This post has a theme song, and it’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” by Salt-N-Peppa. Not only because of its title, but because it’s actually a damn good song that covers a lot about sexual desire and things associated with sex. In a single verse, it mentions wet dreams, two methods of contraception (the pill and condoms), pregnancy, and STIs. And of course there’s that continual reference throughout the song that, whether we like it or not, everyone talks about sex.
But there’s also a big problem with this song. Despite its continual insistence that the taboos surrounding talking about sex are silly and even harmful, it fails to define sex, and through this lack of definition, the song (wrongfully) assumes that everyone already knows what sex is. It asserts that people need to talk about sex because it’s a natural act, but neglects to consider the possibility that sex is, on top of being fun and pleasurable, something confusing and scary as well as wonderful and exciting. “Let’s Talk About Sex” is the theme song of this post, because we’re actually going to talk about sex. About the good, the uncomfortable and the puzzling. Because sex is all of these things – it’s not easily definable, and that’s why it’s worth talking about.
I spend a lot of time thinking about sex. I think about what it feels like to me, what it might feel like to other people, how, a lot of the time, I’d much rather be having sex than doing whatever I’m doing. But what I think about the most is how I, myself, define sex, and how that differs from how other people think about and define sex. Because, when you get down to it, there is no one universal definition of what constitutes “sex.” Sure, there are people who think that there is, but those are the people who 1) don’t think or talk about sex enough and 2) are (most likely) straight cis men/women who exclusively have sex with cis women/men (sorry, dudes, but it’s true). Unfortunately, it’s these privileged people that have given us the standard, albeit untrue, definition of sex that I would guess most young people in the U.S. believe: sex is when a penis enters a vagina (hopefully for an elongated period of time…or at least more than a few seconds).
If I didn’t make it clear enough in the previous paragraph: this definition is a lie. It’s the worst kind of lie, too. It’s the kind of lie that turns something very complicated and emotional into a boring, bland thing. Worse, it privileges the people who already fit into the mold that normative society tells us all people should fit (read: straight and cisgender). This lie says that unless you’re a male-identified person with a penis getting intimate exclusively with female-identified people with vulvas/vaginas (and vice versa), you’re not having “real” sex. Yikes.
But that’s not all. This lie also hurts these cisgender men and women because it discredits all other types of intimate activity that two straight, cisgender people might engage in. What if my partner and I get naked and perform oral sex on each other? Is that not sex? “Sex” is a word in the activity in which we’re engaging, but a lot of people (especially when it comes to virginity – we’ll get to that later) will say that doesn’t “count” as sex (whatever that means). What if we get naked and cuddle? What if we keep our clothes on and intimately touch each other? What about anal sex? Does it “count” as sex if two penis-having men engage in anal sex but not if a penis-having guy and a vulva-having woman engage in the same activity? If my partner and I make out, remove our clothing, exchange massages, lick each other’s genitals, and then rub our genitals together, at what point do we begin having sex? Were we having sex the entire time, or was there a point where we crossed from the land of not having sex into that of having it?
This post is going to be frustrating for some readers because I don’t have good answers to these questions. I have a lot of thoughts about them, and answers that fit my own sexuality and understanding of sex, but even these answers seem vague and incomplete if I probe them too deeply. For example: generally, I consider oral sex “sex.” It, for lack of a better word, “counts.” If my partner and I have oral sex, we just had sex. Easy.
BUT, what if this person has a penis, we get intimate a number of times, but strictly only have oral sex? What if I would like this person to put their penis inside my vagina, but they never do? Suddenly, it feels like I haven’t had sex with this person, like there’s something that we still have to do, some unfulfilled action. Which is weird, because I’ve had one-night stands without any penile penetration that I totally count as sex. But somehow, with this factor of multiple-hookups introduced, something feels incomplete. I acknowledge that this feeling comes from that lie I learned when I was young – that sex only counts as SEX if a penis enters my vagina – but that doesn’t stop the sexual activity I’ve been engaging in with this hypothetical person to not quite “feel” like my definition of sex yet. But…if this partner had a vulva, would I feel the same way? Would our exclusively oral sex feel, for lack of a better word, “complete”? Maybe, maybe not. Having never been in this situation, I don’t have a concrete way of knowing.
Which brings me to my other problem: as a cis woman that generally has sex with cis men, I often associate the sex that I have with penetration. Not necessarily of a penis into a vagina, but a phallic object into some orifice. So if I was with a partner with a vulva, would I still want to have some sort of penetration involved in my sexual activities? Would I require some sort of strap-on play to feel like we were having “sex”? What about fingering? Fisting? Would my definitions change based on whether this person identified as male or female or neither? I really don’t have a clue.
The point of all this being: defining sex is complicated. And the more I think about sex, the more people I talk to about sex, the more complicated it seems. There are so many different ways to be intimate with a person – how can we possibly just categorize all of these actions as “sex” or “not sex”? How is that fair?
Spoiler alert: this post isn’t going to offer a once-and-for-all, final, definitive definition of sex. It’s not my intention to define what constitutes sex, because that’s going to differ from person to person and from situation to situation. What I do intend to do is look closer at this pervasive understanding of “sex” as an act of penile penetration, and then explain all the reasons that this definition is wrong and silly. This post may not offer a simple answer to the question, “what is sex?”, but hopefully it will help you develop a definition that is right for you, according to your feelings and experiences.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex
Unlike many Americans, I had a good and comprehensive sexual health education, spanning about six years through middle school and high school. I not only learned how to put a condom on a banana, but what other forms of contraception I might consider, and how I could get them. I learned about STIs, but also how to be safe and protect myself from infection; I was never told that I should be scared of sexual activity because it would inevitably lead to a disastrous disease. I never had to sign a virginity pledge (this was my college roommate’s sex ed at her Southern Catholic school). I was lucky to have the sex ed experience that I did, I know, but this extremely liberal model of sex ed still had a huge flaw: sex was always framed as a reproductive act.
If your sex ed experience was anything like mine, you learned that sex is inherently related to reproduction. Sex, you were told, resulted in babies. Ergo, sex had to be when a penis entered a vagina and deposited sperm there. Your sex ed book may have mentioned that a penis entering a vagina is also a form of intimacy, a way for people to feel close to each other (mine did), but there was always this underlying point that this act could lead to a baby. This is also why we learned about contraceptives – so that we didn’t accidentally make babies while having sex. Almost all the topics in my sex ed experience focused on that baby-making aspect of sexual activity. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I’m really happy that I got the information I needed to stay safe and un-pregnant while also having a fulfilling sex life. But this model of sex ed does unfairly frame sex as a reproductive act rather than a social one, and that bothers me. Sex is about so much more than producing a child – it’s about intimacy and sharing your body with someone else and sometimes just having fun. Think about all the times people have sex in their lifetimes. Now think about all the times that sex results in a baby. Sex rarely has to do with reproduction. But because we learn about sex through this lens of making a baby – penis goes into vagina, sperm meets egg – we’re programmed to think that, in order for sex to be s-e-x, a penis and a vagina somehow have to meet.
The saddest part about this narrative for me is that, in this scenario, the person with the vulva receives no sexual pleasure. By default, the person with the penis gets to have an orgasm because this person has to ejaculate – that’s generally how sperm enters the vagina. But ovulation will happen with or without the presence of orgasm, so textbooks and classes generally fail to mention that both partners can experience extreme pleasure from sex. If we focus on the reproductive aspect of sex, vulvar pleasure ceases to matter.
This is what we talk about when we talk about sex: penis in vagina; orgasm for the penis, but not the vagina/vulva. Talk about a limited definition.
The Virginity Myth
Another reason for this false definition of penis-in-vagina as sex is the idea of virginity. Virginity, people tell us, is this thing that every person is born with, but will eventually lose at some point in their lifetime. Depending on your gender, it can stand for a lot of different things. If you’re assigned-female-at-birth, it often means that you’re pure, innocent, a fresh piece of gum. If you’re assigned-male-at-birth it might mean that you’re inexperienced, or a nerd, or gay (or Steve Carell).
Logically, if every person, at one point in their life, has this thing called virginity, and they will eventually lose this virginity, there must be some act that causes this loss. That act, we are told, is called “sex.” And if we paid attention in sex ed, if we listened to that reproductive definition of sex, we know what exactly constitutes this sexual act that will transform us from virgins into non-virgins: it has to be when a penis enters a vagina for the first time.
This conclusion is backed up by the existence of another anatomical structure that we either learn about from sex ed courses (if our teachers were kind enough to include anatomical diagrams of genitalia in our curriculum) or our friends: the hymen.
The hymen, so the story goes, is a bit of thin tissue that covers the vaginal opening. Most sex education programs will tell you that it has some holes in it (because how else would menstrual blood leave the vagina?) and that each hymen looks different. At least, this is what the books of my early adolescence told me. The more important thing that people invariably seem to learn about the hymen is that it commonly breaks and bleeds when a penis first enters the vagina for the first time. This, to many people, represents the exact moment that a person with a vulva loses their virginity – hymen breaking equals virginity lost.
There are two bits of truth in this almost universally accepted narrative. One is that hymens are, in fact, thin layers of tissue (but they don’t usually cover the vagina). The other is that they differ from person to person. Everything else is at least 90%, if not 100%, false.
Here is a more accurate story about hymens. Hymens are thin layers of tissue that generally form a half-moon shape around the vaginal opening (the Guide to Getting it On uses the phrase “collar of tissue”). If you’re a little bit familiar with embryology and human fetal development, you’ll know that the vagina and the vulva originate from two different embryonic layers (the mesoderm and the ectoderm, to be exact). The hymen is where these two layers meet; you might think of it as a bit of cellular tissue that’s super confused about its identity. As previously mentioned, the hymen generally does not cover the opening of the vagina. It covers part of it in a crescent shape; however, this changes during puberty. Rising levels of estrogen in the body cause the hymen to become both thicker and more elastic, allowing the hymen to morph from this half-moon of tissue into more of a ring around the vagina. This physical change to the hymen typically allows entry of larger objects into the vagina without pain or breakage. This would include tampons, dildos, fingers, and yes, penises.
What does this mean? It means that the hymen doesn’t typically break when a penis enters a vagina for the first time. It means that you can’t tell whether or not someone is a virgin by looking for their hymen in a pelvic exam. It means that virginity has nothing to do with the presence or absence of a hymen at all.
This isn’t to say that hymens can’t break. They can, and they do. They can break prior to puberty, and afterwards too. They can break during physical activity. It’s also plausible that regular sexual activity might wear down the hymen, although gynecologists will disagree on this point. But the hymen is also prepared to deal with normal wear and tear: if it tears, it usually heals within 24 to 48 hours. The pain that people often assign to first penetrative intercourse (which, by the way, is not at all a universal truth) is usually not the hymen breaking at all. More likely, it will be due to lack of lubrication, nervousness or tension in the vagina, or a partner not treating the vagina gently enough. Any resulting bleeding from first penetration could just as likely be from the vagina itself rather than from the hymen.
So if virginity is not an unbroken hymen, what the hell is it? Is it still when a penis enters the vagina for the first time? But what if the penis only goes in an inch? What if someone inserts a penis-shaped dildo into their vagina? And what about people without vaginas, for that matter? What if they engage in anal sex, and, in that case, does it matter whether they are penetrating or penetrated? What if a person with a penis sticks their own finger up their butt? And what about rape? Is rape sex? Can it de-virginize someone? Once again, we circle back to these frustrating types of questions that don’t have easy answers.
Because I am the person that I am, I’ve talked to a fair amount of people about their first sexual experience(s) and their virginity-losses. Everyone has different stories and different feelings when it comes to virginity, but many of the conversations I’ve had come to the conclusion that virginity loss is not necessarily a single event, but perhaps better understood as a process.
As a young person who hasn’t been a virgin for a while, I have come to see my virginity-loss as a process that spanned almost two years. Going backwards, the timeline looks like this: the first time a penis entered my vagina, I was 20 years old and I still considered myself a virgin. I’d put things into my vagina before: I’d been fingered by a few people and I owned a vibrator or two. I knew what it felt like to undress someone, to touch someone else’s body and genitals, to even have someone else’s genitals in my mouth. I also knew what it felt like to have an object in my vagina, but I still considered myself a virgin because I hadn’t ever put a real-live flesh-and-blood-penis into it before. But then I did, and it was fine, but when I compared it to my previous experience, I felt underwhelmed. Because my experiences prior to this one instance of penetrative sex had been so much better. There just wasn’t any way around it.
If you want to get technical, I became sexually active when I was 18 and started fooling around with my then-boyfriend. We would go to his house, get naked, and touch each other. He was the first person to take off my pants and really touch all the parts of my body; he was the first person besides myself that ever made me orgasm. He was the first person I ever felt comfortable sharing my whole body with, and the first person I ever really talked to about sex and boundaries.
After the day I officially had penis-in-vagina sex for the first time, I realized that I’d lost my virginity when I was 18 and fooling around with my boyfriend – I just hadn’t realized it. But it took that act of penetrative sex to help me understand that I hadn’t been a virgin for two whole years. So I had also needed to have that experience of penis-in-vagina sex to come to that understanding and thus (retrospectively) lose my virginity. Which is why I feel it’s fair to say that it took me two years of sexual activity to lose my virginity. That’s how long it took me to figure out that virginity has nothing to do with penises going into vaginas.
To me, losing your virginity is the process of learning who you are as a sexual being. Of learning what you like and what you don’t like. Of learning how to be close to another human being and learning to respect them and share pleasure with them. It does not require penetration or orgasm, although it can, and both of those things are important in my sex life today. But that’s not going to be true for everyone.
Sometimes I think that I’m still in the process of losing my virginity. With each new partner, each new sex act, each new type of orgasm, I learn a little bit more about myself, my sexuality, and my sexual preferences. I am in a perpetual state of learning and trying new things – there are still so many virginities I have to lose.
There’s a wonderful film by Therese Shechter called “How to Lose Your Virginity,” which explores the historical concept of virginity as well as our modern-day definition of it. At the end (spoiler alert) she concludes that there is no one single act that leads a person to lose their virginity; rather, each new sexual act can constitute an act of virginity-loss. She uses the analogy of the so-called “v-card“: a v-card, she argues, is not a card that you swipe once and then throw away, but is more like your local coffee shop’s frequent-buyer punch-card. You can lose one type of virginity one day and punch your card, but the next day you might get another punch for another type of virginity. These punch cards don’t have a specific number of punches, either: you could potentially be losing virginities every day for the rest of your life.
My favorite part about Shechter’s work is a site she started called “The V Card Diaries,” in which she asked hundreds of people to contribute their definition of virginity. It’s a beautiful project because it captures how confused people are by this concept of virginity, and how everyone has their own definition of what virginity is. Answers range from “The normal definition (never a penis in a vagina) even though it’s stupid” to “The divide between not knowing yourself and knowing yourself.” Some people get specific (“Never having participated in oral sex, fingering, hand jobs or any other sexual act”), some heavy ( “Another way for a man to take a little piece of you”); some decide to answer a different question (“More important than definitions is your own comfort, consent and desire”). Each definition comes with a whole story about the person who submitted it. You could spend hours perusing this site – I certainly have.
Changing Definitions of Sex (Is Sex Fluid)?
If virginity-loss is a process rather than an action, and sex is a convoluted mess of actions, does it have a stable definition? If you’re one of the lucky few, you might when it comes to you and your body, but that definition isn’t going to be true for everyone. And then what if your partner doesn’t have the same definition of sex as you do? If you think you’re having sex, but they don’t…were you really having sex in the first place?
And as if that wasn’t complicated enough, people’s definitions of sex change over time. For example, a few weeks ago, a vulva-having friend of mine told me, “I’ve had sex with people who had only had sex with people with penises, and afterwards they said to me, ‘was I even having sex before now? Was the sex I was having with people with penises even sex?'” (The insinuation being that this non-penis sex had been so mind-blowing it was difficult to think of any previous sexual activity being fulfilling or good enough to count). This isn’t to say that these people will never again consider sex with someone with a penis “sex,” but it does point to the fluidity of our ability to think about sex – the way that a single experience can change the way that we think about ourselves, our bodies, and what we consider sex and not-sex.
Here’s the secret: you don’t need to have a definition of sex if you don’t want to. You can go through life, have sexual experiences, and classify them as sex or not-sex as you see fit. A dude put his penis in my vagina? Okay, sex. The same dude ate me out? Still sex. That same dude masturbated in front of me? Sex. A different dude masturbated in front of me? Not sex. I accidentally saw a stranger masturbating in public? Definitely not sex.
Sex is about more than physical actions. It’s about relationships and communication and intimacy. And whether or not an act counts as sex to you will probably differ based on your relationship to the people that you have sex with. Like I said in the beginning: I’ve had sex with people that I barely knew without any sort of penile penetration; I see those acts as sex. But if I’m with a partner that I know and trust and we’ve been intimate in non-penetrative ways for a while, I don’t necessarily think that we’ve been “having sex.” The only difference between these two scenarios is the relationship I have with these people. If I’m physically intimate with a stranger, even without penetration, it feels like sex. If I’m physically intimate with someone I also have a strong emotional attachment to, it just doesn’t feel like sex. In one case, I take a risk by being physically vulnerable with a person I barely know. In another, I risk being emotionally vulnerable by attaching myself to another human, but the physical aspect becomes safer; maybe this is why sex with emotional attachment, for me, includes penetration. But that’s just me – I don’t except anyone else, even my partners, to feel the same way.
And, hopefully, you will also have your own definitions of sex – and I’d love for you to share them. As I enter these new sex topics not necessarily rooted in anatomy or even concrete science, I would love to hear your stories – how did you lose your virginity? What is your definition of sex? How has that changed over time? Please comment in the comment section, or else email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I get enough responses, I might even create a post based on those stories (just let me know if you would want it used or not used – I guarantee anonymity to anyone who writes in). Defining sex is hard, but with open and frank discussion, we can make it easier to create a definition that feels more right than the limited definition many of us grow up believing.
“How to Lose Your Virginity” Website. Visited January 14, 2016.
Joannides, Paul. Guide to Getting it On, 7th Ed. Oregon: Goofy Foot Press, 2014.
“The Truth About Hymens and Sex.” College Humor. December 7, 2015.
“The V-Card Diaries.” Visited January 14, 2016.
Weiss, Suzannah. “12 Reasons Why There’s Orgasm Inequity (And No, It’s Not that Woman are ‘Harder to Please’)“. Everyday Feminism. December 27, 2015.
Wikipedia: Germ layer