It’s a three letter word. It’s a weighty word, for sure. It has so many different meanings for different people. Those of us of a certain age know all too well the infamous comment President Clinton said in the ’90s, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” For a time, this sparked a discussion about what “sex” is. Guess what? I’m bringing the conversation back!
Well, what is it? What do you think? How do you define “sex?”
This definition dilemma comes up when talking to a potential new partner. Or to a nurse at Planned Parenthood when you’re getting screened for STIs. “How many sexual partners have you had (over the past year)?”
What is a sexual partner? Does there have to be penetration? If so, is it any penetration? Oral? PV? What about anal? Does it “count” if you used barriers? What if there was no “real” penis? What if you used a dildo or a strap on? What if you and your partner have similar body parts? What if you “only” masturbated together? What if… if… if…
It gets confusing, to say the least. Even if one person has a definition for their own activities, it may or may not match up with another person’s definition.
Does sex have different definitions depending on who your partner is? Does emotion or attachment factor into it? Do you have to be in a relationship? If it’s a casual situation, does the definition change if you “stay the night?” Is it sex if you (or your partner) didn’t have an orgasm?
The biggest and best part about learning about sex and sexuality is that we get to create our own definitions and labels. It would make things a lot simpler and quicker if there was one operational definition for sex. We would know exactly what another person meant when they say “I had the best sex of my life last night” or “I’ve had six sexual partners over the last year.”
It gets even more confusing when we start talking in euphemisms. Saying things like, “I was ‘with’ her last weekend” or “I thought you knew we’d ‘hooked up.'” You were “with” someone? Are we back to talking in bible-speak? What does hooking up mean, anyway? I’m not giving answers at the moment, just getting the wheels in our heads moving so we think about our language and word choice.
Because we get to create our own definitions, we actually have a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion. Ask the other person questions. What does sex mean to you? If you’re having this conversation with a new partner, this is a good time to talk about safer sex methods and STIs.
Discussing your sexual history with a potential partner can be a fun experience of getting to know one another. You don’t have to think of it as comparing to an ex or a previous partner; our partnered interactions can change over time. You may find you enjoy certain things more with this person than you have with anyone in the past. It’s all relative.