Monday, January 24, 2011

So what is this "sex" stuff anyway?

A close companion and ally of mine recently brought up something that was starting to formulate in my mind, but hadn't reached fruition: how the hell do you define sex, anyway? What does it mean when you say you've had sex with someone?

Answering this is important to me as someone who questions what "sexual attraction" is in the first place. How could I say for sure whether I experience sexual attraction if there isn't a clear idea of what sex is, in the first place?

Now, if the hegemonic idea of sex is when two or more people stimulate one another's genitals, then sexual attraction would mean (at least in part) that you are attracted to someone because you want to stimulate/be stimulated in the genital region. One of the problems with defining sex as genital stimulation is that what is involved in "stimulation" is rather blurry. Do you have to touch someone? What about cybersex? What about some forms of BDSM, where no one is touching at all, and maybe not even speaking or acting in ways that (for others) might be perceived as sexual?

I also have to wonder if genital stimulation is even a necessary component of "sex." What if you get a good foot massage from someone you're interested in, and you feel an intimate connection but you're not on the road to Orgasm City?

My friend suggested that sex is anything which one or more partners involved decide is sex. In that case, I can look back at many things that have happened in my life and now redefine them as sex. Which would mean that, rather than saying I've had 5 sexual partners, I would have to change that number to 10 or maybe 12. Sometimes making out with someone could be considered sex, or being tied up, or even just looking into someone's eyes for a long time can be totally hot.

I'm totally willing to leave the word sex open to interpretation, or even begin using a different word to describe the things I want to do instead. Maybe "experience intimacy" would be better, since the word sex is so historically laden with concepts of genital penetration.

I still think that sexual attraction is defined by specifically being attracted genitally, which I think is part of the reason I reject sexual attraction (conceptually) and consider myself asexual. I mean that I repudiate hegemonic concepts of sexuality so much that my asexuality is in part a way of rejecting that whole institution.

If you could redefine sex, how would you?


  1. I have to say, BDSM is not welcome as "sex" really in most radical feminist circles. BDSM merely perpetuates and affirms patriarchy by "playing with" power and erotisizing subordination. It's not transgressive to regurgitate traditional gender roles, violence, anti-egalitarianism and power struggles. Just sayin'

  2. Well, that's one opinion. Many of the radical feminists in my community practice BDSM or support other people's practice of it. I believe that anything two adults give full, knowing consent to, with the possibility to refuse at any time, is acceptable!

  3. Radical feminists can't have any fun can they. I remember the quote often (likely false or misquoted) attributed to anarchist Emma Goldman about not wanting to be part of the revolution if she couldn't dance. And who wants to be part of a movement where you can't play with power and gender roles sexually (and probably will be discouraged from having penis in vagina sex)?

  4. As is the case with so many highly saturated concepts, I believe that we get closest to defining sex by refusing to define it. This can be a kind of exercise in conceptual history: The definition of sex is made up of all the attempts to define it, and to tell stories about it. These stories, and our partial access to the whole of them, act as a corpus from which we draw both ontologically and aesthetically.

    I personally find the latter as an unproblematic personal or consensually shared practice. Ethical dilemmas have to do with the former - about moral reasoning derived from particular ontological assumptions, say, enforced mainstream sexual narratives. I only say 'mainstream', since there seems to exist a widespread, betraying belief that sharing identical values and moral forms is possible.

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  6. What about erotic things? As in, if it's erotic, then it counts as sex. Erotic conversations. Erotic touch. Erotic stimulation, both mental and physical. Not something that sounds erotic, not something that excites you, not an image that you can't stop thinking about that happens to be something society considers 'sexual'. None of those things, unless they actually cause an erotic sensation in you. (Yes, the word order's pretty awkward. No, I don't know how to fix it. Sorry.)

    I guess that's the difference between sexual attraction and the actual deed. If you're sexually attracted to someone, you have this strong urge to have some sort of erotic connection with them. If you have sex, then you're acting erotically. (That makes sense, right?)

    Of course, I'm asexual, so I really can't speak authoritatively on what sexual attraction feels like (though I can guess that it's pretty much like romantic attraction). However, I do know what erotic emotions are, how they feel, how to cause them, and what a pleasurable one is like, so I can talk about that. It's an emotion, I guess. If something happens and it makes you feel happy, it's a happy event. If it makes you feel angry, it's an anger-causing action. If it makes you feel tingly, it's a tingly action (and that sounds really weird, but oh well). In the same vein, if it makes you feel erotic, it's sexual, and if it's sexual, it's a type of sex. (The only logical conclusion my mind is providing is that being autosexual is different from being auto-erotic, because attraction is different from enjoying sex, and so the people who keep asking aces if they masturbate are all idiots. I hate my brain sometimes.)

    Does that make sense? It made sense in my head . . . (The original post was slightly incoherent, so I deleted it.)