About two weeks ago, Brock Turner appeared in the headlines again. You remember Brock Turner? He’s the college guy who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. He was convicted, only sentenced to six months in prison, and then released after three months. But then he came back, trying to overturn his conviction with a claim that he couldn’t be guilty of sexual assault because he wasn’t trying to have sex with the woman. He was only seeking “outercourse,” which doesn’t involve penetration.* If there’s not penetration, it’s not really sex, is it?

But, like, what is sex?

This one is easy, right? It’s the thing we’re all supposed to be looking for, the thing that sells cars and booze and super-sized burger meals. It’s the reproductive act. In other words, sex is putting a penis in a vagina and thrusting until the penis ejaculates. That’s what most of us are taught in school or by our parents. The little bit of sex ed that kids get in our culture is almost all focused on anatomy of the reproductive organs, and how to avoid getting a sexually transmitted infection. But defining sex as an act that involves both a penis and a vagina utterly erases the experiences of gay men, lesbians, and other queers whose genitals match those of their partners. The reality is that for most people, sex is so much more than penis-in-vagina sex.

I posed the question on my own Facebook page, and these are some of the answers I got. (My comments follow in parentheses.)

• Becoming one. (That’s a lovely sentiment. Can you separate yourselves out again though?)

• Intimate contact involving genitals with the intent to arouse. (I once knew a woman who had intense orgasms when her partner would lick a tattoo at the nape of her neck. Was that sex?)

• An act between two or more people with intent to initiate and complete the sexual response cycle. (This is good! It’s not limited by sex, gender, or monogamy. What about masturbation though? In addition to being the safest form of stimulation, having sex all by yourself is pleasurable and satisfying. )

• It shows me how special I am to this person, and how special I want him to feel. (Sex as an act of love can be amazing. And for some folks, hook-ups and casual dating are also amazing.)

See, figuring out what sex is can be pretty difficult. This response is my favorite:

• I’m gonna start with I have no idea. It seems like many people think something has to go in something else for it to “count.” Or that at least one genital has to be involved. Does a sex act mean you’ve had sex or is it like a smaller unit that doesn’t quite add up to sex? If you have enough sex acts, does that mean you’ve had sex?

Even the state of Wisconsin acknowledges a wide variety of experiences can be called sex. Wisconsin defines “sexual contact” as intentional touching of someone’s “intimate parts” with any body part or object (clothed or unclothed), or intentional penile ejaculation, urination, or defecation anywhere on someone’s body (clothed or unclothed). Sexual intercourse is defined as cunnilingus, fellatio, genital or anal penetration (however slight), with or without ejaculation.

Personally, I have two definitions for sex. Solo sex is touching your body in any way that brings you sexual pleasure, with or without orgasm. And partnered sex is all the different ways that two or more people can share their bodies with the mutual and consensual goal of sexual pleasure, with or without orgasm. Obviously, this leaves room for all sorts of wonderful things like masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, grinding, using sex toys, hand jobs, finger fucking, and almost anything else you enjoy. Your own personal definition of sex may vary. But no matter what, you need to communicate that definition to your partner(s).

We are living in a period of time when we’re expanding our awareness about the absolute necessity of consent, as well as our understanding of queer orientations and identities. It is imperative that we have a broad definition of sex. That definition must include all types of people and all kinds of physical contact, as well an affirmation that not only does “no” mean no, but only “yes” means yes.

*Brock Turner was convicted of sexual assault because he penetrated his victim with his finger. His claim of seeking “outercourse” was shot down by the California court of appeals, which unanimously agreed that Turner received a fair trial the first time and would not receive a new trial.

Curious about cunnilingus? Anxious about anal? Do you have questions about queefs or problems with your prostate? Lucky Tomaszek is the education coordinator at The Tool Shed: An Erotic Boutique, Milwaukee’s only mission-driven, education-focused sex toy store. Send her an email at [email protected] and she’ll get back to you with an answer.

About The Author

Avatar photo

Lucky Tomaszek, LM, CPM, is the education coordinator at The Tool Shed: An Erotic Boutique, Milwaukee's only mission-driven, education-focused sex toy store. Most mornings you can find her balancing her cat and her keyboard in her lap, working to make the world a smarter, safer place for people of all genders and orientations.