What Is Sex?

What is sex? Some people define sex as penile penetration of the vagina, but others have a broader definition for “What is Sex?” 

This topic explores what people define as “sex” when they say they have had sex or are sexually active.

There are many definitions for the phrase “sex act” in dictionaries: “the act of sexual intercourse”;1 “an act performed with another for sexual gratification”;2 “any act involving sexual stimulation.”3

There seems to be no definition of what it means to be sexually active. Some only include penetration, others may include masturbation as a sexual activity, but some practicing abstinence may not.4 Many don’t include non-consensual activity like rape in their definition of having had sex.5

The definition of what sex is should probably be left to each individual, even though one’s definition of what sex is may be unclear and change over time, circumstances and events.

The sourced articles below should provide more information on what sex (and sexuality) is and is not.

Footnotes: 1. oxforddictionaries.com, accessed 3/20/2019; 2. merriam-webster.com, accessed 3/20/2019; 3. collinsdictionary.com, accessed 3/20/2019; 4. “Abstinence,”soc.ucsb.edu, 6/6/2017; 5. “What Does It Mean To Be A Virgin?” plannedparenthood.org, accessed 3/20/2019

  1. What Is Sex?

    “Sex means different things to different people. Above all, it is a healthy and natural activity. It is something most people enjoy and find meaningful even if they create meaning in different ways. Whether you are straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer or questioning, you have the right to decide what sex means to you. Are you unsure about your sexual interests? Are you curious about what you might enjoy? Are you wondering if you are ready for sex? These kinds of questions are perfectly normal! Sex is not just vaginal intercourse. Sex is pretty much anything that feels sexual. How YOU choose to define sex might be a moving target during your teen years. Your sexual interests may change over time, and that’s okay too.”

    Teen Health Source, teenhealthsource.com, accessed on 3/20/2019

  2. What’s Sex?

    “People define ‘sex’ in different ways. Some people believe that it only counts as sex if a penis goes into a vagina, but this isn’t true for everybody. Different types of sex include:
    [1.] Vaginal sex (penis-in-vagina intercourse)
    [2.] Oral sex (mouth-to-genital contact)
    [3.] Anal sex (penis-in-butt intercourse)
    [4.] Fingering or hand jobs (hand-to-genital contact)
    [5.] Dry humping or genital rubbing
    [6.] Masturbation (touching yourself)
    Whatever sex means to you, being sexual with another person comes with a lot of responsibility. Before you have sex, think about what things you feel comfortable doing, ask what the other person feels comfortable doing, and think about any risks involved — like STDs or pregnancy — and how to help prevent them.”

    Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc., plannedparenthood.org, accessed on 3/20/2019

  3. How Does Outercourse Work?

    “Many couples want to be sexual with each other without having vaginal sex and/or risking pregnancy. Outercourse can prevent pregnancy the same way abstinence does: by keeping sperm away from an egg. Using outercourse as birth control means you do some sexual activities, but you don’t have vaginal sex (penis-in-vagina) or get any semen (cum) in the vagina. This way, the sperm cells in semen can’t get to an egg and cause pregnancy.”

    Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc., plannedparenthood.org, accessed on 3/20/2019

  4. What Does It Mean To Be A Virgin?

    “A virgin is someone who’s never had sex — but it’s not quite as simple as it seems. That’s because sex means different things to different people, so virginity can mean different things, too. A lot of people think that having penis-in-vagina sex for the first time is how you lose your virginity. But this leaves lots of people and other types of sex out of the picture. … Many people believe rape and sexual assault aren’t sex — it’s only sex if both partners have consent. So if someone was forced or pressured the first time they had vaginal sex, oral sex, or anal sex, they may not see that as ‘losing their virginity.'”

    Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc., plannedparenthood.org, accessed on 3/20/2019

  5. What Is Sexual Violence?

    “Sexual violence is sexual activity when consent in not obtained or not freely given. It is a serious public health problem in the United States. Sexual violence impacts every community and affects people of all genders, sexual orientations, and ages—anyone can experience or perpetrate sexual violence. The perpetrator of sexual violence is usually someone known to the victim, such as a friend, current or former intimate partner, coworker, neighbor, or family member.”

    National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention, cdc.gov, 3/12/2019

  6. Oral Not Being Actual Sex Is A Myth

    “Some small fraction of the population really does only define sexual behavior as activities that can lead to conception. However, most people who are asking whether oral sex is sex aren’t asking whether oral sex can get them pregnant. (Barring extraordinary circumstances, that answer is no.) What most people want to know, when they’re asking if oral sex is sex, is whether oral sex:
    [1.] Could violate the rules of an exclusive sexual relationship,
    [2.] Might get them in trouble with their parents or their church,
    [3.] Puts them at risk for a sexually transmitted disease or other negative outcomes.”

    Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, verywellhealth.com, 11/16/2018

  7. Better Sex As You Age

    “Sexuality necessarily takes on a broader definition as we age. Try to open up to the idea that sex can mean many things, and that closeness with a partner can be expressed in many ways. It’s not just about intercourse. Sex can also be about emotional pleasure, sensory pleasure, and relationship pleasure. Intercourse is only one way to have fulfilling sex. Touching, kissing, and other intimate sexual contact can be just as rewarding for both you and your partner. … As you age, it’s normal for you and your partner to have different sexual abilities and needs. Find new ways to enjoy sexual contact and intimacy. You may have intercourse less often than you used to, but the closeness and love you feel will remain.”

    Jocelyn Block, MA, Melinda Smith, MA, and Jeanne Segal, PhD, helpguide.org, 11/2018

  8. 17 Sex Terms You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask About, Defined

    “Additionally, if you’re wondering if any given sex act is really a thing, keep in mind the wise words of sex educator Jimanekia Eborn: ‘Everything is a thing, is basically what I have learned working in sex education.’ In other words, if you can dream it, you can do it — or at least rest assured that someone else has probably tried to. With that being said, here are 17 sex terms you probably didn’t learn in sex ed, explained.
    [1.] Pearl Necklace …
    [2.] Impact Play …
    [3.] Squirting …
    [4.] CBT … ‘cock and ball torture.’ …
    [5.] Pegging …
    [6.] Queening …
    [7.] Scissoring …
    [8.] Edge Play …
    [9.] Figging …
    [10.] Aftercare …
    [11.] Felching …
    [12.] Bukkake …
    [13.] Docking …
    [14.] Cuckolding …
    [15.] Water Sports …
    [16.] Fisting …
    [17.] Queefing … may not be a sex act, exactly, but it frequently happens during sex.”

    Sophie Saint Thomas, allure.com, 9/20/2018

  9. Sex And Gender: What Is The Difference?

    “In general terms, ‘sex’ refers to the biological differences between males and females, such as the genitalia and genetic differences.
    ‘Gender’ is more difficult to define, but it can refer to the role of a male or female in society, known as a gender role, or an individual’s concept of themselves, or gender identity.”

    Tim Newman, Reviewed by Karen Cross, FNP, MSN, medicalnewstoday.com, 2/7/2018

  10. What “Counts” As Sex To Gay, Lesbian, And Bisexual Adults?

    “However, the most interesting part of this study is that sexual minority men seemed to have a ‘gold standard’ for sex, whereas sexual minority women did not. In other words, gay and bisexual men adopted much narrower views of sex (i.e., they counted fewer activities) compared to lesbian and bisexual women.”

    Dr. Justin Lehmiller, lehmiller.com, 10/9/2017

  11. What Counts As Sex?

    “While people of all sexual orientations rated intercourse as most representative of having had sex, interestingly, gay men scored the highest on believing that anal penetration constituted sex, compared to heterosexual men and women and lesbians. The latter group scored the lowest, but rated non mutual penetrative sex acts (e.g., nipple play; deep kissing; masturbating on the phone simultaneously) as more likely to count as sex than heterosexual men or women, or gay men. So what counts as sex? The answer depends partially on what your sexual orientation is. The nature of your sexual and romantic attractions will shape what you consider sex.”

    Nathan A Heflick, PhD, psychologytoday.com, 9/30/2017

  12. Don’t Buy The Idea Teens Are Having Less Sex Until You Take A Closer Look At The Data

    “And mostly, because it’s complicated. There is no universal definition of what counts as sex. People might say, ‘it wasn’t sex because it was brief, or not consensual or, nobody had an orgasm. Or they might say that oral sex is not sex. On that debate the split in opinion is stark, often coming out 50/50.’ say Sanders. ‘That is, until you ask *if your boyfriend had oral sex with another person, does that count as sex?* You bet it does.'”

    Sarah Slobin, qz.com, 9/23/2017

  13. When A Doctor Asks, “Are You Sexually Active?” What Do They Mean?

    “The sexual history often starts with ‘Are you sexually active?’ which translated means ‘Have you ever or are you having now sex of any kind? Any intimate contact with anyone? Oral sex? Anal sex? Vaginal sex? Making out? Anything? With anyone – same sex, opposite sex, both, neither? This part should include questions about sexual orientation or gender identity as well.”

    Dr. Offutt, realtalkwithdroffutt.org, 8/21/2017; (Broken link removed 3/2023)

  14. Why Men Say They’ve Had More Sex Partners Than Women

    “Perhaps most interesting of all the reasons these studies might skew higher for men is that, eager to keep that number up, men may toss in nearly anything remotely sexual as a sex act in their tally. According to Schmitt over at Psychology Today, men count more sexual interactions as sex than women do. ‘Because men consider more sexual behaviors to count as sex than women (e.g., oral sex, intimate massages), this might lead men to report, on average, higher numbers of past sex partners than women do,’ he writes.”

    Tracy Moore, melmagazine.com, 7/19/2017

  15. Sexual Activities List: An Incomplete List Of Different Sexual Activities

    “Take for example the term ‘having sex.’ Do you remember learning for the first time what that meant? If you do, it probably had something to do with intercourse. But in practice, as an adult, do you only say you had sex when intercourse was involved? Probably not. Which brings us to a basic question we rarely talk about: What is included in having sex and what isn’t? When does a touch become a sexual activity?”

    Cory Silverberg, liveabout.com, 7/14/2017

  16. You Asked It: What Does “Sexually Active” Mean?

    “My doctor asked me if I was sexually active, and I didn’t know how to respond. What does that mean?
    – Great question! The phrase ‘sexually active’ is a bit vague, and you’re definitely not the first person to be confused by it. Many people think that being sexually active means that they’ve had penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex. But being sexually active can include a variety of sex acts, including oral sex (blow job, giving head, going down on, eating out), anal sex, and manual sex (giving or receiving a hand job, or fingering someone else or being fingered).”

    Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, teenhealthcare.org, 5/19/2017

  17. Sexual Behavior, Definitions Of Sex, And The Role Of Self-Partner Context Among Lesbian, Gay, And Bisexual Adults

    Abstract: “Prior research has examined how heterosexual individuals define sex; however, these studies have rarely focused on sexual minority individuals or included a full range of applicable sexual behaviors. Participants were recruited from a local Pride Festival across two years. Study 1 (N = 329) was primarily descriptive and examined which physically intimate behaviors lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) participants included in their definitions of sex and the behaviors in which they had previously engaged. Study 2 (N = 393) utilized a between-subjects design to assess differences in definitions of sex when judging one’s own behavior compared with that of a partner outside of the relationship. The behaviors in which participants were most likely to have engaged were manual-genital (82%) and oral-genital stimulation (79%). Regarding definitions of sex, a clear ‘gold standard’ emerged for men, with 90% endorsing penile-anal intercourse as sex. No equally clear standard existed for women. Participants who were asked to consider their partner’s behavior outside of their relationship were more likely to endorse the behavior as ‘having sex’ than participants asked to consider their own behavior. This study addressed a major limitation of prior research by investigating definitions of sex among a community sample of LGB adults, with implications for provision of health care and sexual agreements between same-sex couples.”

    Kelsey K. Sewell, Larissa A. McGarrity, and Donald S. Strassberg, The Journal of Sex Research, Taylor & Francis Ltd, tandfonline.com, 11/29/2016

  18. 5 Myths About Virginity, Busted

    “What is a virgin? The word is generally understood to refer to someone who’s never had sex, but that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Does oral sex count? If a woman only has sex with other women, is she a virgin? A woman who has only experienced forcible intercourse or rape is considered in some cultures to have ‘lost her virginity,’ as if she were somehow at fault—which is completely unfair, sexist, and wrong! It may be useful to remember that there can be a first time for many sexual activities, from first kiss to first genital touches to first orgasm, rather than to focus on virginity status.”

    Paula J. Adams Hillard, MD, bedsider.org, 10/31/2016

  19. 5 Liberating Reasons Why I’ve Broadened My Definition Of ‘Sex’

    “Now, I think of sex as anything that brings me sexual pleasure. And that can be defined however feels right in each moment. It doesn’t have to involve below-the-belt touching, and it doesn’t even have to be done in person. It’s just a connection with another person that feels sexual. Anyone else is free to define sex as they wish.”

    Suzannah Weiss, everydayfeminism.com, 7/3/2016

  20. If I Have Oral Sex, Am I Still A Virgin?

    “My friends say if you have oral sex you’re not a virgin any more. Is that true?
    – I get this question a lot — people from before adolescence to middle age want to know what ‘counts’ as real sex. Here’s the thing — virginity as an idea is not the most helpful way to think about what we want in our sexual lives. When people talk about virginity, they’re usually talking about only one kind of sex (vaginal intercourse) and only including one kind of couple (straight and cisgender). Women often get judged for not being virgins, and men get judged for being virgins. And queer people are basically not being talked about at all! As an idea, it doesn’t help us live better, healthier, more vibrant sexual lives.”

    Lena Solow, teenvogue.com, 3/31/2016