I distinctly remember the first time I learned what sex was. I was young – probably second grade – and was at my friend’s house. We were playing with a girl a year or two older than us; I can’t recall what led up to the conversation, but at some point she felt she needed to enlighten us younger girls. “This is the man’s penis,” she said, holding up her index finger. “And this is the woman’s vagina,” she added, touching the thumb and fingertips of her other hand together to make a circle. Wordlessly, she poked her finger into the circle.
“EEEW!” my friend and I shrieked, covering our faces with our hands in disgust. At that point, all I knew was that penises and vaginas were for peeing, and peeing was gross. Why would grown-ups want to touch things that pee came out of?
My concept of sex stayed about the same through the beginning of high school. Though I’d discovered masturbation by sixth grade, that wasn’t sex – there wasn’t anyone else involved. I’d heard of fellatio, but that sounded disgusting; I still couldn’t get over the fact that guys peed with their dicks. Cunnilingus never even entered my sphere of awareness. Anal sex was something gay guys did because they didn’t have vaginas to stick their penises in.
Then, during tenth grade, I came to the realization that I was bisexual. Suddenly, sex with another woman became a viable option. Awesome! But… how does that work? Obviously I’d need to do some research. Since I was a total anime nerd, I turned not to live-action lesbian porn but to yuri, its anime equivalent. There I discovered cunnilingus, which seemed pretty neat, but the two dominant acts depicted were frottage and using a dildo.
These made sense, given my current definition of sex. If “normal” sex is putting two genitals – i.e. the penis and the vagina – together, then lesbian sex is either a) rubbing two female genitals together, or b) bringing in a synthetic penis to do the penetration. Since I never actually had sex with anyone – male or female – during my high school years, this rough definition was good enough to satisfy me.
When I came to college, though, several things happened that influenced my definition of sex. First, I became sexually active with both men and women – sometimes simultaneously. As I explored my sexuality, I discovered that I liked being tied up, ordered around, and beaten. This conflicted with my liberal, quasi-feminist upbringing, which said that women needed to be strong and confident and not let men boss them around. Perturbed, I began researching feminism in earnest for the first time in my life, and I discovered not only were my sexual preferences totally okay, but maybe I should rethink what I mean by “sex” in the first place.
Why, feminism asked, does society think a penis needs to be involved for something to be “sex”? Why is male orgasm the definitive ending point of sex, while a woman doesn’t necessarily have to orgasm at all? And what’s with our culture’s obsession with virginity, anyway? We can’t even agree on what a “virgin” is!
These questions blew my mind. The mainstream definition of sex was sexist! And heterosexist! And generally not very good! I’d need to change this.
I decided to leave masturbation as something separate from sex. While it was certainly sexual, my emotional and physical relationship with masturbation was distinctly different from sexual situations involving other people. It’s like having a good relationship with yourself vs. having good friends; both are important, and they are related, but they’re not the same.
So, sex involved at least two people. Looking back on my sexual experiences, I noticed there was a distinct difference in intimacy/emotional intensity between encounters involving genitals (meaning the penis, testicles, vulva, and anus) and those that were restricted to kissing and caressing other parts of the body. This is no doubt because of the societal importance placed on genitals; they must be covered at all times in public, and even most of the time in private, and they generally shouldn’t be touched, either, except by people whom you were very emotionally attached to and trusted a lot.
However, I didn’t see anything particularly wrong with this cultural importance attached to them, so I decided to include it in my new definition of sex: touching of someone’s bare genitals must be involved. But, taking a lesson from feminist critique, a penis does not have to be involved. Indeed, only one set of genitals is required – the other person might use their hand or their mouth or some other implement, but it’d still be sex. Also, it has to be consensual for all parties; otherwise it is rape and an act of violence. And, finally, gynecological examinations are excepted because they don’t bring pleasure to either the doctor or the patient, and pleasure is the biggest reason why we have sex – now that we have effective contraception, that is.
Thus I came to my current definition of sex: consensual, pleasurable activity between two or more people that involves touching of at least one set of bare genitals, whether with another set of genitals, a different part of the body, or with an implement like a dildo. This definition is considerably broader than many people’s, as it includes oral sex, anal sex, hand jobs/finger banging, rimming, and frottage. However, I prefer this definition because it doesn’t erase homosexual partners and it elevates everyone involved to equal importance. I also hope that more people come to a similar definition of sex as the queer and women’s rights movements gain momentum.
 I didn’t learn that the vagina and urethra were separate things until fourth grade. Suddenly tampons made a lot more sense!
 Thanks, patriarchy!
 That’s a whole ‘nother paper.
 Or many, many dildos. All at once.
 Well, depending on which feminists you ask. I prefer the ones who say I’m not a sick freak and/or a brainwashed tool of the patriarchy, which is admittedly a very biased opinion on my part.
 I stipulate bare genitals because having a layer of clothing between them and whatever is doing the touching is not as intimate. Also, despite not technically being “bare,” I still consider it sex when someone is wearing a condom or dental dam because the latex is so thin it doesn’t impede sensation anyway, and the emotional level of intimacy is about the same.