What Counts as Sex????
either you went all the way or you didn’t. Unsurprisingly, sex has gotten a whole lot more complicated since then, probably because we’ve learned there’s a heck of a lot more going on than four simple steps. Criteria for defining acts as “sex” or “not sex” changes from person to person, and it can depend on who’s doing it, which body parts are involved, and even whether or not we orgasm, according to a new study published in The Journal of Sex Research.
Researchers at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City surveyed 594 participants (267 men and 327 women) online about what they considered to be sex. They presented participants with 21 different types of sexual acts—including penetrative vaginal sex, anal sex, oral sex, 69, simultaneous masturbation, deep kissing, cybersex, and others—and asked them to rate the acts as “definitely sex,” “probably sex,” “probably not sex,” and “definitely not.” For the first section of the survey, participants answered these questions as if they were the ones engaging in the sexual acts; for the second section, they answered as if their partner (real or hypothetical) engaged in the acts with someone else while they were still romantically involved. Half of the participants received the sections in reverse order.
Here’s what they found: Between 88.9 and 98.7 percent of people said penetrative vaginal intercourse was “definitely sex” (the answer varied depending on whether or not they or their partner had an orgasm) and over 70 percent said that anal intercourse (with or without orgasm) was definitely sex. Only 24.6 percent of people defined oral sex as “definitely sex,” though that number jumped to 31 percent if there was an orgasm involved. And only 33.2 percent of people classified 69 as “definitely sex.” It’s interesting to note that people were more likely to rank an act as “sex” if it resulted in an orgasm. (Especially since it’s definitely possible to have amazing sex without an orgasm!)
The participants also explained why they chose a rating for each of the sexual acts, which gave researchers an idea of what might play a role in our definitions of sex. Factors that defined an act as “sex” or “not sex” included whether there was physical contact (um, hopefully?); whether penetration occurred; whether the genitals were involved at all; whether it caused arousal; whether it resulted in an orgasm; and whether it could result in a pregnancy, a loss of virginity, or an STI.
And get this: People were more likely to define something as “sex” when they imagined their partner doing it with someone else than when they imagined themselves doing it, possibly because the idea of their S.O. getting hot and heavy with another person made them jealous (and willing to justify that jealousy). Plus, the order in which these sections appeared in the survey affected the way in which participants thought about sex; when they were asked about their own hypothetical actions second, they were more definitive in their answers, possibly because they were trying to be fair by judging themselves by the same standards that they would apply to their partners.
While it’s clear that our ideas about what constitutes straightforward sex—and what constitutes those shades of gray—depend on our personal criteria, researchers note that since the survey respondents were largely college-aged, these results could show a limited understanding of sex. Over time, as people get older and gain more experience, they might change the way they think about sex (which is why we all should listen to these sex secrets from women over 70). Still, it’s interesting to note that after all this time, we’re still a bit baffled about what “counts” as a home run.