“Does (X) Count?” What Sex Is, And Why The Question Matters

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.


Anyone who’s read my writing for more than six minutes knows that the question of how we define what is and isn’t sex — and the surprising difficulty of answering that question — is one of my ongoing hobby-horses. One of my earliest and most widely-read pieces, Are We Having Sex Now or What?, is about these very questions — how we define what sex is, how we handle it when these definitions change over our lives, what we do when our definitions conflict with other people’s. I think these are fascinating questions with profound philosophical implications, and it’s a topic I’ve returned to again and again.

Well, I just read something that reminded me of why these questions are important. Not just interesting, not just philosophically profound, but important, with practical, real-world consequences.

It was a letter to Scarleteen, the “sex advice for teenagers” website. It’s a longish letter, and a longer response (both are well worth reading in their entirety), but the title will immediately tell you what’s going on and why I think it’s important.

The title:

“We’re abstinent, but we had anal sex and are scared to death.”


The story is almost exactly what you probably think it is. Two teenagers, who have decided to be abstinent until marriage, are playing an extended game of “everything but,” avoiding penis- in- vagina intercourse but otherwise engaging in activities that would make Larry Flynt blush. Including, as you may have guessed from the title of the letter, anal sex.


But because they’re not having what they consider Sex — namely, penis- in- vagina intercourse — they’re not taking responsibility for the fact that they’re in a sexual relationship. They’re not practicing safer sex, and the things they’re doing could easily result in the passing on of sexually transmitted diseases, and even pregnancy. (As the Scarleteen advisor points out, unprotected anal intercourse can result in pregnancy, since semen isn’t very good about staying put.)

In fact, the letter was written in a state of panic, not because the letter- writer was scared that what they’d been doing might be risky, but because she was scared that they’d slipped and somehow done The Real Thing without meaning to.

Heavy petting

The idea that some kinds of sexual activity count as Real Sex while others don’t is one of the most common tropes in our sexual culture. Especially among teenagers. It has been for some time: whether it’s heavy petting in the ’50s or oral sex in the ’70s, teenagers have come up with ways to be sexually active without thinking of themselves as sexually active. And while penis- in- vagina intercourse always seems to count as The Real Thing, the sorting of other activities into Sex or Not-sex is almost entertainingly fluid. (I’m actually fascinated by the notion that anal somehow doesn’t count as real sex. When I was a young thing, anal definitely counted. Hell, it counted more. Doing anal meant you were more sexual, more advanced, more of a slut. The generally- accepted heterosexual progression in my day was: fingers, oral, penis- in- vagina intercourse, then anal. So when I read that teenagers today are doing anal before vaginal in order to protect their virginity, a part of me wants to holler at them, “No, no, no! You have that completely out of order!”)

But as common as it is, this idea of the One True Sex is also one of the most pernicious ideas we have. And this letter shows why, in disturbing detail. When people — especially teenagers — fixate on one sexual activity as The One That Counts and disregard other activities as Not Really Sex, they tend to place a disproportionate focus on that One Act, fixating all their sexual hopes and fears onto it. And they do this while ignoring the possible risks — and, of course, the possible benefits — of Just Fooling Around. The possible consequences of sex don’t attach to the things they’re doing. After all, what they’re doing isn’t sex.

Even if they’re getting fucked in the ass.


In a way, I get it. Dividing sex into The Real Thing and Just Fooling Around is a first-class rationalization, a very convenient mental trick for enjoying sexual experimentation without thinking of yourself as a person who has sex. Hell, I did it myself: I did all sorts of sexual things as a teenager, things I would now definitely consider Sex, before I was ready to do what I considered Losing My Virginity. In retrospect, the physical act of intercourse didn’t turn out to be all that special; but the mental line between Virgin and Not-Virgin seemed like a big honking deal at the time. And as long as teenagers are both (a) horny and (b) getting bad information and fucked-up messages from society about sex, I can’t entirely begrudge them the mental gymnastics that allowed me to have all sorts of sexual fun before I felt ready to cross that line.

But if the need to put your sexual activities into the Not Sex category is so strong that it makes you ignore the possible consequences — physical and emotional — of what you’re doing, then there’s a serious problem.

And it’s a problem for parents and teachers and sex educators, too. If you care about unwanted teenage pregnancies and STIs, it’s not enough to teach kids the possible consequences of sex and how to be responsible about them. You need to teach them the possible consequences of whatever the hell it is that they’re doing sexually… even if they don’t think of what they’re doing as sex.

Anal pleasure and health

I don’t really care if people define anal sex as Real Sex. But I damn well care if they’re using condoms and lube when they do it. And if not calling it Real Sex is keeping you from using condoms and lube, then the question of “whether you’re having sex now or what” stops being a fascinating philosophical exercise that you can ponder at your leisure, and starts being an important, immediate, pragmatic question that you really need to think about now.

P.S. Scarleteen is a mind-bogglingly useful resource for teenagers wanting to get accurate, non-judgmental information about sex. If you think the work they do is important, please consider supporting them.

“Does (X) Count?” What Sex Is, And Why The Question Matters

12 thoughts on ““Does (X) Count?” What Sex Is, And Why The Question Matters

  1. 1

    I have always been mind-boggled at what I call the Clintonian definition of sex–i.e. that oral sex, et al doesn’t really count as sex.
    Um, hello? If you have someone’s junk in your mouth and it ain’t “having sex,” it’s pretty damn close enough. These kids on Scarleteen take it quite a few steps further–I can’t speak for these kids specifically, but I have met several people (and I’m not sure how I keep finding this out about them) who believe that anal sex isn’t “sex” and therefore will not anger their god (since they’re not married yet), thus preserving their, ahem, sexual purity. A friend possibly put it best after discussing the matter over several beers:

    You’ve had dick in your ass. How innocent can you be?

    I would argue that applies to guys and girls (top or bottom), and that a person is only as innocent as they feel–not based on whether they can check off certain items on a purity test. I keep hoping somehow people will chill the fuck out about all of this; so if you need me, I’ll be over here holding my breath.
    Bring oxygen.

  2. 2

    From what I’ve observed people say, oral sex “counts” if you’re in a sexually active relationship, and it doesn’t count outside of one. So if I bob on my husband, he’ll say it’s some of the hottest sex he’s ever had; but if I’m doing it with his friend on the side, the friend will clear his conscience by saying it doesn’t count as sex.
    I don’t think the problem lies so much with what actions count as sex, but more with what sex means to our society. If we were a culture that embraced sex as a recreation free of emotional ties, people would freely call almost everything “sex” without batting an eye. It’s only when we try to deny our nature by having sex without “having sex” that the weirdness comes into play.
    I think the best thing for us would be to stop demonizing sex! We don’t need to redefine what sex is, we need to redefine how we view sex as a culture.

  3. 3

    As I’ve said before, I think one of the biggest problems with the sex/not sex dichotomy is that once people who think this way start having “real sex,” a lot of other great stuff gets tossed away. When you posted “The First Good One,” the one I thought of was a guy who was spectacular with his hands and fingers; if we had had “real sex” I might have missed out on all that.
    I’m hoping that as we let go of the idea of “real” sex, people will begin to value the quality more than the classification.

  4. 4

    Very good, thought-provoking post!
    I found my thoughts going in a slightly different direction, however, to the lopsided nature of the definition of “virgin.” It really all comes down to the hymen, I guess. Intact=virgin. Not intact=…well, we all know that hymens can break in all kinds of ways, not all of them sexual. So even that definition poses problems. Yet it seems to remain pretty firmly in place, so to speak.
    What bothers me, among other things, is that we have no corresponding physical definition of “virgin” for a male. No definitive physical line to cross that doesn’t involve a vagina. Kinda strange, no?
    This lack contributes to–or is it an artifact of?–the sexual double-standard that continues to plague American society, in which males are expected to be sexual dogs, while females are expected to be less interested, more demure and more “faithful.” Yeah, I know things have changed, but in most American communities, that double-standard still prevails.
    I found myself wondering, also, how much the teenaged girl(s) actually enjoyed the anal sex. Was she going along simply to please her male partner? Or did she like it as much as he did?
    To sum up what I’m trying to get at: the fact that the definition of “virgin” demands an intact hymen, thus precluding penis-vagina sex, underpins the definition of PV-sex as “SEX.” This puts more pressure on FEMALE teens than it does on male teens, including pressure to engage in activities-other-than-PV-sex they might rather say “No,” to.
    And lest you think I’m anti-anal, I’m not. But my understanding is that, lacking a prostrate means it’s not as hot for girls as for guys.

  5. 6

    The other interesting thing to consider in the debate about what is or is not sex is how somehow some people don’t see sex between two women as being sex because there isn’t a penis. I doubt many people would think of two men fucking each other as not being sex. While in general I think it’s great that young women are much more open about their sexual experimentation, I do wonder if some of this “lesbian before graduation” stuff is seen as being OK because it’s not “real sex.”

  6. 7

    I see “sex” as having as vague boundaries as “exercise”.
    Is something exercise if not done in a gym? If not done for the exclusive purpose of exercise? If not done for the purpose of exercise at all?
    Walking instead of driving: does it matter to the definition if you’re a couch potato and that’s the most physically active thing you’ve done all day?
    Does it matter if you do it for the purpose of exercise as opposed to because your car is unavailable or you’re trying to cut down on gas expenses?
    It’s all terribly subjective. With a tip of the hat to Betty Dodson, do you consider masturbation sex? If it requires two people, how about lap dancing? More interestingly, are both parties to a lap dance “having sex”, or only one? Consider an 18th century woman being treated for chronic hysteria by her physician. Are either of the two engaging in sex? Does it matter what their subjective views of the practice are?
    If the participant’s mindset matters, is it meaningful to talk about sex with an unconscious person? What if I’m conscious, but unaware that some act that I consider completely non-sexual arouses a fetishist to orgasm?

  7. 9

    As always, Greta, spot on! I don’t have a lot to add to the good posts here, but one thing did get my attention:
    “And lest you think I’m anti-anal, I’m not. But my understanding is that, lacking a prostrate means it’s not as hot for girls as for guys.”
    Speaking as a woman who enjoys anal play involving fingers, toys and, on occasion, penises, anal sex can be as hot and exciting for women as it is for men. We don’t have a prostate but the anal canal is equally enervated in males and females. As Tristan Taromino says, “If you could flatten your ass out, it could read Braille.” I liken anal stimulation to having my clit hollowed out and tickled from the inside. It’s that good.

  8. 11

    I’m 18 and consider myself a “half virgin” because I’m willing to do, and enjoy doing, sexual activities that I know won’t get me pregnant. I think what makes you ready for sex is being ready and informed of the consequences of it, and in my case that means informed about pregnancy and STI’s and actively preventing both. Active prevention for me is condom usage during all sexual acts, and not participating in anal and vaginal, knowing full well i could get pregnant from both of them. I still don’t understand how anyone could not consider anal to be losing your virginity, no matter how old they are, if they feel they’re ready to engage in anything sexual.

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