This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
Anyone who's read my writing for more than six minutes knows that the question of how we define what is and isn't sex -- and the surprising difficulty of answering that question -- is one of my ongoing hobby-horses. One of my earliest and most widely-read pieces, Are We Having Sex Now or What?, is about these very questions -- how we define what sex is, how we handle it when these definitions change over our lives, what we do when our definitions conflict with other people's. I think these are fascinating questions with profound philosophical implications, and it's a topic I’ve returned to again and again.
Well, I just read something that reminded me of why these questions are important. Not just interesting, not just philosophically profound, but important, with practical, real-world consequences.
It was a letter to Scarleteen, the "sex advice for teenagers" website. It's a longish letter, and a longer response (both are well worth reading in their entirety), but the title will immediately tell you what's going on and why I think it's important.
"We're abstinent, but we had anal sex and are scared to death."
The story is almost exactly what you probably think it is. Two teenagers, who have decided to be abstinent until marriage, are playing an extended game of "everything but," avoiding penis- in- vagina intercourse but otherwise engaging in activities that would make Larry Flynt blush. Including, as you may have guessed from the title of the letter, anal sex.
But because they’re not having what they consider Sex -- namely, penis- in- vagina intercourse -- they're not taking responsibility for the fact that they're in a sexual relationship. They're not practicing safer sex, and the things they're doing could easily result in the passing on of sexually transmitted diseases, and even pregnancy. (As the Scarleteen advisor points out, unprotected anal intercourse can result in pregnancy, since semen isn't very good about staying put.)
In fact, the letter was written in a state of panic, not because the letter- writer was scared that what they'd been doing might be risky, but because she was scared that they'd slipped and somehow done The Real Thing without meaning to.
The idea that some kinds of sexual activity count as Real Sex while others don't is one of the most common tropes in our sexual culture. Especially among teenagers. It has been for some time: whether it's heavy petting in the ’50s or oral sex in the '70s, teenagers have come up with ways to be sexually active without thinking of themselves as sexually active. And while penis- in- vagina intercourse always seems to count as The Real Thing, the sorting of other activities into Sex or Not-sex is almost entertainingly fluid. (I'm actually fascinated by the notion that anal somehow doesn't count as real sex. When I was a young thing, anal definitely counted. Hell, it counted more. Doing anal meant you were more sexual, more advanced, more of a slut. The generally- accepted heterosexual progression in my day was: fingers, oral, penis- in- vagina intercourse, then anal. So when I read that teenagers today are doing anal before vaginal in order to protect their virginity, a part of me wants to holler at them, "No, no, no! You have that completely out of order!")
But as common as it is, this idea of the One True Sex is also one of the most pernicious ideas we have. And this letter shows why, in disturbing detail. When people -- especially teenagers -- fixate on one sexual activity as The One That Counts and disregard other activities as Not Really Sex, they tend to place a disproportionate focus on that One Act, fixating all their sexual hopes and fears onto it. And they do this while ignoring the possible risks -- and, of course, the possible benefits -- of Just Fooling Around. The possible consequences of sex don't attach to the things they're doing. After all, what they're doing isn't sex.
Even if they're getting fucked in the ass.
In a way, I get it. Dividing sex into The Real Thing and Just Fooling Around is a first-class rationalization, a very convenient mental trick for enjoying sexual experimentation without thinking of yourself as a person who has sex. Hell, I did it myself: I did all sorts of sexual things as a teenager, things I would now definitely consider Sex, before I was ready to do what I considered Losing My Virginity. In retrospect, the physical act of intercourse didn't turn out to be all that special; but the mental line between Virgin and Not-Virgin seemed like a big honking deal at the time. And as long as teenagers are both (a) horny and (b) getting bad information and fucked-up messages from society about sex, I can't entirely begrudge them the mental gymnastics that allowed me to have all sorts of sexual fun before I felt ready to cross that line.
But if the need to put your sexual activities into the Not Sex category is so strong that it makes you ignore the possible consequences -- physical and emotional -- of what you're doing, then there's a serious problem.
And it's a problem for parents and teachers and sex educators, too. If you care about unwanted teenage pregnancies and STIs, it's not enough to teach kids the possible consequences of sex and how to be responsible about them. You need to teach them the possible consequences of whatever the hell it is that they're doing sexually... even if they don't think of what they're doing as sex.
I don't really care if people define anal sex as Real Sex. But I damn well care if they’re using condoms and lube when they do it. And if not calling it Real Sex is keeping you from using condoms and lube, then the question of "whether you're having sex now or what" stops being a fascinating philosophical exercise that you can ponder at your leisure, and starts being an important, immediate, pragmatic question that you really need to think about now.
P.S. Scarleteen is a mind-bogglingly useful resource for teenagers wanting to get accurate, non-judgmental information about sex. If you think the work they do is important, please consider supporting them.