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Sex: What Is It?

Kathleen Reeves

A survey from the Kinsey Institute tackles the murky, but vital, question of What Is Sex? and the answers underscore how changeable our definitions may be.

A new study finds that “sex” is complicated—which we already knew, of course. It turns out that people don’t agree about when sex can be called sex, as the Huffington Post reports.

A survey lends legitimacy to a topic—people trust numbers—but, like many survey topics, I doubt if a survey is the best way to talk about What Sex Is. In other words, the survey is both necessary and inadequate—but it’s an important start.

The Kinsey Institute’s survey, like any good survey, asked these “definition” questions in different ways. For example, when penile-vaginal intercourse was brought up without any mention of male ejaculation, 95 percent of respondents claimed that such an act was “sex.” (Maybe the other 5 percent were just fucking with Kinsey…no pun intended.) But when ejaculation was introduced as a conditional to “sex,” 89 percent of respondents agreed that vaginal intercourse was “sex” only if ejaculation happens.

Now we’re in difficult territory. My problem with surveys is that they don’t capture the full range of “belief”—in this case, I suspect that people define sex differently on different days. Oral sex might be “sex” in one situation but not in another, or a person might talk about the same sexual event differently to different people. But in the case of this particular survey, this vagueness and changeability—the impossibility of definition—is exactly the point. So I applaud Kinsey for getting at a murky but vital question as best they could.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Sex eludes definition, but unfortunately, it must be defined in certain cases, and when it comes to sexual violence, we have to err on the side of over-definition. If one of the 89 percent who believes ejaculation to be essential to sex rapes a woman but does not ejaculate, we can’t rely on his definition of sex (and, by extension, rape). And this—to many, I hope, surprising—idea that sex without ejaculation “doesn’t count” has a disturbing precedent in the history of rape law, as ejaculation was often a required condition for rape in the past.

The survey results express other biases, as well: only 50 percent of men over 65 consider anal intercourse to be “sex,” as opposed to 81 percent of overall respondents. In other words, sex is central to how our society empowers and disempowers people. And if it takes a survey to convince people of this, then so be it! Thanks, Kinsey.