When Is Sex Sex? Your Answer May Differ from Your Partner’s

closeup on feet of couple lying in bedThe 16-year-old boy sitting across from me in the therapy room seemed genuinely puzzled when I asked if he was sexually active. He considered the question and said, “You mean by myself?” Before I could reply, he laughed and said, “Of course—since I was 11!”

I clarified that I was asking if he was having sex with another person. He stopped laughing. “What do you mean by ‘having sex’? ” he asked.

Teenagers aren’t the only ones wondering. In 1999, while embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton famously argued, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” What, exactly, did he mean by that?

It is common for doctors, when seeing a person with sexually transmitted infection symptoms, to ask how many sexual partners the patient has or has had. But these numbers may vary widely depending on what people view as sex. The former president, for his part, raised significant questions about the definition of “having sex.” So the Kinsey Institute, in partnership with Indiana University, began to explore the question many people were voicing as the 20th century drew to a close.

Researchers began by asking a group of college students what it meant to “have sex,” inquiring about specific behaviors. They found no consensus. So they cast their net much wider, speaking by phone to 486 Indiana residents (204 men and 282 women) between the ages of 18 and 96.

I first heard about this at a conference. The presenter threw up his hands when I asked if including people as old as 96 offered a more representative sample than the usual bunch of college students. He said it made things even more confusing, with less consistency of data.

Is oral sex considered sex? Not to about 30% of those interviewed.

Is oral sex considered sex? Not to about 30% of those interviewed. What about anal sex? Twenty percent of participants said no. There was a burst of surprised laughter in the room when the speaker reported that a high percentage (77%) of the oldest men (65 and older) did not regard penis-in-vagina intercourse (PIVI) as “having sex.”

Participants, most identifying as heterosexual, considered the question, “Would you say you ‘had sex’ if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was …”; 14 specific behavioral descriptions followed. They were also asked about whether a number of other things made a difference in the definition “having sex,” such as whether orgasm was reached. The results of the study were published in February 2010 in the International Journal of Sexual Health.

I was surprised by some things I learned in that workshop. Here are some that I jotted down:

  • Men and women responded in strikingly similar ways to all questions.
  • 95% of participants described PIVI as “having sex,” but only 89% described it that way when ejaculation did not occur.
  • 81% considered anal intercourse sex. The rate dropped to 77% for young males (18-29). For men 65 and up it fell to 50%, and to 67% for the oldest women. (These numbers would, of course, be very different for homosexual males.)
  • 71% of men viewed oral contact with a partner’s genitals, receiving or giving, as sex. A slightly higher percentage (73%) of women saw it the same way.
  • The oldest and youngest groups of men were more likely to answer in the negative, compared with the middle two age groups, regarding whether they were “having sex” when they performed oral-genital contact.

It certainly isn’t easy talking about sex, but I’m grateful that several hundred Hoosiers did just that with interviewers over the phone. “Having sex” clearly means different things to different people. And this can be a problem. The university’s head researcher said it well: “If people don’t consider certain behaviors sex, they might not think sexual health messages about risk pertain to them.”


  1. Kinsey Institute in cooperation with the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention, Indiana University.
  2. Sanders, S., Hill, B., Yarber, W., Graham, C., Crosby, R., & Milhausen, R. (2010). Misclassification bias: diversity in conceptualizations about having ‘had sex.’ International Journal of Sexual Health, 7(1), 31-34.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jill Denton, LMFT, CSAT, CSE, CCS, Sexuality / Sex Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Darla

    April 19th, 2016 at 9:21 AM

    I have never thought of masturbation as having sex

  • Butler

    April 19th, 2016 at 3:24 PM

    There are too many young people today who do not believe that oral sex is sex even though that is giving up a huge part of yourself to another person. There are just as many risks involved with oral sex as there are with physical sex, both emotionally and physically. I think that it is time to start looking at this form another point of view and opening up to what all could encompass the definition of sex today. Sure it could be different than what it was 50 years ago even, but times have changed and so must our way of thinking.

  • Myra

    April 20th, 2016 at 10:45 AM

    come on now, we all know what sex is!

  • Dirk

    April 21st, 2016 at 11:42 AM

    This is a tough topic to tackle and I am sure that the wide variety of answers that you received was just as confusing to you as it is to me reading about them here. I think that there has always been this clear yes or no in my head of what made up sex and what did not, and I think that as I get older I am having to broaden my horizons just a bit to include things that I may not have once considered but now feel like I have to.

  • Benny

    April 22nd, 2016 at 12:57 PM

    Of course there is a huge danger when we are trying to teach if you are going to have sex then at least make sure it is safe sex… and realistically most of the kids will not even consider the ramifications of any other type of sex other than traditional male female vaginal intercourse. That creates so big issues because we know that there are soooo many more ways that STDs can be spread!

  • Tess M

    April 23rd, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    My children and I from a very young age, against my mother’s wishes I will say, started talking about human sexuality and I have tried to inform them along the way of any information that I think will eventually come in handy for them. Do I think that they will always remember back to what I have tried to tell them? No, they are kids, But I at least hope that I have laid a basis that sometimes sex is this and sometimes it could be this and that they are at least widely educated enough to make responsible choices.

  • Mackenzie

    April 24th, 2016 at 2:11 PM

    Well just like the former president I have heard many different excuses from men about why what they did didn’t count as cheating.

  • Leslie

    April 25th, 2016 at 2:52 PM

    Could be more of a generational thing?

  • Rich

    April 26th, 2016 at 10:26 AM

    Who would have ever thought that we would have to ask?
    I mean, for me, anything that is sex is well, sex!
    Anal? yes. Oral? yes. Penetration? yes, sex. I am confused that there is even such confusion abounding.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.