What Sex Counts As ‘Real’ Sex?

Penis-in-vagina sex isn’t the only kind of sex, and Emily Heist Moss gives four reasons why folks need to stop saying that it is.

“Did you have sex?”


“How could that possibly be a complicated question?”

“We did stuff, you know…other stuff, but we didn’t… “

“Oh. Yeah. No, that doesn’t count.”

I have been on both sides of this conversation. I’ve been the one diminishing the importance of a friend’s sexual experience because it didn’t involve penis-in-vagina sex, and I’ve been the one whose experience was labeled less than for the same reason. If you’re straight, you probably have too, and we’ve got to knock it off. Why?

1. It is insulting to our queer friends

Penis-in-vagina sex is not on the menu for same-sex couples for obvious reasons. By putting a premium on this one particular sex act as the only one that “counts,” we are implicitly suggesting that the other ones count less. Think about your LGBTQ friends; is your sex more important, more special, more “real,” than their sex?

If it is true for same-sex couples that sex can still occur without a penis penetrating a vagina (and it can, obviously, just ask them), what’s so different about straight couples? Just because you have the specific parts capable of penis-in-vagina doesn’t mean that you must use them in that specific way. If doing the things your gay friends would call “having sex” with your partner gets you going, why wouldn’t you call that “having sex” too?

2. It reinforces a pleasure disparity

Seventy-five percent of women don’t orgasm from penis-in-vagina sex without the added bonus of hands, mouths, or sex toys. When we view penis-in-vagina as the peak of the sexual mountain, we are elevating a sex act that, for many women, is not the one that will bring them the most pleasure.

As a straight woman who often derives more pleasure from other sex acts, it seems self-defeating to view those sex acts as less important because they don’t happen to conform to the culturally understood definition of “sex.”

3. It perpetuates the mythic but artificial importance of virginity

I have a queer lady friend who was dating a woman who had never had penis-in-vagina sex because she was “waiting for the right person.” Early in their relationship, my friend asked her new girlfriend if their sex was, in her mind, less significant than penis-in-vagina sex. The girlfriend said yes. My friend asked her if, after they had had sex, she would still consider herself a virgin. The girlfriend said yes. “I am used to my identity, my relationships, and my sexual life being consistently devalued by pop culture,” my friend said, “but I had never been with a partner who made me feel devalued.”

The virginity myth (see Jessica Valenti’s excellent book on this subject) looms large and is largely problematic on the cultural landscape. It places enormous value on the “purity” of women and girls, deprives us of our sexual agency, and reinforces a double standard that celebrates male sexual conquest and labels women sexual victims. Language around virginity—“deflowering,” “giving it up,”—tells girls and boys that sexuality is a zero sum game that men win and women lose.

One more thing, it makes zero biological sense. Listen to this How Stuff Works podcast about how “the only thing you can break about hymens is the mythology around them.” Boom.

4. It contributes to rape culture

There’s a dangerous flip side to the cultural belief that penis-in-vagina sex is the only sex that counts. When we talk about rape, are we only talking about forcing a penis into a vagina? Hell no. Think about how sexist that is—that suggests men can’t be raped. Bullshit. That suggests that forced oral sex, digital sex, anal sex, or penetration with an object is not rape. Bullshit. That suggests women can’t rape. Bullshit.

Rape, sadly, comes in many different ugly shapes and sizes, and when we dismiss non-penis-in-vagina forms of sexual assault as less traumatic, less serious, or less punishable we are doing a huge disservice to victims.


So, we’ve established that the penis-in-vagina definition of sex is woefully narrow and in need of revising, which leaves us with new burning questions: If what I thought was sex is not sex, then what is sex? Where are the boundaries? Did we “do it” or not? Are we over the line? Is it about orgasm? Is it about nudity? Is it about penetration? Does this thing we did count? What about that other thing? Do I have to increase my number

Ah, I see the problem now. We’re getting hung up on labels, you guys. In this age of overreporting and oversharing (ahem, guilty-as-charged), we obsess not over what we’re doing, but how we’re going to share it, display it, document it.

To all of the above, maybe the best answer is, who cares? What would happen if we replaced those old questions with new ones? Did you get intimate? Are you happy about it? Is your partner happy about it? Do you feel fulfilled, appreciated, respected? Good. You won.

Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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