Sex That (Doesn’t) Matter: Our Discursive Limits on Sex

After I gave my first blowjob, my friends had a rather lively discussion about whether I had actually lost my virginity. Their final conclusion was no. Sometime later – although before I had any penetrative sex – someone told me that I didn’t have “proper sex” because there was no penile penetration (although we did everything except penile penetration). If I hadn’t had “proper sex”, what was I doing?

So I ask: what is “proper sex”? What isn’t “proper sex”? And who determines what “proper sex” is?

Sex, as we commonly understand it, is a label that has crystallised over time to define our expectations of sexual activity to mean penetrative sex. In this vein, virginity is associated with whether there has been penetration of the vagina. At least this is the version we are often taught in schools and see depicted in the media: sex between a man and a woman, which involves penetration and then the (male) orgasm.

I find our status quo definition of sex not only incredibly narrow, exclusive and heterosexual, but also devaluing of other forms of sexual expression and intimacy that comprise the whole experience that is actually sex – foreplay, oral sex and fingering (to name a few). Because penetration and the male orgasm is viewed as the end game of sex, sex that does not achieve this is considered a failure. Our insistence upon penetration as defining sex not only pressures women to have penetrative sex, but it also privileges male pleasure through the erasure of other sexual acts which do not involve penetration, but which are still highly pleasurable. It also pressures women to have penetrative sex, with male pleasure – not their own – the focus of the sex.

Sex should not be narrowly conceived as the single act of inserting a penis into a vagina, but rather, as a narrative of pleasure which comprises a series of sexual acts. Non-penetrative sex can still be sex. Not achieving an orgasm does not make sex any less of an experience. Sex is and should be so much more than penetrative sex. Knowing now what I did not know then, I feel upset and angry that I spent years feeling ashamed, embarrassed and thinking I was a failure for not having penetrative sex, and that I was an inferior sexual partner for not having had it.

There is not one right or correct way of having sex. Each person should define their own expectations of sex and their own preferences for what is most enjoyable. For example, I often enjoy foreplay and cuddling more than penetrative sex. The arousing aspect of sex for me is the intimacy of being physically close, and feeling connected with your partner in a particular moment in time – how I achieve this feeling is essentially unimportant, whether it’s with penetrative sex or (often) not.

Ultimately, the takeaway message is that our common conception of sex is heterodox, monogamous and highly exclusionary of all the possible forms of sexual activity at our disposal. Just do what feels best for you, because that is the best sex of all!