It seems like it should be really simple, but it turns out to be quite difficult to define sex. I was presented with this question as an exercise in my sex therapy training on the first day, and I could not arrive at a definition that captured what I wanted. I wonder if any of you have ideas about how you would define it.

Don’t look to the dictionary to define sex.

Looking sex up in the dictionary, I find the definition “sexual intercourse, especially between a man and a woman.” What?? Sex between a man and a woman is somehow more-sex than sexual activity between same gender partners? I suppose the traditional definition really means “penis-vagina penetrative sex,” but what a limiting idea that is!

If sex equals penis-vagina penetration, wouldn’t that mean that same sex couples don’t have sex? How would someone then label all that they do? Was Bill Clinton right when he said, “I never had sex with that woman” since they only had oral sex? Since I reject these ideas, I conclude that sex is much more than sexual intercourse.

Any definition of sex should be inclusive.

How do you have to change your ideas about which acts constitute “sex” when you consider a body’s capabilities? Is a couple adapting to life with sexual dysfunction that precludes intercourse no longer having sex? Or should we expand our idea of what sex is to include the full variety of what they can enjoy? If someone is wheelchair bound and unable to experience sensation at all below the waist, what might constitute sex for them? Is it impossible for them to have sex? Or is their extreme pleasure in having their nipples stimulated (perhaps even to orgasm) enough for you to call it sex? Perhaps kissing is sex to differently-abled people. But if so, is kissing sex to those of us whose bodies function as usual? If you are going to define sex, you’d better consider all these questions.

How does intent affect the definition of sex?

Is sex defined by orgasm? I have to throw that idea out, too, since plenty of people participate in all kinds of sexual activities but do not climax, whether by choice or not. Maybe it’s defined as activities having the potential for someone to reach orgasm? But even that is hard to clarify.

If we could agree on a list, would sex be defined by some specific acts or behaviors? Where does consent come into the picture? Certainly some of these acts can occur, but if they are forced, is it sex? Would you consider rape to be sex? What about molestation and abuse? And where do you draw the line between consent and not? Are sex acts carried out under coercion to be considered sex? What about for money? Exactly how do you draw the lines between what is sex and what is not?

Focus on pleasure and connection.

I want to have a definition of sex that is broad in its inclusion of actual behaviors, the capacities of differently abled bodies, and of all variations of gender and orientation, but I also want one that excludes acts of force and violence. This is still a work in progress for me. At the moment my working definition is that sex is the physical expression of our innate drives for love, intimacy and pleasure. I would be delighted to hear your ideas and to continue to refine my understanding of what sex is.


You might also enjoy: 

What is sex therapy? 

Integrity – it has everything to do with sex

Complexity – the world is not black and white


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