No matter how many people are doing it (or aren’t doing it), why they’re doing it, who they’re doing it with, how many people they’re doing it with, and how they get off from it, sex is still a taboo subject for a number of people and across a number of platforms. Humans, particularly those from older generations, often struggle to talk about sex. Oftentimes people have difficulties even saying the word “sex” without getting embarrassed – but why? Why are we so afraid to talk about a behaviour so natural, so common?

Additionally, how can we really be so afraid to talk about something when we don’t even have a solid definition of what sex even is. Think about it. What is sex? The most common definition that seems to be accepted is penis-in-vagina penetration, but this says nothing about sexual activity where nobody involved has a penis, and can even be seen to class rape between a man and a woman as sex, while I’m sure rape survivors wouldn’t be ecstatic with this definition. When a man rapes a woman, or a woman rapes a man, there is often penis-in-vagina penetration, but pretty much everybody I know presumably wouldn’t class this as ‘sex’. When a woman has sex with a woman, there is no penetration (at least not with one another’s genitals), but again, pretty much everybody I know would class sex in an all-female situation as sex.

Is the definition of sex, then, something more mental than physical? Is it sex if you think it’s sex? But then, how can you think of something as sex without knowing what sex actually is, or what it’s supposed to be? This is where Greta Christina comes in. In 2006, she published this incredibly eye-opening piece on her blog, which I think is one of the most valuable personal accounts available to anybody attempting to find their own definition of sex.

Christina goes into great detail about her sexual history with both men and women, and about how she previously had an obsession with counting how many people she’d had sex with – until her counting system was thrown out of the window when her definition of sex was shattered. She, like many others, had classified sex as P-in-V. She added somebody to her list of those she’d had sex with when their penis penetrated her vagina, nothing more and nothing less. All it took for somebody to be added to the list was to be in her for at least a moment. She says it’s important to know when you’ve had sex with someone, as having sex with somebody changes the relationship you had with that person. Your relationship with somebody is ultimately different if you stand next to them in any situation knowing that you have had sex with them, but a point came in her life when she was no longer confident in knowing when she could stand next to somebody knowing that she had sex with them.

Christina recalls a time when she was cheated on by her boyfriend and went to a close male friend for comfort. There was kissing and touching and fondling, but “he never did actually get it in”, so she doesn’t count the encounter as one of the times she’d had sex, purely because “he never got it inside”. But then later, when she first began to lose confidence in her trusty counting system, she would lay awake at night and wonder “Why doesn’t Gene count? Does he not count because he never got inside? Or does he not count because I had to preserve my moral edge over David, my status, as the patient, ever-faithful, cheated-on, martyred girlfriend, and if what I did with Gene counts, then I don’t get to feel wounded and superior?”

This brings a whole new view to the arena – are our definitions or sex rooted in our morality? Because Christina’s boyfriend cheated on her, but she apparently didn’t have sex with Gene, she gets to take the moral high ground and say that she was the one who remained faithful. But to anybody reading the situation, what she and Gene did together was definitely sexual, and definitely would be considered cheating. But, it is here that we must consider the fact that, although we don’t know what it actually is yet, having sex with somebody is not the same as simply having sexual activity with somebody. Christina had sexual activity with Gene, that much is certain, but how can we answer the question as to whether she had sex with him?

Moreover, Christina’s P-in-V definition of sex suffered even greater damage when she began exploring new sexual ventures – namely, having sex with other women. There are a multitude of ways women can have sex with each other, none of which involve a penis, so how do we decide which ones count as sex? Is oral sex between women sex? Is women rubbing their genitals against each other sex? We still don’t really know, but we can all be pretty certain that women can and do have sex with each other without the presence of a penis. Christina’s troubles with counting the women she’s had sex with continue into the topic of an all-girl sex party she once hosted. There were 12 other women present, but Christina recalls only “getting nasty” with a small number of them, yet she feels her relationship with all of them has changed in the same way that your relationship changes with a person you’ve had sex with, so she feels as though she has had sex with all of them.

The paper goes on to discuss whether sex without any genital contact at all can be counted as sex. On the topic of women, Christina talks about her experimentation with sadomasochism, where she engaged in behaviour she found arousing with another woman, though there was no genital contact involved. In fact, when discussing what they were comfortable with, the other woman had said that “she wasn’t sure she wanted to have sex”, but it is arguable that the behaviour they did engage in was sexual, found to be “a tremendously erotic experience” by Christina. But, as the two women had such a different idea regarding whether what they did was sex or not, she was left pondering what it was.

During Christina’s time as a nude dancer at a peep show, she had another experience involving no genital contact, whereby one of her customers was watching her through the glass screen and started masturbating, and Christina responded by mutually masturbating with him.  She goes on to agree most definitely that if the man wasn’t a stranger, there was no glass separating them, and he wasn’t paying for the experience, she would class the situation as sex, but she ends her paper by saying that she “still doesn’t have an answer” to the question of whether she had sex with the man at the peep show or not.

Christina’s paper is a brave and honest account of the topic and proves helpful towards solving the problem of defining sex once and for all. The piece helps readers to reformulate their own ideas to push us further towards a definitive reflective equilibrium, and I’m sure it will still be just as valuable in years to come. “Are We Having Sex Now Or What?” is a piece which Christina should be duly commended for, and a piece which I am duly thankful for in my own search for the answer to the lifelong question – what is sex?

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