Dictionary Deficiency: Defining Sex

Labels can also be misleading.  I saw a news report about a lesbian protest march, and the reporter said, “Coming up next, a lesbian demonstration.” My first thought was, “Cool.  I always wondered how those things work.” -Michael Dane

Last week, a queer friend told me she’d had sex with a woman for the first time–and it was good. Laughing and congratulating her, I realized after hanging up that I hadn’t the faintest idea what that meant.

The next time we talked, I waited through a couple minutes of small talk, and then asked: so, how does that work? One open conversation and half an hour of Googling later, what people mean by “sex” remains hazy.

When I started looking, I thought the main problem with the terminology was heteronormativity. And maybe a little reproductive-normativity too: penis + vagina = ability to make babies = sexual intercourse. Some definitions do recognize that sex doesn’t always involve a mixed set, conceding that sex can involve other forms of genital contact, but that still wasn’t perfectly satisfying.

My friend determined that she considers sex between two women fingering or oral–or, if you’re bringing toys into the equation, intercourse involving dildos. But, I asked, would you consider fingering or oral sex with a guy, well, sex? No…well maybe yes on oral…and then we brought up sex between two men and whether that would be anal, or oral, or hand-jobs…and got more confused. What it came down to in this case was that she and her partner orgasmed, that it was her first such experience with another woman, and she was excited by the contrast to with a guy.

Wandering the internet, I found a lot of confused LGBT and straight individuals asking similar questions about what sex means, or whether they’ve “lost their virginity.” I despise this particular phrase, with its connotations of innocence and purity and this idea of loss, rather than a gain, in sexual experience. But what about dropping the term virginity and wondering: did I just have sex for the first time?

In asking what sex means, I was asking the wrong question. Let’s take another term: hook-up. On a G-rated level, to “hook-up” can mean to get together and hang out. But when you say you hooked-up with a hottie the night before, the assumption is something a little more sexual—but how much so? At times it doesn’t mean much more than kissing; in other usages, it can mean fingering, or oral, anal, or genital sex—with many shades of seriousness, clothing, etc. The same person night to night uses it to describe different situations.

When a person qualifies what they mean by “hooking-up,” it might be for the sake of a more detailed, interesting story amongst friends. We like to tell people the good things in our lives, and, despite societal taboos that might keep us unusually quiet on the subject, sex is no exception. I had a great time dancing last night—I had a great time fucking last night.

However, often, especially for straight women, the qualification is to say, “oh, but I didn’t have sex,” to avoid–what? Being called a slut? Easy? The vagueness of the term “hook-up” is one of its perks—you don’t TMI friends who maybe don’t want all the details. If you’re not in the mood to give the gripping details of what exactly happened last night, then hook-up should suffice, sans defensive qualifications. (I’m not so sure what the situation is for straight men–if you prefer to claim sex, for macho points–or for queer men and women, on where the virtues of the chastity-to-stud scale lie.)

In any case, the weight we put on “sex” is too heavy a burden. It’s not just about heteronormativity; one of the things that fascinates me, comparing my generation (we’re the Millennials now, apparently) to my parents, is the perception of oral sex. Even in the time of free love, oral sex seemed generally considered a more intimate sexual act, while today, blow-jobs are on the serious side of hooking-up, but often as standard “instead-of-sex” fare. So is oral sex really sex? More than? Less than? This question applies whether you’re straight, bi, gay, trans, whatever–but does it matter?

The concept of sex (in bold) ties in with our cultural Puritanism mingled with sex-obsession (ever a nation of opposites and hypocrites, America), fundamentalist religion trying to turn it into a battleground of sin.  The fun of sex is—well, doing stuff that’s not so easy to define. Or the multitude of ways to define it.

What can sex be? Talking with my friend, I didn’t get a clear definition; however, like Michael Dane, I wondered how that worked, and my question got me a better understanding of what sex could be. I tend to be less concerned about TMI and more interested in people openly discussing sex—so we can find a multitude of (Ecstatic? Deep? Playful? Leather-requiring?) answers to what sex can be.

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