What is sex?
The definition of sex is dependent upon the individual. In sex ed classes, it’s often taught as penis-in-vagina intercourse, but that is extremely limiting. Sex can be penatritive or not, can involve a penis or not, can end in orgasm or not.
The trouble is not necessarily the definition of sex but how we understand sex.
What are the limitations on the commonly accepted understanding of sex?
It’s difficult to discuss the complexities of our understanding of sex without touching on the construct of virginity. Because, for most, we are taught that you are a virgin until you have sex. And in this case, it typically means penetrative, PIV sex. So what does that mean for queer women & men? What does that mean for those who have engaged in other types of sexual intimacy (oral sex, anal sex, sex play with toys, mutual masturbation, etc)?
This idea of virginity leaves more questions than answers, and on top of that erases the experiences of queer & trans folks whose sexual experiences may not fall under penis-in-vagina penatrative sex.
And what about solo pleasure? According to Joan Price, author and advocate for ageless sexuality, solo sex is totally real sex:
“For those of you who would tell me (as people do, surprisingly), “Hey, masturbation is inferior to sex with a loving partner,” I would answer, “There’s nothing inferior about sex with the person who knows you best.” Plus the obvious — “How nice that you have a loving partner. Many of us don’t.”
Whether we’re pleasuring ourselves because it’s sex with ourselves or no sex, or we enjoy private sex, or maybe we just want to have fantasy sex with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, let’s agree that solo sex is not only real sex — it’s delightful sex.”
Can sex be defined through pleasure?
So what does that mean for the definition and understanding of sex? Does that mean that anything that ends in an orgasm is sex?
This is a good way to begin to expand our understanding of sex, but it provides its own unique set of obstacles:
What if you (or a partner) have trouble orgasming? (Lots of people can’t!)
Defining sex through orgasm can actually add pressure to the experience. It makes it a goal-oriented activity. It makes it pass / fail. If you achieve orgasm (and your partner[s] achieve orgasm) then you’ve succeeded!
If you haven’t, then you didn’t do something right.
But sexual pleasure can happen merely through the act of opening yourself up to sexual intimacy with your partner(s). If you’re only working toward the end goal, then the overall experience might not be all that pleasurable. Focusing instead on the pleasure and sensations you and your partner(s) feel throughout the sexual experience can alleviate this pressure, or need to perform. It refocuses the experience back on you, your body, and your pleasure, instead of giving you a finish line.
Forget the formula. Forget the idea of virginity. Forget sex as a goal-oriented activity. When it comes to redefining sex, we also have to redefine pleasure a bit. Accept that pleasure can mean an orgasm, but it doesn’t have to. Whether in solo play or with a partner (or more than one partner) pleasure should be about the experience. Are you listening to your body? Are you enjoying the experience?
Refocus so that sex is an exploration and an experience, rather than a checklist that needs to be followed to be considered legitimate.