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There are many different beliefs when it comes to sex and sexuality. In a recent Student Health 101survey, almost 70 percent of the more than 400 respondents said the definition of sex, as it pertains to sexual activity, varies from person to person. Exploring what physical acts you believe are sex can help you make decisions based on your values. Communicating about your views is an essential part of having healthy sexual experiences.
Developing Your Views
Ideas about sex are influenced by many factors—family, friends, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, values, culture, media, and experiences—and can change throughout your life. Choosing whether or not to be sexually active may be influenced by these same factors, and sometimes this decision and definitions of sex are intertwined.
Jessica M., a junior at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, says her definition of sex was influenced by what she learned growing up and talking with friends. Casey R.*, a senior at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, feels that views about gender and sexual identity can influence people’s definitions of sex, noting that many people view it through a traditional, heterosexual lens.
Reflecting on the factors that have affected your beliefs can help you refine them and get comfortable communicating about them.
Below are some questions to ask yourself:
- Was your family open to talking about sex? In what ways? How did you feel during the conversations?
- How has the media affected your views on sex and relationships?
- What do your friends say about sex? Did you joke about the “bases” growing up? If so, what were they?
- Have you ever been sexual with someone else? What are your hopes or views on sexual interactions?
- What do you see as the “goal” of sex: emotional intimacy, physical pleasure, procreation, and/or something else?
More questions to ask yourself
- What is your comfort level with talking about sexual activity?
- What were you taught about masturbation?
- Have you ever been sexual with someone?
- What were/are/might you be looking for in a sexual interaction? (e.g., to form emotional bonds or communicate strong feelings and connection, physical pleasure, to explore your own body or discover others’, etc.)
- Does your definition of sex depend on the parts of the body that are involved?
- Is the definition dependent on what can happen as a result? (e.g., pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection)
- Have erotic literature, images, and/or pornography affected your views?
- What did you learn in health classes?
- What do you view as “virginity”?
- What do you define as “fooling around” or “hooking up”?
- Do sexual orientation or the gender of partners affect definitions of sex?
- What’s the difference between foreplay and sex?
- What factors affect how you feel about a specific activity? (e.g., Is something sex or not based on the amount of trust involved, how you’d feel physically, or emotional aspects?)
Let’s Talk About Sex
The ability to communicate your beliefs, intentions, and boundaries is critical to having healthy, consensual sexual experiences—now and in the future. Dr. Alex McKay, research coordinator for the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada in Toronto, Ontario, suggests, “Setting out your own plan—even if that means you decide you’re not ready for sex—will help you to clarify your values and priorities about sex and relationships.”
In addition to considering how you’ve developed your views, it can be useful to ask yourself about specific activities. Thinking about sex in this very detailed way may help illuminate what you believe.
In the recent Student Health 101 survey, 20 activities were listed and respondents were asked, “Which of the following do you consider ‘sex’? Choose all that apply.” The answers varied widely, with about 5 percent of the respondents believing that open-mouth kissing is sex, nearly 20 percent defining masturbation and touching someone else under clothes or naked as sex, and almost 95 percent saying sex is vaginal penetration with a penis. Some people think of sex as any activity involving the potential for a sexually transmitted infection.
More student responses
What Is Sex?In a recent Student Health 101 survey, students were asked, “Which of the following do you consider ‘sex’? Choose all that apply.” Here’s what they said:
- None of the above: 2.0%
- Open-mouth kissing: 4.9%
- Sexual fantasies: 5.2%
- Sending and/or receiving text messages with sexual content: 8.1%
- Kissing of the body: 9.9%
- Engaging in sexual behavior via computer: 12.6%
- Engaging in sexual behavior via phone: 14.8%
- Touching under clothes/naked: 17.2%
- Masturbation: 20.0%
- Vaginal penetration with fingers/hands/toys: 41.9%
- Anal penetration with fingers/hands/toys: 41.9%
- Oral contact with anal area: 44.6%
- Oral contact with genitals: 55.4%
- Anal penetration with penis: 73.9%
- Vaginal penetration with penis: 93.3%
Given the wide variety of views, conversations about sex are important—especially if you plan to be sexually active with someone. Cory Silverberg, a sex educator in New York City and author of What Makes a Baby, suggests, “Taking the time and risk to share your definition of sex, including where that definition came from, enhances communication.”
In the recent Student Health 101 survey, nearly 60 percent of respondents said they talk with sexual partners about their definitions of sex. But recent research published in the Journal of College Student Development indicates that students may prefer to communicate in ways that are indirect, nonverbal, or a bit ambiguous—possibly due to embarrassment or concerns about rejection.
Albert R., a senior at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, says, “More communication can reduce the chance of sexual activity without consent. I think this is valuable in terms of “hookup” culture, too.” Here are some suggestions from students about having a comfortable conversation:
- Have an open line of communication right from the beginning.
- Be open and don’t mock.
- Keep things confidential.
- Bring it up casually in conversation.
- Be honest.
- Don’t judge.
- Ease into it with a smile.
- Acknowledge that it may be awkward.
- Be confident in what you’re saying.
More conversation pointers
Talk About ItBenjamin R., a senior at Oklahoma City University, suggests creating a trusting and safe environment when talking about sex. How? Here are ideas from students around the country:
- Be honest about your own experiences.
- Talk about it without anyone else around.
- Be serious.
- Don’t make a big deal out of it.
- Use “I” statements.
- Use correct terminology. Don’t be vulgar about it.
- Talk before confusion arises.
- Always keep things confidential.
Another component of these types of conversations is talking about safer sex. Here are some pointers:
- Talk about your sexual interests and limits.
- Listen to what your partner says about his or her interests and boundaries.
- Discuss pregnancy prevention when applicable and protection from sexually transmitted infections.
- Agree on the safer sex methods and materials you will use.
- Come to a mutual agreement about what sexual acts you want to do together.
Talking about sex makes some people embarrassed or very uncomfortable. And some don’t want to talk about it at all. What will you do if your partner is unwilling to talk about it? Here are some considerations:
- Will you still be sexually active with him or her?
- How will you give and receive consent?
- How will you prevent pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted infections?
Many schools have health educators and counselors that can help you practice talking about sex and answer any questions you may have. Contact your campus health or counseling center, women’s center, or GLBTQ outreach program.
You can also find a sexual health educator through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT).
Whether you choose to be sexually active or not, thinking about what sex means to you can foster communication, respect, and healthy decisions—just like considering your feelings and views on anything would. As one respondent to the Student Health 101 survey noted, “It’s just a part of life.”
* Name changed for privacy.
- Explore what has influenced your ideas about sex.
- Consider your personal values and views.
- Discuss your beliefs and boundaries in order to clarify them.
- Understand that people may have differing views and experiences.
- If you choose to be sexually active with another person, discuss your definitions openly and honestly.
Get help or find out more
University of California, Davis, Student Health and Counseling Services, How to be Sexcessful: A Guide for UC Davis Students
Planned Parenthood Federation of America, What is Sex?
American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT)