Earlier this year, Dr Jamie Lawson held an event in our Institute of Sexology gallery exploring ideas of sex and gender and how they are constructed. Here, Jamie asks a very simple question: what is sex? The answer, however, is less simple than you might think.

Sex, as an activity, turns out to be a slippery thing, by which I mean it’s troublingly hard to define. To some extent we all know what we’re talking about when we talking about “having sex”, but there’s room for disagreement. The edges of “sex” seem…porous.

Which can be a problem. There are a number of reasons why we might want to define sex; most pressing of which is that we need to have more conversations about it. We need to do that because quite a lot of people seem to be having bad sex. Bad sex in this context is sex that is not consensual, sex that is not pleasurable or sex that is not safe. Sex that is, in summary, the opposite of awesome. If people want to have sex at all, they should be able to have awesome sex.

It seems not unreasonable to suggest that the awesomeness of sex will increase the more openly we can discuss it, but in order to talk about something, we kind of need to agree what we’re talking about. Otherwise our conversation is going to be at cross purposes: we’ll end up staring at each other with a puzzled look on our faces before pretending we need to check the time just so we can text a friend to tell them about this totally strange conversation we’re having.

Chinese statue of a man and woman engaged in sexual foreplay.

Chinese statue of a couple engaged in sexual foreplay.

This post is going to present you with a crash course in the slipperiness of sex. There aren’t easy answers here, but it’s important we are at least aware of the issues at play.

While the field of sexology owes a great deal to Victorian writers such as Havelock Ellis, Kraft Ebing and von Hirschfeld, sex received very little in the way of systematic study prior to the 20th Century. In the 1950s and ’60s, Masters and Johnson blew the lid off sex research in the UK in much the same way as Kinsey had done in the States in the 1940s. Where Kinsey took his surveys to as many different areas of American society as he could, Masters and Johnson brought as many different kinds of people as they could into their lab and subjected the process of sex to detailed, scientific scrutiny.

In 1966 they produced the “Human Sexual Response Cycle” graphs that describe sex in terms of increasing sexual arousal, orgasm and resolution. The graphs look slightly different for men and women: women get three different options, including one that tracks multiple orgasms; men only get one (line and orgasm). The ‘male’ graph contains something called a ‘refractory’ period, which describes a state immediately post orgasm where sex cannot be reinitiated, which is not included in the female models.

L0030564 Invocation a l'amour, c. 1825. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Erotic vignettes.

Erotic vignette: “Les charmes de la masturbation”.

The work conducted by Masters and Johnson was important in that it laid sex open for formal, scientific study. Sexology was given formal, academic credentials and sex became a thing that could be discussed within an academic setting. That is unarguably a good thing, but it comes with consequences.

Masters and Johnson medicalised sex. They described it in terms of physiology, in terms of erection, lubrication and orgasm. Those sexual response cycles became “normal”, and deviation from them became pathological. Suddenly it was possible to orgasm too quickly or too slowly or in the “wrong” way. Sex became a series of recognisable, classifiable stages, and people who experienced sex differently could be quickly dismissed and excluded from mainstream discussion. Masters and Johnson focussed sex on genitals, and on orgasm, and on relationships between male and female physiologies in ways which obscure an awful lot of variation in the way people experience sex.

Two men lie with their heads together.

A couple lying together.

For example, it turns out that a proportion of men are, or can learn to be, multiply orgasmic, a possibility which Masters and Johnson’s model does not allow. Nor does the emphasis on genitals describe sex particularly accurately for many people. Sex is frequently associated with preferences not just for specific body parts, but also for locations, body zones, particular acts at a particular frequency, or for particular sorts of power relationships or in particular sorts of clothes or costumes. We call this “kink” and it represents a fascinating challenge to the dominant discourses surrounding sex because it exposes a really important fact: people can get up to all sorts of different things and still call it sex.

Against this sort of backdrop, if our aim is to be inclusive, how might we begin to define sex?

Let’s try to keep things simple. We might divide people into two categories: virgins, who have never had sex, and non-virgins, who have. The first time a person has sex, they move from one category to the other in a way that is uni-directional and permanent (you can’t go back).

A woman and a man embrace.

A couple embrace.

So far, so good, but what behaviours actually move a person from one category to another? At what point during that first sexual experience do you move from being a virgin to being a non-virgin? Is orgasm necessary? Does oral sex count? How about mutual masturbation? Do genitals have to be involved? If so, which genitals, in what configurations? What effect might sexual orientation have here? How do straight people become non-virgins? Is it different from the way gay people do? How do gay men lose their virginity? How do lesbians? The more you think about it, the more it seems that we have a very real possibility that people might disagree about what sex actually is, in ways that make it impossible to say that anyone in particular is objectively correct.

Two men kissing.

Two people kissing.

In 1999, Sanders & Reinisch published a study on this issue. They asked 599 people whether they would “say they had had sex if the most intimate behaviour they had engaged in was…” and then described a whole list of acts: mutual masturbation; giving or receiving oral sex; vaginal penetration; deep kissing; and anal penetration. They found that, while 99.9% of the sample (i.e. most, but not all) agreed that vaginal penetration qualified as sex, whereas 81% thought that anal sex counted. That means 19% of people surveyed thought that anal sex was not actually sex. 2% of people stated that heavy kissing alone was enough to turn an encounter into sex; not many, perhaps, but still some. Other results from the paper are given in the table below. Have a look; it’s fairly clear that individual people can vary in their definitions of what sex actually is.

Individuals may vary, but society as a whole seems to have its own opinions regarding what sex is or at least what sex needs to be to be “acceptable”. Last year, the British Government extended to online video sales a law governing DVDs that renders videos containing certain sexual acts illegal for sale. It is currently illegal to charge money for videos containing, among a few other things, spanking, caning, physical or verbal abuse (regardless of if it’s consensual), watersports, fisting, face sitting or female ejaculation.

The list is almost hilariously arbitrary (although various commenters have pointed out that these particular acts are associated most frequently with porn made for and by women), but signals clearly that our society treats certain kinds of sex as transgressive, as undesirable. The existence of “undesirable” sex, of course, implies that there is “desirable” sex. As feminist anthropologist Gayle Rubin has clearly argued, Western society has constructed an idea of “good” (i.e. morally good, acceptable) sex that is heterosexual, penis-in-vagina and, ultimately, reproductive.

A couple making love.

A couple making love.

Basing a definition of sex on reproduction may seem, at first glance, like a fairly obvious move. Sex is, after all, one of the two dominant modes of reproduction available to life on earth. Living things tend to reproduce sexually (reproducing with another individual), asexually (reproducing by themselves) or, very occasionally, both. If we focus our discussion on this point, “sex”, for our species, becomes an act of procreation, and all the emphasis on penis-in-vagina sex follows from there.

If that’s our starting point, then the focus on heterosexual, monogamous, non-kinky, committed sex becomes logical because those are the ways in which we, as society, expect children to be produced. Except, of course, that children can be and have been produced in all sorts of ways that vary from that particular set of circumstances. Another exception is the fact that people have more sex than they have babies. These two exceptions alone makes the connection between sex and reproduction problematic.

Intracytoplasmic sperm injection, a method of in IVF that is used to treat infertile couples when standard IVF techniques are not likely to be successful.

Intracytoplasmic sperm injection, a method of in IVF that is used to treat infertile couples when standard IVF techniques are not likely to be successful.

If not reproduction, then what should we be emphasising when we talk about sex? One logical alternative seems to be pleasure, which is, after all, a fairly regular outcome of sex. Interestingly, groups who have sex for pleasure are regularly targets of social disapproval, legal sanctions and occasionally violent oppression: gay or bisexual people, sex workers, kinky people, women who assert sexual agency, etc. Having sex for pleasure attracts instant and negative attention, in ways that really shore up that dominant “sex is reproduction” idea. Debates and reactions to the availability of contraception add to an array of evidence pointing in one direction: having sex for pleasure seems to be a particularly transgressive act.

If our central focus for discussions about sex becomes pleasure rather than reproduction, suddenly there’s room to move conversations away from an exclusive focus on penises and vaginas and to recognise that, given that people are going to vary in what they find pleasurable, of course definitions of sex are likely to vary between individuals. How might one go about actually having sex in this sort of situation? How can I, a person with my own personal definition of sex and my own list of sexual wants, wills and won’ts, obtain sex if people have different definitions and lists from me?

“Talk Sex”.

The earth shattering solution to this problem is simple: we talk about it. We compare definitions and lists and come to mutual agreements about how sex between us is going to function. Conversations about sex need to happen first and foremost between people who want to have it with each other. We need to get used to talking openly about sex, because the only other option is for sex to carry on not being awesome…and with a solution so simple, there’s really no excuse for that.


Dr Jamie Lawson is an anthropologist and sexologist working at Durham University. He enjoys taking concepts people thought they understood and making them complicated, especially sexuality.

2 thoughts on “What is sex, anyway?

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