BERKELEY'S NEWS • SEPTEMBER 25, 2022

What counts as sex?

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AUGUST 16, 2022

What counts as sex?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself over the years, but one that I’m still not quite sure I have the answer to.

Hold on, you might think. I just spent the whole summer reading your column — a column that’s all about sex. And now you’re telling me that you’re not really sure what sex is?

I know — it seems strange for me to admit that I lack a definite answer. After all, I write about sex, I’ve studied sex and I’ve certainly had a lot of it.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that anything to do with sex is usually filled with shades of gray and uncertainty, rather than clear-cut answers.

Had you asked me this question several years ago, when I started having sex, I would’ve been able to give you an answer without thinking twice. Back then, my definition of sex was limited to penetrative, penis-in-vagina — PIV — action; nothing else really counted as “real” sex.

This was the sole criteria that determined how I would answer when my friends would interrogate me about the appearance of a new man in my life.

“Well, did you guys have sex yet?” they’d inevitably ask during morning-after conversations, eager for me to spill details from the night before.

If we hadn’t made it to PIV sex, my answer would be no. Sure, fingers and mouths might have been involved — activities that could be considered to fall under the umbrella of hooking up — but they didn’t count as sex.

I kept this definition of sex for a few years, and I didn’t question it until the day I started to question my sexuality.

My newfound realization that I wasn’t solely attracted to cisgender men threw a wrench into my idea of what sex was. If I’m with someone who doesn’t have a penis, I wondered, then what counts as sex?

I pondered this dilemma for a while, until I decided upon a new set of guidelines of what constituted sex. My updated definition was still basic, but it now encompassed some of the bedroom activities that I had previously thrown under the label of hooking up.

Fingering and hand jobs could now count, as did giving or receiving oral sex. My previous definition was replaced it with a simple question: Had my partner and I experienced some form of erotic pleasure together? If I answered yes to that question, then I counted it as sex.

This definition carried me along for the next couple years, until the summer I spent avoiding partnered sex. During this time, I realized that I had never felt more sexually satisfied — despite my state of self-imposed celibacy.

Instead of spending my summer in a partner’s bed, I had spent it in my own, focused solely on my own pleasure. I got myself off 15 times this weekend, I thought. Does that count as a sex-filled weekend?

I realized that I needed to include solo masturbation to my list of things that counted as sex, and so I slightly amended my criteria, ending up with the definition that currently stands today.

It’s a definition that is broad and encompassing, and it’s probably not perfect — but it works, for now. It’s an improvement over the definition I started with all those years ago, and as my definition of sex has improved and expanded, so has my sex life.

By eliminating the need for an experience to meet a certain set of criteria, I don’t feel compelled to check off certain boxes in bed; there is no rush to hurry through certain acts in order to reach the things I once considered “real” sex.

Instead of worrying about whether or not what I was doing counts as sex, I can relax and focus on a question that feels more relevant: Was it good?

Because at the end of the day, I think that’s what sex is really about; an experience that feels good, not one that necessarily invokes a hierarchy of sexual acts, with some things being labeled as “better” than others. Sex can involve a single person, a partner or several partners. It doesn’t need specific body parts to be involved, nor is an orgasm required for it to count.

If I had to reduce it down to a single sentence, I would explain sex as being an intentionally erotic experience that contains the potential for pleasure.

It doesn’t mean I view the whole spectrum of sexual acts as one and the same.

But I do think that they are all equally valid. Whether my partner and I are having penetrative sex, or they’re holding me and watching while I get myself off, neither situation counts more as sex than the other.

I’m confident that my definition of sex will probably continue to change and evolve as I do; I’m not quite sure if I’ll ever find a definitive answer, but I’m not sure if I need to.  

And so I’ll leave you here, with my ambiguous answer. It may seem like an unsatisfying note to end on — for a final column, it feels rather anticlimactic.

But my hope in writing these columns was not to give you all of the answers when it comes to sex — because I can assure you, I don’t have them — but to pique your curiosity and encourage you to ask questions of your own.

The answers you find will probably be imperfect and messy — just like sex is.

Contact Rachel Musselwhite at 

LAST UPDATED

AUGUST 16, 2022


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