The Library

Defining Sex

5 Min Read
Defining Sex

Sex is everywhere, and the pressures on the when, where, and with whom to have sex can be difficult to navigate — especially given a frustrating and common lack of guidance or transparency. Not only is there ambiguity on all the factors involved in having sex for the first time, many people have a hard time even defining when the event has occurred. So first let’s take a look at the pressures of first-time sex, and then dive into what that means for people of a variety of sexual identities.

The Pressures of First Time Sex

Plenty of people think that the first time someone has sex is a monumental experience — so monumental that it can transform someone from pure and prude to experienced, and even racy. But how can we have a complete sexual transformation within the span of just one act? This emphasis on not having sex can lead to stress, pressure, and even sexual disappointment. I think one of the most common reactions, particularly for heterosexual women, is some version of: “Honestly, I think that it’s not as mind-blowing as you expect it to be (3).”

Who is Sexually Experienced Anyways?

Deciding what constitutes being “sexually experienced” can be tricky. I think the following quote best demonstrates this ambiguity: “Who is the more experienced person: someone who has kissed a partner for three hours, experimenting with sensuality and communication, or a [someone] who gets wasted at a party and hooks up with a random [person] in order to punch the V card?” 


That is to say, whatever lines we draw between “innocent” and “promiscuous” are socially constructed anyway — so there is no reason to feel guilty about your sexual experience, or lack thereof.


Not to mention, the truth about having sex for the first time is that “losing your virginity is about the least sexy sexual act there is” — that is, it’s almost certain to not be entirely sexually gratifying (1). There are so many ways to experience new sexual experiences that far exceed your first time — and best of all, you have your whole lifetime to explore them.

Defining Sex

Plenty of people would be hard-pressed to answer the question, “what constitutes sex?” Religious terms can cause or add to confusion, given that some ultra-fundamentalist groups believe that watching pornography or using a tampon are sexual acts, neither of which are remotely true. Some people even question whether rape counts as such — but it’s worth understanding that rape is an act of violence, and not sex.


There is further ambiguity when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. For a heterosexual couple, the answer to “What is sex?” can typically be defined as the insertion of a penis into a vaginal canal. But that definition is by no means inclusive, especially for same-sex couples or pairs whose identities expand beyond the heterosexual stereotype. Can we bend the definition, or does that intrinsically erase it all together? Before we explore answers, let’s take a look at how things are currently being defined.


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Many people equate sex for gay men, as well as bisexual men who sleep with other men, as the act of penile-to-anal penetration, otherwise known as anal sex. For lesbian couples and bisexual women who sleep with other women, sex can typically be defined as oral or digital stimulation, or genital-to-genital contact. 


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The pitfalls created by the narrow definition of what sex “is” aren’t just felt by LGBTQ+ people alone — and society’s overemphasis of the act itself doesn’t help matters. Studies have found that heterosexual couples spend the majority of their time strictly having sex, and foreplay typically only lasts a fraction of the time (2). This is a problem for several reasons. 


First, the over-hype of sex itself has created the idea that it is the epitome of pleasure and gratification. Therefore, it’s common for people to become underwhelmed and anxiety-ridden, as if something is wrong with either them or their sexual experiences if they are not enjoying themselves. 


Second, this sex-focused mentality perpetuates the orgasm gap, as 8 out of 10 women experience a climax through clitoral rather than vaginal stimulation. This is often why lesbian or bisexual women are said to have three times as many orgasms as heterosexual women.

Change The Norm 

So what do we do about this? In an ideal world, we would simply alter the definition of sex altogether to be more inclusive, perhaps by having multiple definitions based on one’s sexual orientation. However, restructuring this word is likely unrealistic.


Instead, I offer a different solution. In social settings, people could try using a more ambiguous descriptor, such as the term “hooked up.” The definition itself states that hooking up “can indicate kissing or any form of physical sexual activity between sexual partners.” That leaves room for a lot of possibilities and takes away from the emphasis of just one activity. 


Another solution is to identify what sex means to you and your partner. No one else has to agree with it. As long as the two of you are on the same page, you can make the word your own.


It can also help by decrease the intensive focus on having “sex.” In Everyday Feminism, writer Suzannah Weis explained that letting go of her “Hierarchy of Sexual Acts” helped her to take each interaction at face value. As a result, other activities “became just as important as the supposed ‘big act’ itself” (3). In other words, this change in focus could invite a wider range of sexual variety, creativity, and mental presence into your life which will lead to a more gratifying experience for all.

P.s. If you need help making a new definition for your sex life, here is a good one… 



1. Sewell, Kelsey K., Larissa A. McGarrity, and Donald S. Strassberg. "Sexual behavior, definitions of sex, and the role of self-partner context among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults." The Journal of Sex Research 54.7 (2017): 825-831.

2. Kerner, Ian. She Comes First: the Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman. Souvenir Press, 2019.

3. Weiss, Suzannah. “5 Liberating Reasons Why I've Broadened My Definition of 'Sex'.” Everyday Feminism, 1 July 2016,

Images: 1) Unknown, 2) @MichaelAckerman