When we talk about having sex, what, exactly, are we talking about?
On one level, this may seem obvious. Most often we mean sexual intercourse: penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex.
But if you stop to think about it, isn’t there a lot more to people’s sexual experiences? Is PIV the only thing that counts as sex?
This is worth thinking about, for all of us. It’s also a great way to talk with your teen about a complex subject. Because it’s abstract, it’s less awkward and intimidating than talking about anything personal (which is almost guaranteed to make teens shut down). It’s also not lecture-y; you and your teen can discuss it on equal footing, so they’re more likely to stay engaged.
Does Orientation Matter?
If you’re straight, thinking about PIV as the way to have sex may seem logical. But if someone is gay, lesbian, or otherwise queer, it’s not logical at all. LGBTQ+ folks are well aware of the wide variety of sexual practices that aren’t PIV, because, well, PIV just isn’t their thing….
Would you say a queer person who’s in a relationship or has a variety of partners doesn’t have sex because they don’t have PIV sex? Would you say they’re a virgin if they’ve had intimate sexual experiences with several people but have never had PIV? What sorts of intimate activities would you say “count” as sex in this context?
Consider also that it’s not just queer folks who have sex in other forms (like manual, oral, or anal). Many, many straight people enjoy sexual activities beyond PIV. If those kinds of sex “count” for queer folks, should they also count for straight folks?
Does Situation Matter?
Sometimes parents who want their kids to wait for sex particularly want them to wait to have PIV sex. Maybe that’s because they’re afraid of an unplanned pregnancy; maybe they think it’s more “pure” or spiritually acceptable to do anything other than PIV; maybe they think other forms of genital contact are “less” than PIV.
(Less what, though? Less intimate? It wasn’t long ago that oral sex was considered much more intimate than PIV sex; for many people, it still is.)
I think it’s helpful to look at the question from another direction. Ask yourself, and your teen: If you were in a relationship where you’d each promised sexual fidelity, what would count as a violation of that agreement? Like, if your partner had oral or anal sex, but not PIV, with someone else, would you consider it cheating? Would it count as sex?
The Patriarchy Angle
Then there’s a feminist perspective on how we define sex. Feminist thinkers have pointed out that focusing on PIV as the defining form of sex, especially as it relates to whether someone has had sex/is a virgin, puts a lot of emphasis on the penis. They note that penises are very important to guys…but aren’t necessarily as relevant from a woman’s perspective. (Sorry, guys, but penetration alone isn’t enough for most women.)
Knowing a woman has had PIV sex tells you nothing about whether she was a willing participant or whether it was pleasurable for her. It may have been a wonderful experience for her…or it may have been something done to her that, from her perspective, was meaningless, painful, or scary.
Ask your teen: What do they think about that idea? Are there other ways to think about what qualifies as a sexual experience? Should pleasure be part of the equation? Should mutuality? What would a definition of sex look like if it factored in the experiences of people of different genders?
All this is worthwhile to think about. The really important question, though, is not how any of us define sex in general, but how we define it in our own lives.
Don’t put your teen on the spot by expecting them to tell you their thoughts on this. But do invite them to consider:
What feels really intimate to me?
What do I want from a sexual experience or sexual relationship?
What do I not want?
What feels so special and important that I want to share it only with someone I trust and care about?
Because really, that’s what matters. Sex, however we choose to define it, is a profoundly personal thing.