What I learned can be summarized by the following:
- The only activity that everyone who responded agreed was “having sex” is penetration of a vagina with a penis.
- Very few think kissing, other than genital kissing, is “having sex.”
- Most but not all think that oral and anal sex count.
- A smaller number – but still a majority – count masturbating together (whether on the phone or in person) as sex.
- Very few think that orgasm is a deciding factor, but some do and some feel strongly about it.
- Context matters for a number of people in how they make the decision. I built some contextual issues into the poll and people brought up others in comments.
- Intent matters for a number of people.
- Gender matters for some.
- Some people found out things about their own views through answering the poll.
I’ll discuss each of those points, but first some background. The poll was sparked by a number of discussions that kestrelsparhawk and I have had over the years. We’ve noticed a variety of situations where certain sexual behaviors are deemed “not really sex.” We’re both longtime feminists of a certain age :-) and had both been acquainted with this phenomenon in our youth. When I was coming out in the 1970s, for example, I was very bothered by the phallo-centric view that many people had of sex, the idea that the only thing that “counted” was penetration with a penis. It left any lesbian sex out of the definition, of course, but it also left out much of women’s experience altogether, since most women do not get off from penile penetration alone. More recently, the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal brought the idea into the national consciousness that oral sex is not considered sex by some. And kestrelsparhawk and I have both noted a number of m/m slash fanfics where the first time that a couple has anal sex is described as their first time “having sex” or “making love” – even for those who have previously participated in other sex acts.
So, musing on all these topics and because I’d recently done a terminology post on what “slash” means, I thought I’d solicit opinions on what sex is. I constructed a poll with check boxes where people could say which acts – from kissing on the mouth on – they consider to be “having sex.” And I asked the same (or similar) questions for several kinds of couples: fictional m/m, fictional f/f and fictional m/f and for two real life situations: a heterosexually married politician who is engaging in these activities with a woman not his wife, and a similarly heterosexually married politician who is engaging in these activities with a man. I further specified that whether or not the people responding view a particular act as sufficient to say the couple has “had sex” they should consider it as occurring in a sexual context, that the two people are interacting sexually. I’ll give the obvious disclaimer – I know full well this is not a large enough or representative enough sample to draw conclusions about the population at large. Still, I think the responses are interesting, as are the comments. Several people mentioned in comments that they found something out about their own views they hadn’t realized.
As of this writing, 229 people answered the poll. Much of my flist answered, and as I asked people to spread the word, I got a bunch of FOAFs as well. I got some more respondents from metafandom. In comments, a number of respondents mentioned some difficulty determining their answers on some of the questions and others said they found something out about their own attitudes in answering the poll.
Fleshed out (ha ha) version of what I learned, as summarized above:
- Only one act had 100 percent agreement that it is sex – what my friend L. calls PVI (penile vaginal intercourse). And the way I wrote it, it was just the act of penetration. A couple of people mentioned in comments on other acts, that duration would matter for them to consider it “sex” (e.g. a brief touch of hand to genitals isn’t necessarily a sex act, even if a hand job is) but just the fact of penile/vaginal penetration (presumably even if one or both of them says “I don’t want to go through with this” and they stop right away) is enough to label it “sex.”
I kind of expected this, but it does stand out as significant to me. It means that for some people only heterosexual couples can have sex. I also think that in a more general population, there would be a larger number of people who feel that way. Since the people who answered this came from fannish groups and largely had, I assume, at least a passing acquaintance with slash fanfic, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is a group with somewhat broader views of sex. I do see the idea that sex is only PVI - or that sex is only what happens when a penis is involved – as pernicious heterosexist and sexist claptrap. (But how do you really feel, Dale?)
- Not many people think non-genital kissing is sex, but of those who do, more think it’s sex if you kiss on other parts of the body than do if it’s on the mouth. Someone in comments had a very specific definition: if you kiss above the nipples, it’s not sex, but if you’re kissing on the nipples or below it is.
- Most but not all think that oral sex, anal sex, and mutual masturbation count. Anal penetration with a penis or an object got slightly higher ratings than anal penetration with a finger.
- Although mutual masturbation got a very high yes count, masturbating together without touching each other’s genitals got a significantly lower one, albeit still a majority. I fear I was unclear on this one and would rewrite the description if I were doing it again. I meant a situation where a couple is doing this together, as part of a sexual interaction, and was asking does it rise to the level of “having sex.” So for whatever reason – because they think it’s hot to watch each other, because they feel it’s a very safe sexual practice, because they feel it’s less intimate and don’t feel ready for greater intimacy, because they themselves wouldn’t consider it “having sex” and don’t want to “have sex” yet or a gazillion other reasons I haven’t thought of – two people are engaging in a sexual practice together that consists of each masturbating. They might not be touching at all, they might be kissing or touching but not genitally. What I was not considering – and what a number of people pondered – was the situation where two people are watching porn and both masturbating independently. In the comments, I called that “parallel play.” It was interesting to me that even in that situation some saw the two people as having sex with each other.
- Phone sex came out close – but not identical to – the figures on masturbating while in the same room. Some people commented that they did indeed consider phone sex to be really having sex while they didn’t think masturbating separately while together was. A couple of people said that they felt that phone sex counts because the people involved would be having interpersonal physical sex if they could. I see it as a conceptual issue. Do I conceptualize phone sex as two people pretending to have sex while masturbating and talking on the phone? Or do I conceptualize it as two people having one kind of sex (as my character Adam Greenfield says, “the only kind of sex that two people on different continents can manage”) while pretending to have another kind (physical interpersonal sex).
As a writer and reader, I think that phone sex is less distinct from interpersonal physical sex in fiction than it is in real life. After all, if I am writing a phone sex scene it's a bunch of words about people having sex, yk? And the characters' experience of that is different from their experience of physical interpersonal sex and it's my responsibility as a writer to make that clear to the reader. But the *reader's* experience is of reading a sex scene and the effect on the reader - sexual and otherwise - may not be that different from if the couple were together having sex.
OTOH, irl the experiences of phone sex and physical interpersonal sex are pretty different. I could see that possibly leading to judging one as sex and the other as not.
- Intent counted with some people. Very few people thought that orgasm mattered in determining whether or not it counts as sex, but a number of people felt strongly that intent to have an orgasm, to give your partner an orgasm, to experience or give pleasure mattered. To those people, acts that would not normally count as “having sex” became raised to that level if the intent was there, and the lack of intent lowered other acts to less than sex. One commenter said it’s only sex if you are interested in getting your partner off and not if you’re just interested in your own satisfaction. By that definition, there’s a lot of not-sex happening!
- Gender mattered for some people, but a fairly small minority. Most people filled out the same questions the same way, regardless of the gender of the participants. Someone remarked in comments that this may be an artifact of the way the questionnaire was constructed and I think she may be right. With those parallel questions right there, some people may have felt that for “fairness” they needed to respond the same but in practice would distinguish on gender lines. One interesting gender difference that a commenter mentioned was that with the married politician she would not consider it sex if he kissed a woman on the mouth, but she would if he kissed a man. Kissing between men, she felt, is so sexualized in our society that she felt she needed to view it as sex.
- Context mattered to a number of people in how they decided. I built a few contextual issues into the poll. I asked that everyone think of all the interaction as occurring in a sexual context between two people, but I had contextual variables, too: fictional or real, married or not. A lot of the discussion in comments was about these contextual differences. The actual results were not all that different, but people expressed difficulty in coming to a determination based on the context. With the married issue, some felt that his being married raised the threshold for what is sex and some felt it lowered it. A number of people made the point that whether or not we count these activities at sex, if he’s in a monogamous relationship he shouldn’t be doing them with someone else. A couple people said that some activities (like kissing) weren’t sex, but they were cheating.
Commenters also brought up some other contextual issues that would make a difference to their determination. Among these was experience – general sexual experience and experience as a couple. Interestingly, experience was argued to affect the determination in both directions. Some felt that for a sexually inexperienced couple, mutual masturbation did not count as sex – it’s what they do when they are not yet ready to have sex. Others argued that it counted for them, but not for a more experienced couple, that for the experienced couple it’s what they are doing because they choose to do it instead of sex. Another contextual issue that mattered to some was age. If a couple of teenagers have some hand-to-genital contact some thought of that as just heavy petting or messing around, not real sex. But an adult doing the same thing would be presumed to be engaging in a sex act.
Another contextual factor that I purposely did not inquire about is whether the person deciding whether this is sex has ever done the act in question. I think sometimes people deem certain things "not sex" that they've never experienced just because their view of sex is restricted in some ways by what they've done. I wonder if, for example, people who've never had phone sex are less likely to consider it sex. But I didn't want to ask that because once you start asking about people's own sexual experiences it becomes a much more personal quiz and fewer want to answer.
In summary, I found this a really interesting exercise and feel I learned a lot about different attitudes towards what is sex, through the poll itself and even more through the comments. I particularly enjoyed reading that people found out something about their own attitudes in deciding how to fill out the form. I think I did the same, and what I found out is that I’m not as clear or consistent in my definitions as I thought I was at the outset.
The question that sticks with me is: why does it matter to us? All of these acts occurred in a sexual context, as I said at the outset. What does it matter whether or not we deem them sex, or foreplay, or something else? And of course one could argue that it doesn’t matter at all, and that people were only making such a determination because I asked them to and they're good fandom citizens and kindly complied. My impression, though, is that it does matter to people, that it’s something that many do conceptualize, and that the comments suggest fairly strong – if often contradictory – feelings on the topic. Both in fandom and out in the world it seems to matter a lot to a lot of people. We wouldn’t have a category of “First Time” stories if it didn’t matter in fanfic; we wouldn’t have speculation about whether Larry Craig really did have sex with men or just tap his foot if it didn’t matter out in the world. I’m going to think some more about how and why it matters to me.
My sincere thanks to all who participated in the survey.