What is sex?
Editor's note: This is a sex education column that contains explicit and graphic content.
Note from the reporter: I write about sexuality because I believe that people have a right to accurate information and that good sexuality education works to create a more equal and just world by emphasizing bodily autonomy, consent, and diversity in sexuality. Sex education should include information people can actually use and apply into their sexual lives (while the science behind how a pregnancy is created is fascinating, it is not ultimately as useful for people than, say, a discussion of contraceptives or condom usage is). Finally, good sexuality education is also feminist and queer education and strives to provide justice for people who have been abused because of their sex or gender and provides information condemning sexual abuse, assault, and rape.
What is sex?
When most people hear the word sex, they think of the casual definition: penis-in-vagina intercourse. There are a few problems with considering this definition to be the one and only answer.
Firstly, this definition does not represent the LGBT community. For example, can sex occur if both partners have vulvas and vaginas? If we’re sticking to our answer of penile penetration being sex, then no, that isn’t considered to be sexual intercourse. The casual definition seems to be problematic, for it does not matter what body parts or what gender identity the partners have.
Queer sex is still sex, but it does not carry the same health risks as vaginal intercourse, right? Well, that’s not true, either. Manual and oral sex both carry STI risks, while anal sex is usually far riskier than vaginal sex. From a medical standpoint, if you have engaged in these forms of sexual activity, you’re considered sexually active.
Also, for many, vaginal intercourse by itself doesn’t feel all that great. It is the clitoris that has the greatest amount of nerve endings. It is through clitoral stimulation that most people will get aroused and orgasm. The vagina doesn’t have that many nerve endings, especially its outer two thirds. This is another reason why associating sex with only vaginal intercourse excludes a lot of the act.
Vaginal intercourse is the only form of sex that pertains to one losing virginity, right? The hymen breaks and then an individual is no longer a virgin, so vaginal intercourse is the “right” form of sex, right?
Much of the information surrounding the loss of virginity is not based upon fact. There is no way of knowing, by looking at someone’s vulva and hymen, whether they were a virgin or not.
If you were born with a vulva, you were probably born with a hymen. Throughout life, the hymen stretches and holes form as a result of activities including bike riding, gymnastics, inserting tampons, and masturbating. By the time most people reach adolescence, their hymen wears away. Pieces of it will remain throughout one’s lifetime. Consider the following: how could someone, with a still fully intact hymen, menstruate? If someone were to have a membrane covering their vulva, they would not be able to menstruate. Some people have resilient hymens and they have their hymens removed for this very reason. There are surgeries to restore the hymen but save your money.
Some people will say this goes against their personal experience, because they may bleed during their first experience of intercourse. However, it's a common misconception when one believes the bleeding is caused by the tearing of the hymen. When we’re nervous, our muscles tense up, including the muscles in the vagina. Pain, with bleeding as a result, is more likely to be felt when we’re feeling this way but continue with intercourse. Since many people are nervous the first time they have sex, it makes sense that bleeding occurs then.
In an article by Heather Corinna titled “Get Real! Myths & Realities of Bleeding with First Intercourse,” Corinna describes the long history of virginity being used as a metric to value the worth of women. Men would not marry women who were believed to have lost their virginity because men considered them to be worthless. Men believed there was a risk of not knowing if the children she had would be his. Many older women knew the bride might not bleed the first time, so they showed her how to soak up a sponge of animal blood. She would insert it into her vagina, so she wouldn’t get hurt if her husband assumed she wasn’t a virgin. It’s gross, in more ways than one.
Besides the reasons why vaginal intercourse is not the only form of sex, the question remains: what is sex? In my opinion, sex is consensual, mutual erotic pleasure. That’s it.
This open-ended definition includes everyone. By this definition, forms of sex where no one is touching another person’s genitals are as valid as ones that do. Things that most people might not consider sexual, but others do, such as fetishes, become equal. It doesn’t say things like oral, anal, or manual sex are "the best". Those forms of sex also carry risk of STIs, and so you should use protection when doing those. Penis-in-vagina intercourse also carries chance of pregnancy.
My definition also includes masturbation. Masturbation isn’t any better or worse than partnered sex, but it is a very different form of sex. Sometimes we’re not in the right mindset to think about another partner. That’s when it makes sense to masturbate instead. One form of sex does not replace the other. They’re both equal, and people can choose what they want without being shamed.
According to my view, neither partner must reach orgasm for the act to be considered a valid form of sex. That takes the pressure off both partners. Everyone can think about feeling good. Besides, when the focus is shifted from reaching orgasm, orgasms can still be reached and often better felt. Even people whose genitals can’t get aroused can still have amazing sex. In this definition, sex includes so much more than genitals. Your whole body and mind are capable of pleasure!
In this model, virginity can be a good thing. If there are endless forms of sex, then there are endless ways to lose your virginity, no matter your experience. If you’re trying something new and being creative, then you may have lost your virginity to that one act. Every time you have sex with someone else, you’re losing your virginity all over again. You're getting to know other bodies and what other people like, because everyone is different.
This definition is new for many people and stands in stark contrast with the former. It’s okay to throw away the sexual scripts that aren’t working for us and write new ones. Society may perpetrate certain stereotypes and standards, but these stereotypes and standards need not enter the bedroom. At the end of the day, the foundation of sex is mutual respect and kindness. As long as we’ve got those things, we should be ourselves. Sex should be the place where you can be who you are, so long as you’re allowing the freedom for your partner to be themselves, too.