There was a moment midway through my high school sex education class when it suddenly became clear that we had been having two entirely different conversations in the class. When my teacher said “sex,” she meant everything from third base to home plate, but we students instead heard “sex sex” — you know, penetrative intercourse as opposed to relations of the oral variety. This was just a couple of years after the Bill Clinton sex scandal, which might have reinforced that particular definition; sadly, it didn’t teach us, or our teacher, that there isn’t a clear consensus on what constitutes “sexual relations” and that it’s worth double-checking that everyone is on the same page.
Roughly a decade later, it seems little has changed: Only 20 percent of college students participating in a Guttmacher study defined “oral-genital contact” as “sex.” There was resounding agreement, however, that vaginal (98 percent) and anal intercourse (78 percent) do count as sex. The survey of 477 university students was conducted in 2007 and reveals a dramatic change over the years: A similar poll taken in 1991 found that twice as many university students defined oral sex as for-real sex. The Guttmacher study blames this shift on “the Clinton-Lewinsky effect.” Another possible factor, the researchers suggest, is that sex-ed programs tend to focus on vaginal penetration, especially when it comes to preventing STDs. And let’s not forget “that the shift paralleled a surging emphasis on abstinence-only education by the administration of President George W. Bush.” (Mm-hmm.)
Just as with the recent survey finding that even adult adults (generational translation: people over 40) have some disagreement about what exactly constitutes sex, this is a reminder that when we talk about the birds and the bees it might be best to avoid euphemisms like … the birds and the bees. The implication for presidential sex scandals is one thing, the potential for misunderstandings in the classroom is quite another.