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The Bottom Line: How Do You Define Sex?

Sex & Psychology |

The Bottom Line: How Do You Define Sex?

by Dr. Justin Lehmiller

What does it mean to have sex with someone? It depends who you ask.

Different people define sex in different ways, and our definitions depend, in part, on both our gender and our sexual orientation. Gay men are largely in agreement about what does and doesn’t count as sex, and tend to see anal as the gold standard.

In a recent study, gay and bisexual men were recruited at LGBT Pride festivals to complete a survey about what sex means to them. Specifically, they were given a list of 16 different activities and, for each one, they were asked to rate whether they thought it was or wasn’t sex.

The activities on this list ran the gamut, ranging from anal intercourse to rimming to blowjobs to using sex toys to having phone sex.

So what did they find?

There wasn’t 100% agreement on anything; however, 94-95% said that if you topped or bottomed, you definitely had sex. There wasn’t a single other activity on the list that a majority of gay and bi men endorsed as having sex, though.

For comparison purposes, just over one-third (36-38%) said that oral activities like rimming and blowjobs—both giving and receiving—definitely counted as sex. The numbers for fingering, using sex toys, and mutual masturbation were pretty similar, while having sex over the phone or computer were the activities rated as least likely to count. Just 17% said that having phone sex or cybersex meant that you definitely had sex.

When these researchers gave a similar survey to lesbian and bisexual women, the results couldn’t have been more different. Whereas gay and bisexual men tended to define sex in pretty narrow terms—specifically, anal penetration with a penis—lesbian and bisexual women took expansive views.

In fact, there were ten different activities that these women put into the sex category. These included using sex toys (in the front or back hole), oral sex, fingering, and “scissoring.”

Looking at people’s definitions of sex and how they differ across groups is certainly interesting in and of itself. However, it also tells us something important about how people approach sexual activity.

When people define sex in narrow terms, it creates a script for how sex is “supposed” to go. It’s like reading a book where you already know the ending and you just need to fill in a few gaps to get there. Sex becomes about pushing the narrative in a certain way in order to achieve a predictable goal. And when we don’t achieve that goal, we feel disappointed because we expected something to happen that didn’t end up happening.

By contrast, when people define sex broadly, it’s like reading a choose-your-own-adventure book: you don’t know how it’s going to end, or even how you’re going to get there. You have endless possibilities and options along the way. And because there’s no script or plan for how things are “supposed” to go, you’re far less likely to walk away from sex feeling disappointed because something didn’t play out the way you expected.

Our definitions of sex don’t just have implications for the way that we approach sex, but also for how sexually satisfied we’re likely to be in a long-term relationship. When people adopt narrow definitions of sex—and also when they have very clearly defined sex roles for each partner, like “top” or “bottom”—their sex lives often become routine and boring. When sex is the same every time, it can lead to a drop in how satisfied we feel, as well as how often we want to do it with that partner.

Human beings—regardless of gender and sexual orientation—are turned on by novelty and newness due to something called The Coolidge Effect. The basic idea behind this concept is that familiarity and predictability end up reducing sexual arousal. For example, if you watch the same porn clip every day for a week, you’ll progressively find it to be less arousing over time. However, switch it up with a new clip and arousal will come roaring back. This has been demonstrated in scientific studies. In other words, we need novelty to keep sexual passion and excitement alive.

This is where having broad definitions of sex can come in handy—sex can’t become routine if there isn’t a script and if it’s different every time.

All of this is to say something pretty radical: perhaps gay men would be well served by thinking about sex a little more like lesbians do. To be clear, by this I simply mean that gay men might be happier by taking a more expansive view of what sex means.

Sex doesn’t have to be just one thing. It can be whatever you want it to be.

So mix it up. Explore your body. Experiment with different activities and sensations. And, above all, rather than focusing on achieving certain goals, make pleasure central to your definition of sex.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Future Method, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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