It sounds like a simple question, but identifying what exactly counts as sex is surprisingly difficult. Most of our cultural ideas about sex were developed with straight, cisgender couples in mind. More specifically, most of our ideas about sex were developed with straight, cisgender men in mind.
Think about it: when you were first told what sex was, you probably heard that it’s when a man puts his penis inside a woman’s vagina, right? And let me guess, when you were taught sex ed in school, you got this narrative: penis goes in vagina, man ejaculates, man’s sperm fertilizes woman’s egg, the end. This formula focuses only on the genitals required for penetrative vaginal sex and only on the processes required for conception, and it only concerns itself with the male orgasm. But there’s so much more to sex than that!
In order to fully wrap our heads around the concept of sex, we need to move away from the idea that the only purpose of sex is to get pregnant. Given the accessibility of various methods of birth control, it’s safe to assume that pregnancy isn’t the only reason people are having sex. So, why else are people banging? Lots of reasons: to experience an intimate connection with their partner(s), to express themselves, and mostly, because it feels good. For now, let’s focus on the pleasure aspect.
There are lots of places on your body that are capable of experiencing sexual pleasure or of becoming aroused. These are called erogenous zones, and no one really knows exactly how many we have—it’s different for every person. There are some major ones, however, and these include the vagina and the vaginal opening, the entire vulva, the clitoris, the cervix, the breasts and nipples, the penis, the scrotum, the perineum, the prostate, the anus, the mouth and lips, the ears, and the neck. Those are a lot more places on your body than just the penis or vagina, and all of them are capable of experiencing sexual stimulation, and most can produce orgasms when stimulated.
Now let’s think about the things we refer to as “sex” even though, culturally, they might not be considered sex. There are two big categories here: oral sex and penetrative sex. Both of those categories can be broken down even further. Oral sex can refer to a blow job (officially known as fellatio), which is when someone stimulates their partner’s penis with their mouth; eating someone out (technically referred to as cunnilingus), which is when someone stimulates their partner’s vulva and/or vagina with their mouth; and rimming (scientific name: anilingus), which is when someone stimulates their partner’s anus and the surrounding area with their mouth. Penetrative sex, on the other hand, can refer either to vaginal penetration, which is when someone penetrates their partner’s vagina with their penis, fingers, or a dildo, or to anal penetration, which is when someone penetrates their partner’s anus with their penis, fingers, or a dildo. And then there are the virtual kinds of sex, like phone sex, Skype sex, sexting. There are just so many ways to have sex.
Lastly, let’s think about the people who have sex. Obviously, sex isn’t limited to heterosexual couples made up of one cisgender woman and one cisgender man. Queer, trans, and non-binary people have sex, too. When two people with anatomically female genitals have sex, obviously there’s no penis involved. And conversely, when two people with anatomically male genitals have sex, there’s probably not a vagina in sight. But even though it doesn’t look like the old penis plus vagina equals sex equation, when queer people have sex, it still counts as sex.
Which means…sex is a totally made up thing. That is, our cultural ideas of what sex is and what it is not are made up. Basically, for something to be considered sex, you just need these ingredients: two people or more involved in a sexual act together, whether they are in the same room or not, and the stimulation of someone’s erogenous zones. That’s it. Your boyfriend goes down on you in a parked car? It’s sex. You finger your girlfriend in a movie theatre? Sex. You partner penetrates your anus while stimulating your nipples? Sex. You masturbate while you’re talking dirty with your boo on the phone? Still sex!
Doesn’t that make things easier?