This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
Does (X) count as having sex?
And does it matter?
I recently read a letter to Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” sex advice column recently, on the topic of whether a particular activity counted as “having sex with someone” or not. Because of my slightly- famous Are We Having Sex Now or What? piece, I always feel a little proprietary when this topic comes up, and I often feel called upon to gas on about it a bit.
In this particular case, a woman had, in the past, had an encounter with a man in which he undressed her and held a vibrator against her until she came… at which point she stopped the action, and it went no further. This woman doesn’t define what she did with this guy as sex (mostly because he never undressed or took his cock out); her current partner does; they were now asking Dan Savage to act as umpire and settle the question with a definitive answer.
Now, I don’t really agree with Savage’s “Of course that counted as sex” reply. It’s true that, for me personally, if I’d done what this letter writer did, I’d call it sex without hesitation. But I also think — as I’ve written before, in Are We Having Sex Now or What? and elsewhere — that “sex” is a slippery and difficult concept to define. Among other things, there are plenty of activities that many people will adamantly define as “having sex,” and that many other people adamantly won’t… and that still other people will respond to by saying, “Hm, that’s an interesting gray area.” There are plenty of specific activities that most people would firmly define as “sex” in some contexts, but not in others. (Having someone stick their fingers in your vagina or anus is a fine example. If your lover does it to make you come, then that’s sex; if your doctor does it to palpate your cervix or your prostate, not so much.)
And people’s definitions change with time and experience. Today, I’d definitely say that being naked while someone makes me come with a vibrator counts as “sex”… but I might not have when I was younger and less experienced. And I do think a case can be made for “If you thought it counted at the time you did it, then it counted; if you thought it didn’t, then it didn’t.”
So largely because defining “sex” is so difficult, and so slippery, and so personal, I definitely think that nobody has the right to define it for anyone else. Unless they’ve been asked to do so. Which, to be fair, Savage was. But even then… well, if someone had asked me this question, I’d be very clear right upfront with my “Sex is hard to define and you have the right to define it for yourself” bet-hedging, before barging in with my “Yes, according to my personal definitions, you definitely had sex” opinion.
But I do think Savage was moving in the right direction here.
And that right direction was his “What would you think if someone else did this sex act?” response.
Savage didn’t just reply, “Yes, that was sex.” He replied, “Imagine if someone else engaged in this activity. Imagine if, say, your boyfriend engaged in this activity. Would you call it sex then? Would your ‘He didn’t take his clothes off or his cock out, so it wasn’t sex’ definition hold up then?”
And that, I think, points to an important principle in this fuzzy topic.
That principle being:
“However you define sex — whatever you think of as Definitely Sex, Definitely Not Sex, and Gray Area — it’s important to be consistent. It’s important to apply those definitions the same way to yourself as you do to other people. And it’s important to not be completely self-serving in your definitions of sex: to not have those definitions be solely based on convenience, on what allows you to think of yourself, and other people, the way you want to.”
If it gives someone comfort and lets them feel good about themselves to define sex in whatever self-serving way they choose, what difference does it make?
Well, anyone who’s read my writing about atheism knows that I am almost never going to come down in favor of, “Tell yourself whatever pretty story you like, who cares if it’s consistent with itself or with reality.” But in this case, because we’re talking about subjective questions of “How does each person define this thing for themselves?” (as opposed to objective questions of “Does this thing actually exist in the real, observable world?”), the “Why does it matter?” question becomes a little less obvious. And I have to think it through a little more thoroughly.
For starters, the Consistency Principle matters for pragmatic reasons. Sexual definitions affect sexual ethics. To take the most obvious example: If you have an agreement to not have sex outside your relationship, and you conveniently decide that “having sex” doesn’t include getting blowjobs and sticking a cigar in someone’s pussy… well, that’s a pretty serious ethical problem. (Especially if you then use those convenient definitions as an excuse for lying under oath.) I’ve definitely taken advantage of these self-serving definitions of sex: the one time I fooled around on my terminally unfaithful boyfriend David without his knowledge, I convinced myself that I was still the faithful, martyred, hard- done- by girlfriend… because what I’d done with that other guy wasn’t “going all the way,” and didn’t count as sex. Yeah, I know. Weak. Fail.
And it matters for other pragmatic reasons as well. If you’ve convinced yourself that oral and anal sex aren’t “real” sex, for instance, then you may not protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections when you’re having this purported non-sex. How we define sex affects how we behave sexually — and for obvious reasons, that matters.
But I think the Consistency Principle is important for less obvious reasons as well. And I think those reasons, while more subtle, may be just as important in the long run.
I think the Consistency Principle is important because integrity is always important. Integrity enables us to be better people, and to live with ourselves more easily. Integrity enables us to make clear choices, and to live with them. Integrity lets us face complicated decisions and conflicting values, with some degree of confidence that we’re making the right choices… or at least, that we’re making them for the right reasons.
And that’s just as true for sex as it is for anything else. When we know that, however we’re defining sex, we’re defining it consistently for both ourselves and for others, and are defining it that way for solid, non- self- serving reasons… it lets us live with our sexual selves more comfortably. It lets us know that our assessments of our sex lives and our sexual history — and of the sex lives and histories of other people — are based on reality, not rationalization. It lets us make our sexual decisions with some degree of confidence that we’re not lying to ourselves about what we’re doing.
All of which, of course, are valuable goals in themselves. And all of which also bring us back around to pragmatism and ethics. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’re more likely to be honest with other people.
Sure, when I think back on my relationship with David, it’d be easier to think of myself as the faithful martyred girlfriend, and it’s a little hard to remember that I did, in fact, cheat on him that one time. But it was harder to always be dodging away from that memory, to always be juggling my rationalizations, in a slippery attempt to cast myself in the role of the Perfect Patient Girlfriend Who Got Shafted. In the long run, I have more fun with sex, and am more relaxed and comfortable with sex, and make better decisions about sex, when I’m honest with myself about what I think sex really is.