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What Counts as Sex?

What counts as "real sex" is shaped by our own sexual preferences.

What is sex?

Most of you might be thinking that sex is an act of intercourse between two individuals. But does anal sex count? What if three people are involved but one is not penetrated? What about masturbation?

Recent research headed by Ava Horowitz, a social psychologist at the University of Lincoln, surveyed 300 young adults (18-30; mean age 20) about what they believe counts as sex. They found that it varies to a degree whether or not you are heterosexual.

In this study, a variety of sexual experiences were listed on a piece of paper. The participants had to say next to each experience if they would believe this was sex if this were the most intimate behavior you experienced with your partner. These included intercourse (anal and vaginal), uni-directional sex acts (performing oral or manual stimulation on a partner), masturbation, and mutual masturbation (while on the computer or telephone).

While people of all sexual orientations rated intercourse as most representative of having had sex, gay men scored the highest on believing that anal penetration constituted sex, compared to heterosexual men, heterosexual women, and lesbians. The latter group scored the lowest, but rated nonmutual penetrative sex acts (nipple play, deep kissing, or masturbating on the phone simultaneously) as more likely to count as sex than heterosexual men, heterosexual women, or gay men.

So what counts as sex? The answer depends partially on what your sexual orientation is. The nature of your sexual and romantic attractions will shape what you consider to be sex.

The authors of this study did not speculate about the implications for what constitutes rape. But if sexual orientation helps shape what is considered rape, then this raises serious complications for what legally should count as rape. While it seems impossible to have different laws for different people, it is plausible to have the laws expanded to include sexual acts that most groups of people might consider sex. As such, perhaps things like unwanted sexual touching — which this work shows might be considered actual sex more often by lesbians than other groups — should be included in the definition of rape. To limit rape to sexual penetration leaves a lot of room for what some people might count as sex to not be included in definitions of rape.


Horowitz, A. D., & Bedford, E. (2017). Graded structure in sexual definitions: categorizations of having “had sex” and virginity loss among homosexual and heterosexual men and women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(6), 1653-1665.

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