Blast from the past: What is a sex act anyway?

26 01 2008
(Originally written on Oct. 25, 2007 on Facebook.)
A few casual conversations in the last year or so have set me on a long term revisiting of this question. Back as an undergrad, when a few of us were “getting intellectual” at Reggie’s after an anthro class where the idea came up that people in some societies can’t conceive of the possibility of sex between members of the same sex, I not-so-drunkenly suggested the possibility that the acts that we (westerners) would consider sex simply aren’t viewed that way in these particular locations. Years later, I came across literature that confirmed this. Women in a few African societies have traditionally had interactions that I, as a westerner, would consider sexual but that they do NOT define as sex. According to them, if there is no penis, how can it be sex? The underlying premise is that sex, by definition, involves acts that lead to procreation. The other stuff, as earth shatteringly orgasmic as it may be, therefore does not qualify. So for these women, genital contact amongst themselves is pleasurable and romantic but not sexual.

I shelved this internal dialogue for a while to pursue other intellectual interests (such as organising my condom drawer and working on my leather collection) but I’ve recently been drawn to this discussion again. Some time between 6 and 18 months ago (my life does tend to become a blur), a question asked of me in a truth or dare game (yes, sometimes it’s fun to be a teenager in one’s 30s) was the typical “How many people have you had sex with?” I drew a blank. Not because I can’t remember the people that I’ve had sexual interactions with but because I wasn’t sure what this particular individual meant by sex. Does oral count? What about mutual masturbation? What about fondling breasts? One really does have to check another’s definition of sex before answering such a question. In the minds of many, the above-mentioned acts do not count as “real” sex acts. “Penis in vagina” is sex and the rest is frequently relegated to the category of “foreplay”.

I find this highly problematic for a couple of reasons. (Sidenote: I find it problematic in a western context but am unwilling to extend this judgement to the above-mentioned societies since they apparently do not have the corresponding hang-ups about sexuality, or at least they didn’t before the damages caused by heavy outside influence, including religious conversion). It’s problematic, of course, because of the underlying heteronormative view that “penis in vagina” is THE ultimate form of sex. We see this when people ask “Well, how do two women have sex?” I remember witnessing a conversation, years before I came out of the closet as bisexual, about lesbians. The two people were hetero women who claimed that lesbians couldn’t possibly be sexually fulfilled because all they did was extended foreplay. More recently, at a panel at work on sexual diversity among women, the bisexual panelist (who happens to be a friend of mine – it seems that every time we have this sort of panel at my work place, most of the members are at least acquaintances of mine. Do us queers really ALL know each other???) was asked “How do girls have sex with each other?” Fortunately, the panelist calmly responded that sex comes in many forms, including the “imitation” of hetero-defined sex through the use of strap-ons.

I would like to digress slightly and address the issue of sex toys. Does the use of one qualify as sex? And does it only qualify as sex when there is someone there to use it on (or in) you? I’ve been particularly interested in this specific question as a result of an interesting drag king experiment. Three times now, in my career as a drag king, I’ve been involved in king-on-king fellatio. Yes, on stage. And yes, with the use of dildos or strap-ons. Now, the first time this happened, it was in front of a predominantly dyke crowd. My (now ex) GF and I performed a cop and biker skit where the only way the biker (me) gets off the hook is by giving the cop a BJ. As I was on my knees in front of him doing the deed (yes, the dildo was visibly sticking out of his pants and yes I really had it in my mouth) and thinking “wow, I’ve come a long way since catholic school and the girl scouts”, the crowd went nuts and seemed to think it was incredibly sexy. More recently, at Foufounes Electriques, I was in a sexy cowboy number, again culminating with my on my knees performing the same deed. All of us involved in this number were a bit apprehensive. Foufs isn’t a predominantly dyke crowd. How are these straight metal heads and punks going to react to women pretending to be gay men and having sex on stage? Well, they didn’t wind up caring. Why?

I *think* (I may never really know though) that perhaps it’s because in the mind of many of these people, what we were doing doesn’t count as real sex so it just wasn’t a big deal. A dildo is not a penis, therefore inserting it into one’s mouth, even if it is jutting out of someone else’s pants, is not a sex act. On the other hand, for many (not all, of course) of us dykes, a dildo is simply a variation of a penis and sucking on one, whether it’s held in another person’s hand or sticking out of a harness IS a sex act and quite a sexy one indeed. So the dyke crowd goes nuts seeing a king giving another king head. . . .of course! It’s public sex. Who wouldn’t go nuts? In my mind, I *did* have sex with these drag kings, and I also had sex with the woman who gave me a BJ on stage in Toronto. It was rehearsed sex for the purposes of entertainment (live porn, I guess?) but sex nonetheless.

Now, if the possibility of women having sex with each other is called into question as in, is it even possible for them to have sex since they have no cocks and the cocks some of them use aren’t “real” cocks anyway, I rarely hear this question asked about gay men. It seems to go without saying that they all have anal sex (which is inaccurate and misleading by the way because not all of them do while many opposite sex and lesbian couples do) and that this does count as real sex because there is a penis that is inserted into someone else’s lower anatomy. This points to a not-so-healthy dose of androcentrism when it comes to defining what counts as sex. Without cock, it ain’t sex. (I won’t digress here and go into the whole homophobia associated with cock-in-ass hang-up common among many straight guys, or how it’s ok if it’s between a man and woman but not between two men, but I will point out the interesting phenomenon of calling a man’s ass his “man cunt” in some gay porn. What does that say about the prevalant and far-reaching nature of “penis in vagina” as real sex? Or does it have more to do with established gender norms? Hmmmm . .. . food for future musings).

The androcentrism inherent in the “penis in vagina” model of real sex has been extremely damaging to women and, I would imagine, men. This model is maladaptive as it isn’t grounded in people’s actual sexual needs. Rather, it imposes an idea of what people’s needs should be. It imposes the ideas that a) real sex happens between a man and a women, b) real sex involves the man inserting his penis into the woman’s vagina and that c) it’s over when the man ejaculates. Beautiful and wonderful things like oral and manual stimulation become “foreplay” even though they can be incredibly satisfying for both (or more) parties in and of themselves.

How many women have lived their lives with unattended clits, or with their clits attended only insofar as it gets them wet and ready for penetration? How many men have limited themselves to orgasms induced by ejaculation when it is, apparently, possible for many men to experience orgasm without ejaculating? How many people have set aside what their sexual needs actually are to fit with what was expected of them under this model?

Now, people are experimenting with their sexuality like crazy in all sorts of contexts ranging from sexual monogamy to swinging to gang bangs and it seems that all sorts of sex acts are gaining popularity. Cunnilingus has become a selling point on adult dating sites – in addition to bragging about their big cocks (ahem), men brag about their skilled tongues in an attemt to woo females. Rimming, once a taboo subject, has practically become dinner-time converation (ummmm . . . tossing salad, anyone?). But still, this insistence on “penis in vagina” remains strong in many circles. Some swinging couples limit their play to anything BUT this act with the idea that they’re not REALLY having sex with others when it’s “just” oral sex. Some guys still insist that they’re not cheating on their female partners if they let another woman suck their cock. (“I’m not doing anything, she’s the one sucking and I’m just standing there.” Mon oeil.) People still wonder how it’s possible for women to have sex with each other.

So . . . in case you’re wondering what I consider to be a sex act, I have no concrete definition. I’m not even willing to create a definition that focuses on genitals in any way. What if one is highly turned on by having their breasts fondled? Or their balls? Or their ears? Is that sex? I think that if a person FEELS like it’s sex, then it’s sex, regardless of whether it leads to genital touching or penetration. Heck, read the play “Bent” or talk to people who cyber regularly and maybe you’ll realise (if you haven’t already) that sex doesn’t even necessarily involve touching. [For the record, “Bent” has the most erotic scene I’ve ever read . . . that’s all I’ll say for fear of spoiling it.]

However, one has to face the possibility that someone they think they’ve had sex with doesn’t agree that it was sex. Maybe that woman in Toronto just sucked on my strap-on and wasn’t involved in pornographic entertainment in her view. I’m cool with that and it doesn’t have to change my lived experience of it as producing live porn. These disparities can actually lead to funny conversations, like when my northern lover commented that, after knowing each other for several years, we finally had sex this summer. Stopped dead in my tracks, I wondered out loud if I hallucinated that whole beautiful experience in the hunting blind 9 years ago, or all those times we went out for rides on dirt roads in his car. After a few minutes of discussion, it dawns on both of us that our definitions of “real” sex are different. Of course they are; we’re from different cultures AND from different generations. Did either of us enjoy any of those experiences any less? No. Fortunately, he values the “other stuff” as much as “real sex” as he defines it. If he didn’t we would potentially have a very large problem on our hands. In the end, I think that how people define sex is secondary to what they value. Good sex happens when people share common values when it comes to what is fulfilling sex and when they are comfortable enough to express what they want and need, whether this happens in a long-term monogamous arrangement or in a weekend fling somewhere. Whatever names they assign to what they are doing become quite irrelevant then, provided unspoken assumptions don’t interfere with healthy communication.

OK, enough reading! Get off your butt and go find someone to have sex with!

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