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doing “it”: definitions of sex in the twenty-first century

Image: Tom Morris

Image: Tom Morris

Sex often inspires differing opinions about what actually constitutes “It.”  If a lady pal says she had sex with a younger guy from Batemans Bay, it’s often standard for it to be assumed that penetration was involved.

I was in a way directly asked about definitions of sex by a friend who assumed I was a bit of an expert because I’m queer. I was asked by my well-meaning friend: ‘How do lesbians have sex?’ I replied with perhaps too much fervour and frustration: ‘By having sex! By having sex!It would have seemed like I was yelling ‘by putting a penis in the vagina’. But what my friend really wanted to know was: ‘How do lesbians have sex if there is no penis involved? What do they do if they are not interacting with a cock?’ This shows a serious lack of imagination but also a limited idea of what sexual contact is. In my raised voice, what I was trying to say was that the act of sex “is” whatever lesbians are getting up to.  What I had hoped to express was that all acts of sexuality, by whoever is doing them, are “sex”.

My struggle to define what I meant by sex led me to conduct some research into common definitions. What I found was enraging but revealing. Our common definitions tend to back up heteronormative feelings about what sex is at its most basic. An online dictionary stated that sex is ‘genital contact, especially the insertion of the penis into the vagina, followed by orgasm.’ The Oxford Online Dictionary defines the same again: ‘Sexual contact between individuals involving penetration, especially the insertion of a man’s erect penis into a woman’s vagina, typically culminating in orgasm and the ejaculation of semen.’  The Collins Australian Dictionary sees it as ‘…the physical activity by which people and animals produce young.’ Sexual intercourse by the Collins Dictionary is ‘…the physical act of sex between a man and a woman.’ What is immediately frustrating is that there is a lot here about cis men and women getting off in a procreative manner.

From this discovery I started using the term ‘dictionary sex’ to separate the common understanding of sex and my new definition. Dictionary sex is a term I now use when I am referring to the traditional ideas of sex as exclusively going on between cis men and women with only penis and vaginal involvement.  I use “sex” now as an umbrella term for any possible variety of sexual activities with any possible variety of person, orientation or gender.

I continued my analysis and found a number of other problems. What these dictionary terms show is that there exists in our language an idea that there is a “real sex” and that “certain” genital involvement constitutes “it”. A traditional view of sex, where it always involves a penis and vagina, makes it seem that sex is not valid or real if it does not involve these parts. What the dictionary implies by placing contact between the penis and the vagina as The Sex Act (as it is the only one defined) is that other forms of sexual contact are insignificant. It excludes other forms of penetration and a huge variety of other sexual activity from being mentioned. This reinforces an old idea that sex is about procreation, not pleasure. Also, by making other forms of sexual contact invisible, it in turn renders non-heterosexual groups invisible. The LGBTQ community already suffers incredible oppression and erasure, and it is heartbreaking that this continues in our basic definitions.

The way we talk about sex also relates to how we see genders as appropriately functioning.  The inevitable perception of ‘insertion of the penis into the vagina’ is that it places the penis as active, as doing. This is similar to how men are stereotyped and encouraged to be driven, ambitious and assertive. ‘Into the vagina’ implies that the vagina is passive; having things “done” to it, which echoes sexist feminine traits. The vagina is not passive, unmoving or a door to be pushed through. Our definitions and dictionaries have obviously not been influenced by the newest scientific research in Vagina by Naomi Woolf, nor by the Kama Sutra.

It hardly seems a taboo in the west for a woman to be on top or sexually dominant in a variety of ways, but if the penis is always the one “doing”; inserting, penetrating or any other terms reminiscent of spelunking, we are still stuck in rigid concepts of what are appropriate roles for women, men, vaginas, penises, and what it is to be heterosexual.

Gendered sexual language continues its influence over how virginity is typically talked about as well. Just as sex is seen traditionally as involving a penis, it is also seen a responsible for rendering the vagina – and thus the woman – intrinsically altered when the penis is experienced for the first time by her. Virginity is not awarded to other parts of the body or sex acts.  This traditional idea continues the trend of heterocentric thinking that places significance on “procreative” corridors and organs.

The Collins Australian Dictionary sees virginity or to be a virgin as ‘the state or condition of being pure, fresh, or unused.’  There is inherent in that concept, its opposite, which is a state of being used, dirty and old, which sets up a lurking value judgement in this view of virginity. There is no threshold of pure innocence that we “only” cross when we ladies encounter a penis on the inside of us. Our sex education and experiences start well before this point. Fantasies, making out, writing erotica, wearing latex, all these things and more, which we may explore alone or with others, are part of sexuality and knowing ourselves. We are not suddenly sexual beings upon having dictionary sex.

Virginity as any naive, uninitiated, or uninformed state’ is inclusive of the emotional, not just physical, realm of being new to sexuality.  The emotional weight of any sexual encounter should be tailored to each individual and their personal values placed upon it. The first time a person was kissed, bitten or whipped has no less intrinsic meaning then first contact with a penis. Some of my own traditional first experiences mean far less to me than other adventures later on because they were less pleasurable or with less emotionally caring and responsible people. A first vaginal experience with a penis should not automatically rank as the most important experience. To assume otherwise is phallocentric thinking that fits with patriarchy, not with human reality.

I use the term “virgin moments” now, as it embodies the idea that I have come to know, that people experience multiple, continuing firsts. Many of us observe sexual newness throughout our lives and often without ideals of purity and virginity blocking us or shaming us because they do not apply to those activities or body parts.

Definitions of sexual intercourse and virginity should not preference any act or group over another.  Sex is not limited to genital, anal, digital or oral acts. Sex can occur with yourself, with any multitude of people and sometimes sexual acts don’t include the genitals at all. Sex can be casual or powerful or intangible. The Ethical Slut sees that ‘for some people spanking is sex. For others, wearing a garter belt and stockings is sex.’ Scartleteen adds to this by saying: ‘What makes it real is about what you’re feeling and experiencing, not about what you’re doing or what’s recognised as real by someone else.’ Sex is not always easy to define but in the twenty-first century, we should have definitely moved on from the idea that sex is only going on when there is a penis and vagina party.


2 thoughts on “doing “it”: definitions of sex in the twenty-first century

  1. Very observant! I especially like your analysis of the dictionary definition pointing to the passivity of the female and the male as the aggressor. I think this is not just a problem in the definition of sex in general but also very much underlying the reason why women continue to be abused and exploited and trafficked.

    I think your observation of the limited definition of sex (i.e. only limited to penetration) is also part of the problem in groups that promote abstinence. I’m all for abstinence, but our limited definition makes it very hard for especially teenager to comprehend what is and what is not abstinence.

    Keep writing.

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