sure that I'm being very clear here, but what I mean that its great to know that there isn't a prescribed list of sexual activities that you choose from, that its much more broad than that. Thats how sex ed was always presented to me previously, eg only engage in sexual activities if you have to, if you have to you can do x,y and z and here is how to have safe sex during activities x, y and z.

I think the Scarleteen definition is great just as it is, although I get that it may not be helpful at times for other people. For myself, I think that I've received more benefit from changing my mindset and coming to look at sex as more than just intercourse than I would have if my narrow definition was just referred to as penis-in-vagina-intercourse and left at that.

For a while my circle of friends all defined sex as any activity that involved two or more people and one or more orgasm. This is a bit unconventional, since (for example) penis-in-vagina sex that doesn't involve an orgasm for either participant doesn't qualify as sex, but online chatting while masturbating to orgasm does. But part of the point of this definition is that there are plenty of sexual activities that aren't actually sex, from long kissing sessions to simple flirting. Human sexual behaviour is tremendously complicated, and any definition of sex will include some awkward cases.

When thinking about definitions, it is important to know what they will be used for. If you're setting the ground rules for a polyamorous relationship, my friends' definition works fairly well. Of course one might want to make rules about interactions that aren't sex by this definition, and one would not treat all sex equally, but this definition is not a bad starting point. On the other hand, if one wanted a legal definition suitable for use in cases of statutory rape this definition is not appropriate. Neither is it useful if one wanted to talk about exposure to STIs or define virginity (for some reason). Definitions in themselves have little power; it is the things we do with the words that matter most.

Of course, sex has another definition; it is used in popular culture to mean something like "penis-in-vagina sex, or something roughly equivalent for couples for whom that doesn't make sense". I don't like this definition much, but if I'm going to use the word I have to know that many people will understand it this way. So I don't often use the word alone.