It’s time to expand your definition of sex

More pleasure is better for everyone

Written by Justin Lehmiller

How do you define sex?

Survey studies show that different people define sex in dramatically different ways. However, a common thread that runs through most definitions is that it involves penetration. This view is especially prevalent among cisgender, heterosexual persons, but it’s also commonly seen among many sexual and gender minorities.

For example, in a study of how gay men define sex, the only activity that a majority agreed counted as sex was penetrative anal intercourse. 

This idea of sex-as-penetration has its roots in cultural teachings about sex, which tend to define it in pretty narrow, heteronormative terms. For example, most sex ed courses in the United States emphasize penile-vaginal penetration, with other activities being rarely or never mentioned. 

This feeds the popular notion that sex isn’t really sex unless penetration occurs. However, while commonly held, this view disenfranchises everyone.

For one thing, it’s not inclusive of how sexually diverse individuals engage. For another, it creates pressure to stick to a lifelong sexual script that ultimately ends up limiting our opportunities for pleasure and sets the stage for sexual disagreement and disappointment.

It’s time to flip the script and expand our definitions of sex in the interest of inclusivity, pleasure, and sexual health and wellness. In this article, we’ll explore four key ways that changing the way we define sex can benefit us all.

Expansive definitions of sex can make sex ed useful for everyone

The current state of sex education in the United States is not at all inclusive. Case in point: just 8.2% of LGBTQ+ students who received any sex ed say that it was LGBTQ+ inclusive. But it’s not just sexual and gender minorities who are left out. Students with disabilities are, too.

And that’s not to mention the fact that sex ed in general is targeted toward emerging adults, whereas people of all ages need sex ed as well because our sexual wants and needs, our bodies and what brings us pleasure change over time. So when we limit sex ed just to this early developmental period, we disenfranchise middle-age and older adults who never really learned what they need to know. 

One way of helping sex ed work for everyone is to make it comprehensive and to emphasize how sex might look different to different people at different stages of life. In doing so, we can reduce growing reliance on porn as sex ed for the youth who are left out, which can leave viewers with inaccurate ideas about both sex and the human body. 

Further, people can learn what they need to know to protect and maintain their sexual health in the context of their own unique sexuality. And we can all be better prepared to adapt as things change over time.

Expansive definitions of sex can reduce sexual conflict in relationships and increase sexual opportunities

Those who define sex narrowly run the risk of more sexual disagreements arising in their relationships. For example, if one partner is in the mood for intercourse but the other is not, this can potentially lead to conflict and sexual frustration. 

But by expanding the sexual menu, you have the opportunity to suggest and pursue alternative ways of being intimate when you and your partner aren’t necessarily interested in the same activity. 

If you move from the view of sex-as-penetration to sex-as-intimacy, this opens up endless possibilities for meeting everyone’s needs and building closer and more satisfying relationships. 

Expansive definitions of sex promote more satisfying sexual experiences over the lifespan

As we age, our bodies change in many ways, which can have a profound impact on our sexual functioning. If you have ovaries, you’ll eventually go through menopause, which will result in a sharp decline in the production of sex hormones that can produce side effects such as vaginal dryness. If you have testes, you’ll experience a more gradual decline in hormone production, which can potentially lead to erectile issues. 

The result is that, as we get older, penetrative intercourse can become more challenging. On top of that, other chronic illnesses that become more common with age (such as arthritis) can make certain sexual positions uncomfortable or impossible. 

People may also develop disabilities that can make it so that the sex they used to have is no longer possible or is less pleasurable. 

All of these changes necessitate expanding your view of sex in order to maintain an active and satisfying intimate life. This might include shifting from intercourse to “outercourse,” or incorporating various aides into sex, such as swings, pillows, or slings. It might also mean making sex less genitally focused. All of this might make sex look different than the sex you used to have, but it doesn’t have to be any less pleasurable or enjoyable. 

The earlier in life you abandon narrow definitions of sex, the more prepared you’ll be to maintain a healthy sex life for the long haul because you’ll see sex as a whole buffet of potentially satisfying options rather than a single entrée. Science supports this: research on seniors finds that those who retain narrow views of sex in older age are less sexually satisfied than those who take broader views of what sex can be. 

Expansive definitions of sex can improve healthcare and reduce health disparities 

The people we entrust to take care of our sexual health (our doctors) tend to have more expanded views of sex than the general public. For example, most of them count oral sex as sex, whereas most of their patients do not. 

However, they still tend to view sex through a penetration-focused, heteronormative lens. And when our doctors have different views of sex than we do, they may not necessarily ask the right questions of their patients, or they may make incorrect assumptions. As a result, patients’ sexual health may suffer. 

For instance, just because someone isn’t engaging in penetrative sexual activities, their risk of STIs isn’t zero. STIs can potentially be spread through genital-genital contact and shared sex toys. 

It’s therefore important for our healthcare providers to expand their definitions of sex, too, in the interest of taking thorough sexual histories of their patients that identify their unique sexual health needs and providing culturally competent care. 

And if healthcare providers have more expanded views of sex and abandon harmful stereotypes, such as the idea that persons with disabilities are necessarily asexual, this can open the door to patients asking the questions they might otherwise be afraid to ask. By enhancing sexual communication, we can potentially reduce health disparities, such as the disproportionate burden of STIs on the LGBTQ+ community. 

What the LGBTQ+ community can teach us about how to define sex

There are some segments of the population that tend to take more expansive views of sex than others, such as lesbians, asexuals, and persons with disabilities. For example, in a study of how lesbian women define sex, a majority of them counted ten different activities, including non-penetrative activities such as genital rubbing. 

Likewise, in a study of how asexuals define sex, a majority of participants counted any activity that involves genital stimulation as sex, including use of sex toys. 

Research on persons with disabilities suggests that they also tend to take more expansive views and are more creative in their sexual expression.

These folks have the right idea: sex isn’t just one thing. And that’s a lesson that we would all benefit from. Sex can be anything you want it to be. And the sooner you start viewing sex through this lens, the better your sex life is likely to be (and the greater the odds that you’ll be satisfied over time). 

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