How Do You Define ‘Sex’?

Published: OCTOBER 15, 2015
Sexual activity is more than penetrative sex. For the best experience, make sure that both you and your partner are on the same, sexy page!

What counts as sexual activity? And why do definitions matter?


Well, let's start with one possible definition. According to Wikipedia, sexual activity can include anything done to express one's sexuality. It goes on to say that human sexual activity can follow sexual arousal. That’s a pretty good starting point. It acknowledges that there doesn’t need to be penetration, orgasm, nudity, or touching for something to be sexual.

That expansive view hasn’t always been the common understanding. However, advances in technology coupled with a broader awareness of alternative sexualities mean we’re starting to get past the insert Tab A into Slot B mentality around sex. With the rise of sexting and Web cameras, people are beginning to understand that you don’t even have to be in the same room (or even the same country!) to have a sexual interaction.

Why Does How We Define Sex Matter?

While having more ways to explore our sexualities is generally a good thing, it can also lead to some complications. When negotiating with a partner, it’s not enough to just say "sex" or "sexual activity" to get your point across. You must be specific. Defining our terms is an essential part of being understood. When two people have a different idea of what something means, difficult misunderstandings are likely to occur.


I ran into this problem myself a few months ago when a colleague and I were hired to run the kinky dungeon floor of a multi-level sexy party. In addition to teaching and giving people "tastings" of kink activities, we were in charge of monitoring the space. That meant enforcing the party rules and keeping everyone safe. So, of course, we needed to know what the party rules were. It was explained to us that each floor had a different sexual intensity so that people could decide what space they were comfortable in. For our floor, the dungeon, we were told that "everything except sex" was OK.

My colleague and I exchanged a glance and began to seek clarification about how what that actually meant.

"No penetration," they said.


"What about dildos?" we asked.

"And what about fingers?" we continued.

Our host was confused and stumped. They had a fairly simple view of sexual activity, and my colleague and I, both educators and personally involved in the kink and queer scenes, had a much broader view.


What Happens When We Expand Our View of Sexual Activity?

When we expand our view of sex and sexual acts, we have so many more options to fit a variety of circumstances. Not only that, but when we broaden our view of sex, we create new ways to interact and foster intimacy. We gain additional tools for negotiating in our relationships, and more skills to draw on when we need to change plans.

For people who focus on penetrative sex, it can seem like the end of the world when penetration isn’t an option for some reason. This is common among people who experience erection difficulties. When you’ve got more options in your tool kit, there are many more things you can do. Sure, there’s oral sex and hand sex. There’s also a wide variety of sex toys people can use together. What about erotic massage, or even kink practices like bondage or impact play? To expand even further, consider reading erotic literature together (or writing your own!) or watching a sexy film together. These could all be considered sexual activity too.

Expanding How We Connect With Others

For people who are in open relationships, or who like to attend kinky or sexy parties, it can be especially useful to have a expansive view of sex. When you’re clear on what sex means to you, it makes it easier to clearly negotiate with partners about what you do and don’t want to happen.


Also, consider the possibilities that open up when you have a range of ways to connect. When going on dates, sex doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can negotiate various levels of intensity, including many that won’t leave you open to STI risks. If you’re in a long distance relationship, you can keep connected without ever touching. (Learn more in 5 Ways to Add Heat to Long Distance Love Affairs.)

Even sexting and cam play are getting more interesting with the invention of toys that can be controlled from a remote location. People think technology is making human connection a thing of the past, but it’s all about how you use it. Let your far off sweetie control your orgasms with a tap of a phone app, and you’ll have a whole new perspective, not only on technology, but on the vast range of sexual activities people can engage in.

Stella Harris

Stella Harris is a certified intimacy educator, coach, and mediator, who uses a variety of tools to guide and empower her clients and she teaches everything from pleasure anatomy, to communication skills, to kink and BDSM. Stella has appeared at conferences across the US and Canada, and regularly provides workshops and guest lectures to colleges and universities. Stella’s writing has appeared widely, including a weekly sex advice column in her local paper. Highlights of her...

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