What is sex?

According to researchers, adults don't agree on a definition

Topics: Sex, Broadsheet, Sex Education, Love and Sex,

It’s a question usually brought by kids to unnerved parents, but recently researchers at the Kinsey Institute asked adults just how they define sex. The results show that we aren’t in total agreement. The strongest consensus is that penile-vaginal intercourse does indeed count as sex. But what about oral sex or anal sex — do those things really count as, you know, sex sex? It all depends on who you ask.

The study, published in the February issue of the journal Sexual Health, randomly surveyed 486 adults, most of them heterosexual, between the ages of 18 and 96. They were asked the following question: “Would you say you ‘had sex’ with someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was [blank],” and then followed more than a dozen “behavior specific items.” A press release reports that “two out of ten people did not concur that penile-anal intercourse was sex, and three out of ten said ‘no’ to oral-genital activity, as did half of the respondents about manual-genital contact.” And, while 95 percent classified penile-vaginal penetration as sex (one has to wonder what does count for the remaining 5 percent), that number dropped to 89 percent in cases where the man doesn’t ejaculate.

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The disagreement doesn’t come as much of a surprise after witnessing the circus surrounding former president Bill Clinton’s awfully convenient personal definition of “sexual relations,” or the innumerable debates over whether cyber sex classifies as cheating. Clearly, people have very different ideas about not only how to define sex but also what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior. But this study doesn’t just have implications for sexual fidelity. Brandon Hill, a research associate at the Kinsey Institute, explains, ”Researchers, doctors, parents, sex educators should all be very careful and not assume that their own definition of sex is shared by the person they’re talking to, be it a patient, a student, a child or study participant.” 

Tracy Clark-Flory
Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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