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Defining Sex


Sexuality, religion, and experiences can all shape an individual’s view on what constitutes as sex.

From Merriam-Webster to Oxford Dictionaries, no two definitions of sex seem to be the same.

According to a survey published in 2010 by Indiana University, Americans do not agree on what “having sex” truly is. The study recorded responses from almost 500 residents of Indiana, mostly heterosexual, who participated in a survey over the phone. The Kinsey Institute, which studies sex and relationships, reported that 95 percent of respondents consider penile-vaginal intercourse as having had sex, but only 89 percent consider this having sex if there is no ejaculation.

Even though sex is such a common part of life, different views are formed through each person’s life experiences. To gain a better understanding of where these ideas come from, Ball Bearings talked to four individuals from varying backgrounds.

Mariann Fant

Mariann Fant was the 2016-2017 president of Spectrum, a group that educates Ball State University and Muncie on the issues, cultures, and history of the LGBT community.

Sex is a physical act that is pleasurable to both or multiple partners. It is consensual, reciprocal, and continual.

There is the animalistic, instinctual part of sex that is definitely real, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of sex. I think a lot of our notions, ideas, and restrictions that we put on sex are definitely constructed.

Just being a part of the LGBT community definitely shifts your perspective. I think there is a general belief of not being ashamed, being able to explore, [and] being open to non-normative practices and partners, types of sex, role playing, and BDSM. It’s just like, this isn’t something you should be ashamed of, it’s actually something you should explore. Therefore, you can be safer. It’s just better in general for everybody if we can be open about it. I think that [the] belief of the LGBT community has shaped my overall beliefs.

I was born into the strict Catholic religion. I grew up going to classes where they said masturbation was wrong and contraception was wrong. So, it’s definitely a stark difference. It’s just hard for me to buy into that, partially because of the LGBT community, but also I just don’t see sex as a dirty thing. All those [Catholic] beliefs to me are centered around the general idea that it’s something to be ashamed of, or it’s shaped around a woman’s purity—which is all kinds of sexist. That’s why it’s hard for me to buy into a lot of [Catholic] religious practices around sex.

I don’t know why, but ever since I was little I always questioned things. I just remember being like: “Well, is God even real? I don’t know.” That’s my personality—questioning things.

The media, you can’t escape that, and it definitely perpetuates heteronormativity and those aspects of sex.

This stigma and shame around sex is largely a Western thing. Actually, not even Western, just the United States. If you go to Europe, they’re much more open about [sex]. I don’t know why we’ve decided to be so ashamed. I mean, I’m sure there’s a large historical background that could explain that.

Virginity is fake. I don’t know, it’s hard for me. I understand that there is a concept that your first time of any kind of sexual experience is special; it’s new and exciting. I get that part of virginity.

I read this thing one time, that when you talk about virginity, there are actually a lot of women out there whose virginity was taken by sexual assault.

I think the mainstream view of virginity is focused on the women’s purity. That’s what I have a problem with. That’s why I reject it. Sure, there could be a fine view of virginity, where however you define [it], that’s your virginity. That’s what I’m all about. If you want to define your virginity by saying, “I define [losing] virginity as [having] oral sex,” good for you.

Martin Wood

Martin Wood is an associate professor of health science and teaches classes about health, sex, and family at Ball State University.

It’s hard for me to separate my own thinking on the word “sex” from what I teach about it and what the textbooks that I use teach about it. Sex is your inward sense of yourself as a sexual being and all that that entails. So, that might include your gender identity, [which] is your concept of yourself as masculine or feminine or combinations of the above. It would include your orientation, so the focus of your erotic, romantic, and affectionate feelings toward somebody else, whether it’s a male person or a female person or combinations of the above. It would have to do with your outwardly observable behaviors as well.

We know that your sexual behaviors don’t always match what’s going on inside your head. Sometimes they go hand in hand, but sometimes they don’t. Then there’s an essential kind of inherent biological aspect to sex, too, whether you [have] XY or XX sex chromosomes, whether you [have] predominately male hormones or female sex hormones, whether you’ve got testes or ovaries—some of those biological realities that each of us carries with us.

I think most of my attitudes about sex and sexuality come from my parents’ attitudes about [them], and how they communicated that to my brother and I, or didn’t communicate it as the case may be. My dad was a psychologist and he, among other things, did sex therapy. My mom [and dad] worked at a university. So, we were raised in an environment where talking about sex was not a big deal. We were encouraged to talk about it to the extent that we were comfortable. My mom and dad had books that had to do with sex and sexuality on the bookshelves in our house that we were never told were off limits. So, we could go and explore those if we wanted to. My mom was a feminist, so our attitudes about women and male-female differences, rights, and privileges were, I’m sure, shaped by that. Personally, I feel like that’s probably been [the] strongest influence on where I am today sexually. Naturally, at an early age, you’re exposed to media, the world around you, peers, and forces outside the control of your parents and family. So I know I was affected by that stuff, too.

My own personal feeling or belief when it comes to virginity is that it’s primarily a state of mind. It’s impossible to point at one behavior in particular that causes you to “lose your virginity” or one particular lifestyle that allows you to retain your virginity. I don’t think there’s any such thing. I think a lot of people hold this belief that it’s penetrative intercourse—penis and vagina—that is the end of your virginity. But, obviously, there are people for whom that kind of sexual experience isn’t likely to happen ever, anyway, because of their orientation.

Again, I maintain that depending on your starting point, a lot of different kinds of sexual experiences can cause your virginity to change, or at least your attitude about yourself to change. If you give oral sex to somebody or they provide oral sex to you, that’s not penetration, but I still maintain that you’re a changed person after that experience. I would argue you’re not really a virgin after that experience. You know, you give a hand job to somebody—same thing, you’re changed. You think of yourself differently. Your feelings about yourself—positive and negative and everything in between—change as a result of that.

Angela Dorman

Angela Dorman has been a consultant for Pure Romance, a sex toy company, in Muncie for almost two years.

I think that sex is any sort of intimate contact that you’re having with another person, even with yourself. You can absolutely have sex with yourself. Sometimes that’s way more phenomenal than anything with any other person you can find. It’s getting intimate with yourself or intimate with somebody else. Hopefully you’ll fulfill that desire and finish. I don’t think finishing is necessary, and it’s pretty common for people to not, male or female, whichever way you look at it. You can still have a great time even if you do not climax, especially women. It’s a very [small] percentage of women that actually come consistently.

Sexual acts can obviously be committed to your body without your consent. That’s still sex even though it’s rape. Climax isn’t an important part of the equation or definition. It’s just the hopeful outcome.

A lot of people wouldn’t realize this, but I actually grew up Christian when I was younger. I had a pretty narrow view of how things were supposed to be, that [sex] was supposed to be in the confines of marriage. As I grew up and matured, that became less important. What became more important to me after I got out on my own was finding things that were good for me—situations and people that treated me well. That really shapes it. If you have a terrible relationship, that really shapes a very negative, narrow view of sex. But, if you’re with a partner who is phenomenal [and] open, you communicate very well.

The media informs people adversely sometimes because you see pornography, soap operas, reality shows, and stuff like that. It’s a very skewed perception of what’s okay as far as how somebody treats you and how you should be behaving in those situations. It almost gives you no wiggle room for the real stuff that happens.

[During sex] you make weird faces. You don’t look hot all the time. You don’t scream like a banshee. I think it gives you sort of a Barbie-house view of what it should be, and that’s not what it is. That view, even though it’s like everybody’s having orgasms and looks like a Kardashian and looks all fabulous and everything, doesn’t give you any room for the really wonderful part—you are you.

You can go by the common construct of virginity, which is penetrative sex. But because there is so much fluidity anymore to gender and relationships, I think [that idea of virginity] kind of gets broken when you get into that first intimate relationship with somebody. So, it can be oral sex or things like that.

Clara Lucca

Clara Lucca is a missionary with St. Francis of Assisi and Fellowship Of Catholic University Students at Ball State.

Sex is the highest form of affection and a gift of self that connects people. Being Catholic plays a role in what I believe. I think sex is meant to be an expression of commitment and with someone you see yourself having a life or future with. Ideally, it happens within a marriage between a man and a woman. That’s the safest way, biologically.

I’m against contraception because I think it makes it easier for women to be used by men, and the chemicals aren’t good for their bodies. I know women who have been on the pill for years [and] then [had] complications when they try to get pregnant.

I’m not sure exactly what my parents believe, but I believe what the Catholic Church believes. Sex should be an expression of commitment, and it’s a good thing. I definitely think there is a lot of pressure from the media for women to dress sexy and have sex appeal. This is frustrating because when women do engage in sex, they may be labeled a slut.Virginity depends on when you’ve chosen to give yourself away. If someone is raped, no, they did not lose their virginity. I find it odd when people say they’re going to have anal sex, not penetrative sex, because they don’t want to lose their virginity. I consider that losing your virginity.

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