What is Sex?

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What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be sex?

Warning this topic contains discussions of a sexual nature. Intended for mature readers only.

What is sex? This is the million dollar question, isn’t it? When I discussed this with my wife, her first reaction was, “isn’t it obvious?” To some extent, I agree that it is self-evident. However, other people don’t seem to find it as obvious as my wife and I.

For example, BYU students are performing what they call ‘soaking’ to avoid BYU honor code violations. They believe that if they have penetration without orgasm, it is not sex. It seems obvious, to me, that their behavior is sex and that this is an attempt to narrow the definition in order to avoid the moral imperative. Basically the attitude is if you don’t like the rules, simply make a loophole. [2]

I would not have been posting this if this was an isolated incident at BYU. I recently read an article about some research that found Pashtuns don’t consider anal sex homosexual behavior, as long as they don’t love the other man. I found this story interesting because the Pashtuns live in a Muslim country that has very strict sex laws. However a Wikipedia article states: “Despite the negative social attitudes and legal prohibitions, there is an institutionalized form of bisexuality within Afghan culture… These activities are tolerated within Afghan culture because they are not perceived as being an expression of a LGBT-identity, but rather an expression of male power and dominance…”[1] Again, it seems they have found a way to justify their actions by making a loophole in the definition of sex.

As it happened, a friend at work told me that, during college, his friend would only have anal sex with his girlfriends. He did this in order for neither of them to lose their virginity. This situation goes beyond the definition of sex to the more narrow definition of virginity. However, the definition of sex does form the basis for the definition of virginity.

The final story I heard, that was the impetus for this post, was from a guy I know who said that performing oral sex on a woman is not sex and, thus, with another woman, it is not cheating on his wife. (I wonder what Rob Ford (Mayor of Toronto) thinks of this, given his recent press statements.) By redefining sex people think they can make the claim they are not cheating.

As I thought about each of these stories, the thought occurred to me that they are playing with the definition of sex in order to justify their sexual activities. I think, in part, to reconcile their morality with their behavior. Or perhaps there is some cognitive dissonance that is trying to be resolved that leads them to view their activities as nonsexual activities. Either way, what occurred to me was that, what is and is not sex, may not be self-evident or obvious to some people. It seems that the definition of sex is ambiguous enough for people to invent new loopholes to justify their behavior.

This led me to try to come up with a definition for sex. Since I am a philosophy student, I want to be more precise with the definition of sex. In order to craft a definition that is not ambiguous and one that includes everything that is sex and nothing that is not, we want to determine the necessary and sufficient conditions for an act to be sexual. (In philosophy, we often define things precisely by determining the necessary and sufficient conditions.) As such, this is an exercise in philosophy and as such I am not looking for legal or theological definitions. [Most dictionaries are sufficiently vague enough to help bolster some of these loopholes and have a tendency to go with the colloquial (popular) usage of a word.]

Finally, my wife asked me why I cared so much about this. My only reply was that I have a teenage daughter and that is a sufficient reason to make sure people are clear as to what is or is not considered sex.

My first attempt at a definition for sex would be:

Any action that is with 1) one or more persons, 2) uses genitals 3) is for the purpose of sexual arousal for one or more of the participants, 4) where participants do or do not reach orgasm.

  • Point 1 would include everything from masturbation to group sex.
  • Point 2 genitals generally include the following: penis, testicles, vulva (vagina, clitoris, labia,) nipples or anus.
  • Point 3 is added for the purposes of adding intent to the definition. Obviously, if a gynecologist gives a woman an exam or if the doctor asks a guy to turn his head and cough, it is not sex. Although it does involve the genitals, the intent is not there.
  • Point 3 sexual arousal is defined as is the arousal of sexual desire, during or in anticipation of sexual activity.
  • Point 4 is not necessarily needed but stated so that people don’t think that an orgasm is necessary for something to be considered sex.
  • This definition excludes kissing and heavy petting. This definition would include the following acts; soaking, masturbation, manual sex, oral sex, anal sex, and vaginal sex. Rape is definitely included in this definition as well. Lap dances may or may not depending on exactly what is happening.
  • I left gender of the participants out of the definition as I don’t think it is relevant. This definition also does not cover the issue of virginity or fidelity, which needs its own separate definition.

It seems that the only reason for determining what is and what is not sex is for the purpose of applying moral standards of sexual conduct. Morality is very important for sexual activity and people’s definitions are greatly influenced by people’s moral presuppositions. For example, a Christian definition would be stricter than most peoples. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:27-28,) equated lustful thoughts of someone other than your spouse with committing adultery. (Adultery is having sex with someone other than your spouse.) Given His statements, I think a case can be made that lustful thoughts are considered sex by Jesus. Of course, if morals are subjective, then it doesn’t really matter what you define sex as. Or does it?

I don’t want to deny that the purpose of sex should inform our definition. This would be a teleological approach to the definition and may be able to take some subjectivity out of the definition. However, the purpose for sex is not without controversy and may not remove as much subjectivity as we would like.

Some would argue that sex is only for procreation. This seems too narrow and limiting. Others see sex as something for procreation and pleasure. Others have added it is for intimacy as part of the purpose and this seem to be more contested. Others have also added health as part of the purpose of sex. Still others claim there is no purpose for sex, it just simply is.

One websites take on the purpose of sex: “The intended purpose of sex is to allow a man and women to unite emotionally and physically, as husband and wife, with the possibility of forming a new human life and becoming parents. Sex is intended to be pleasurable for both the husband and wife.”[3]

My proposed definition is based upon what seems to me and others as being obviously sex. I have talked to a number of people and got their opinions on this. I would like to thank them all for the frank conversations. Your thoughts on my definition would be greatly appreciated.

[Side Note: One person I talked to about this asked if masturbation was cheating. Cheating is then sex outside of marriage. Masturbation would not be cheating because it is conducted inside the bounds of marriage. The bounds of marriage would be the people who committed vows of marriage. Given the fluctuating popular definition for sex, however, cheating seems to be very subjective today.]


[1] Links for Pashtuns in Afghanistan

[2] Links for BYU students (Soaking, Docking, Floating, Marinating)

  • TMZ's Harvey Levin (@HarveyLevinTMZ) promoted a TMZ Live story on Twitter

[3] Other links

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Husband, father, and adventurer. A computer science instructor who dabbles in theology and philosophy. A lover of science-fiction and related genres. Given to the spirits- paranormal and distilled. A bibliophile par excellence. A short description for a life the likes of which could fill the library of congress. I give you Donald, excelsior!



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