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What counts as sex?

This piece originally appeared at Womanist Musings where Renee has very generously allowed my random musings to appear on her excellent blog

Apparently, I am a virgin.
Now, this rather surprised me, all things considered. I rather thought all the sex I’d had disqualified me. It most certainly surprised Beloved when I told him (though it did paralyse him with uproarious laughter for some time)

But no, to some people I am a virgin – because I am a man who has never had sex with a woman. Specifically, I have never had penis-penetrating-a-vagina sex. And this is the only sex that counts. Yes, yes it is.  (Amusingly, some of these same people also believe that, as a gay man, I am also a promiscuous. This makes me a promiscuous virgin. It’s at this point that logic just said “Seriously?!” and left the room in a huff.)

I was surprised the first time and put it down to, well, extremist foolishness. After all, the homophobes have never been logical have they? And I’m sure that no belief or stance, no matter how silly or hateful, isn’t held by someone somewhere (and that he has internet access).

Except it wasn’t isolated. Several times I have come across people who decided I had never ever had sex, or never had “real” sex, because no woman was involved in the proceedings. Often they combined it the old foolishnesses of “how do you know you’re gay if you’ve never had sex with a woman?” (I was so tired of saying “and have you had sex with a man?“ that I had to mix it up a little “have you ever had sex with a lawn mower? No? Then how do you know you won’t like it!”) and “you only need to meet the right girl” (which is several kinds of annoying when I’ve already met the right guy) that I’m sure we’ve all heard and mocked before. But still, there was a surprising number of these “the only real sex is penis/vagina sex” out there.

And then I read  this little linky from the Kinsey institute. That pointed me to this study.  30% of people who took the study did not consider oral sex to be sex. 20% did not consider anal sex to be sex. That’s a pretty limited definition of sex there – and one that leaves me in the category of “not had sex.” In short, 20% of people who took this study think I’m a virgin.

And suddenly “quaint, silly, little eccentricity” becomes something rather more. It says rather a lot of our attitudes towards sex. It shows we have a very heteronormative view of sex – and a very restrictive view of sex. By privileging a sex act that is seen as quintessentially heterosexual as the only ‘real’ sex then we, in turn, lessen homosexual sex. We’re not capable of ‘real’ sex, it’s lesser sex, fake sex, not ‘proper’ sex. I can’t see this attitude as anything but harmful, just as any devaluing assumption is.

I don’t think considering only acts that try to expressly exclude gay people to count as real sex is motivated by homophobia in most cases (though the motivation doesn’t change that it is harmful), let me be clear. I rather think that it’s down to obsession with one particular act coupled with a whole lot of desperate self-justification (I’m not having sex, I’m just…) and just the general weirdness that comes with humanity’s collective horror and obsession with sex. I’m rather at a loss as to explain the full silliness of it, I confess.

I don’t know the motivations, but still, to 20% of these people, I am a virgin. And I’m not sure whether to be amused or insulted.

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I think that its more than just homophobia that makes people believe that sex is penis/vagina only. Remember Bill Clinton with his "I did not have sex with that woman." An astounding percentage of people agreed with him either because 1)not p/v or 2)no climax.

And apparently in some circles you can keep wearing your promise ring if you confine your activities to oral or anal sex. This baffles me as much as you being labeled a 'virgin.' Don't get this at all.

Aye I think it is damaging to gay people, but I don't think overt homophobia is the motivation (though I think heterosexism is a large part of it). I think it's part of the many deluded and foolish things people believe about sex.

Including such a huge amount of denial

I suspect this is tied to the whole view of sex as being directly tied to procreation. So sex that doesn't have the possibility of producing kids? Not real sex, apparently! It's tied up with the same weird cultural memes that have abortions being wrong because women who have sex outside of marriage need to be punished with unwanted children. (Which is its own set of nastiness, where pregnancy, birth, and childcare are explicitly called out as a series of horrible things that are penalties imposed on women for doing something wrong...)

Yeah. I'm pretty sure this is directly tied to the "If I can't get Pregnant, It's not Sex" idea. Because Not Having Sex is all about Not Having Abortions.

My high school Sunday school teacher never got over the time when he was telling us to "not have sex" and I asked him if the oral sex I'd had with my boyfriend the night before counted. That was a fast topic change.

Okay, back.

It's not really a surprise to me, I'm always cracked up when I see articles in teen-female magazines where the girls affirm they're virgins because they'd only gone as far as anal sex/oral sex/mutual mastubation/fingering... It's astounding, and not in a good way!

I don't think it's just a case homophobia, then. It can be, but, like you pointed, it had a great deal of the sickness of our society's morality and self-justification.

It helps feed into their denial and their false dichotomies

I've always linked these kind of views to the belief that virginity = a hymen (as demonstrated by companies offering 'revirgination'), but how male virginity fits into that I'm not sure.

It reminds me of a friend who had what I thought was quite a good view of her virginity - she had sex three times before declaring herself to no longer be a virgin, because she found the first two times so unenjoyable she decided they didn't count. Which makes sense to me: if virginity isn't something physical, then surely it's something mental/emotional, and who would know her mental state better than she herself?

And I need to remember that lawnmower line :).

Revirginisation boggles me utterly - the idea that virginity is a desired state - and that it is somehow regained with the hyjmen? Well logic leaves the room.

That's an interesting definition :) not sure if I'd count bad sex as not sex, but I can see the point anfd it makes as much sense as so many definitions

I think you're looking at selection bias on the survey / an insufficiently specific question at least as much as a hetero-normative set of attitudes. I strongly suspect that if you asked, most of the people who felt that anal sex 'wasn't sex' for a male-female couple would say it WAS sex in the context of a male-male couple. I think they're parsing 'is X sex' as 'is X 'going all the way'', to use the now-quaint phrase, and that's a context-dependent question.

I think you're on to something here. I'm asexual, so it's all academic, but part of my brain does priveledge penetrative sex of some kind as "Sex" while the rest is "fooling around." Which is silly, but not that important, as I have no sex life and somebody else's is none of my business to define. Yet it's sort of lurking.

While it was likely biased by a larger proportion of straight people being interviewed, I think this is likely to be a case of people not wanting to admit that they like sex and have had it more often/earlier in a relationship than they want to admit

Oh yes - I don't think homophobia is the motive (albeit I think it causes it) but our very very very messed up ideals about what counts as sex

A lot of people think lesbian sex isn't real sex too. Especially if there's no toys involved, the only penetration is fingers, really.

Well of course it's not real! We're only waiting for the man to come along and do the "real thing" with us, dontcha' know.


Apologies for the rude emoticon, but it's so appropriate.

It's also misogynistic, because it privileges the male experience of sex over the female. (Many women don't orgasm during penetrative sex with a man.)

For me, anything done with the intent to arouse is sex - whether it's dressing/moving provicatively, verbal or other sorts of play, initimate touching or penetrative sex.

I also manage to have a perfectly satisfactory sex life without involving anyone else.

Exactly - hte only real sex is very narrow and not many people's source to real pleasure.

That's close to my definition to - any real attempt to bring a sexual experience to self or others is sex. Albeit I tend to work more around the concept of "I know it when I see it"

Look at it this way; 2o-30% of people stopped obsessing over what "horrible, disgusting" things you and Beloved may be up to for a little while... if only to rationalize the "horrible, disgusting" things they are doing. If, when reminded of the fact that you and Beloved are doing "horrible, disgusting" things too, they decide it's not worth the additional logical contortions it would take to continue calling you perverts... okay, it's not ideal by a long shot, but it's marginally better than the alternative.

Oh know they'll obsess still - we're just not having sex, we're just being perverse virgins *is still amused*

Ha yes, the virginity thing. I apparently remained a virgin four years after I started having sex. Oh, the lulz.

I'd be offended by them doing that - but I can't stop giggling

My brother teaches high school math, science, chemistry, and physics. Now, at his high school, a girl being pregnant is almost the norm. 30% of the female population there is pregnant or has been pregnant at some time during her high school years. Now as to why their parents don't keep a closer eye on their children I'll never know. The father of the baby is usually not involved because she can't tell you which boy is the father for sure, and while they could do DNA matching, the boys usually refuse to go along with the proceedings and their parents are content with that. So the breeders heterosexuals are in full swing and not just with oral and anal sex. It's rare to find a virgin there, even at the freshman level (14 years old).

I do think that my sex is being marginalized and being said to, "Oh, you silly gays. You're not having sex. You're just choosing to engage in morally wrong acts." To which, I take offense. My sexual acts are no less loving and caring than their are. In fact, my sexual acts are quite often more loving than heterosexual acts. So to take away and dehumanize us, yet again, is offensive and hateful and fear based.

"If we let the gays in then they might convert some of our women or some of us (men)." Now, I'm all for recruitment, but that's not how it works. I can help someone who is scared come out of the closet, but I can't make someone gay. I can only open their eyes to the the possibility. The only people who are threatened by gay people are people who are unsure of their out sexuality. At the end of the day, if you know where you stick it, then you have nothing to worry about. So it's also an insecurity issue.

But back to topic, nothing makes me roll my eyes faster than the, "If you've never been with a woman how would you know?" I do the obligatory, "If you've never been with a man then how do you know you wouldn't like it?" "Well, I just know that I wouldn't enjoy it." "Well, so do I." Though, rarely does that logic work. They have their mind set that gay sex is not real sex because there's no love. All they know is Jack from Will & Grace, who was the stereotypical promiscuous gay man. That show did more harm than good, in my opinion. The promiscuous gay man or the celibate gay man. There are many of us in between. I'm celibate but that's out of choice. I don't do random hookups with strangers. So I remain celibate except when I am in a relationship. But to tell me that I'm a virgin when I know damn well that I've had more sex (I was a bit of a whore for a while there) than most straight men is just infuriating.

It's a shame these kids don't get more resources and information - so if they are going to choose sex they can choose to do it and not get pregnant or infected

Morally wroing and INFERIOR acts. Because our sex isn't real sex - it's as close as we can get to 'real sex' but not the real thing

Recruitment is ridciculous it really is - the idea that people choose to be gay or our doing it out of spite is so beyond silly it would make me laugh if it didn't come with such a high cost. All we can do is open the door and show freedom to those living with self-repression and hatred

I hate that too - I mean, seriously we KNOW who we are sexually attracted to before we actually have sex. Everyone does - it's because of privileged thinking because they can't imagine that heterosexuality isn't the default.

2 of the tropes - sexless so it doesn't offend the straight folks, or sex obsessed, confirming that we're promiscuous and seek lust not love. I swear, I sometimes think we'd be better off with no depictions opf gay people on TV at all, sure some of them are good, but so many are dire beyond words

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