What Counts as Sex?

What is sex

Most of you at this point might be thinking that sex is an act of intercourse between two individuals. But does anal sex count? What if it is three people involved, but the one is not penetrated? What about masturbation?  What about anal sex?

Recent research headed by Ava Horowitz, a social psychologist at the University of Lincoln, surveyed 300 young adults (18-30; Mean age 20) about what they believe counts as sex. They found that it varies to a degree whether or not you are heterosexual.

In this study, a list of sexual experiences were listed on a piece of paper. The participants had to say next to each experience if they would believe this was sex if this were the most intimate behavior you experienced with your partner. These included intercourse (anal and vaginal), uni-directional sex acts (performing oral or manual stimulation on a partner), masturbation, and mutual masturbation (while on the computer or telephone).

While people of all sexual orientations rated intercourse as most representative of having had sex, interestingly, gay men scored the highest on believing that anal penetration constituted sex, compared to heterosexual men and women and lesbians. The latter group scored the lowest, but rated non mutual penetrative sex acts (e.g., nipple play; deep kissing; masterbating on the phone simultaneously) as more likely to count as sex than heterosexual men or women, or gay men.

So what counts as sex? The answer depends partially on what your sexual orientation is. The nature of your sexual and romantic attractions will shape what you consider sex. 

The authors of this study did not speculate on the implications for what constitutes rape. But if sexual orientation helps shape what is considered rape, then this raises some serious complications for what legally should count as rape. While it seems impossible to have different laws for different people, it is plausible to have the laws expanded to include sexual acts that all groups of people might consider sex. As such, perhaps things like unwanted sexual touching – which this work shows might be considered actual sex more often by lesbians than other groups – should be included in definition of rape. To limit it to sexual penetration leaves a lot of room for what some people might count as sex to not be included in definitions of rape.

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