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Is it sex? That depends

Can you tell when you've had sex?

Don't be so sure. A new study suggests that what people mean when they say they've had sex — or haven't — depends on whom you ask.

Researchers, sponsored by the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction and the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention, posed a series of questions about different sexual acts to 486 Indiana residents ages 18 to 96. The subjects weren't asked about their own behavior — self-reporting about sexual activity is notoriously unreliable — but about what physical acts constituted "having sex."

The 204 men and 282 women were asked in the phone survey, "Would you say you 'had sex' with someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was. …" There were 14 possible ways for that sentence to end, including manual-genital contact, oral-genital contact, penile-vaginal intercourse and penile-anal intercourse, with variations related to whether an act was performed or received, included male or female orgasm, was performed with a condom or performed very briefly.

Not one of those 14 possibilities was rated as "having sex" by 100 percent of respondents overall. The only 100 percent ranking? All male respondents ages 18 to 29 considered penile-vaginal intercourse with condom use "having sex." (Mysteriously, only 96.7 percent thought penile-vaginal sex in general counted; among women 18 to 29, it was only 93.5 percent).

That 100 percent seems pretty cool if you interpret it as suggesting that young men have gotten the message that responsible condom use should be part of sex. But among those same young men, only 9.7 percent thought that receiving manual-genital stimulation was "having sex," and only 40 percent thought that receiving oral-genital contact was sex. Sadly, the researchers didn't ask the other 60 percent of those guys what the heck they did think it was.

This is more than fodder for jokes, though. ("Okay, honey, if you don't think that's sex, I won't do it anymore.") The researchers point out that such differences in definition affect the responses of people being polled on the effectiveness of abstinence education or questioned by doctors about their exposure to STDs. Among the 18 to 29 age group, only 83.9 percent of women and 76.7 percent of men considered anal intercourse "having sex"; only 61.3 percent of women thought performing oral sex counted. Anyone who thinks oral or anal contact can't cause STDs is in a world of trouble.

And this is not just another case of those crazy kids. Across all age groups, fewer than 50 percent of respondents thought manual-genital contact was "having sex," about 70 percent classified oral contact as sex, and only about 80 percent counted penile-anal intercourse.

In almost every category, people over age 65 were least likely to consider any given act to constitute "having sex." (The age group most likely to rank any variation as "having sex" was 30 to 44; women across categories were more likely to call a given act sex than men were.)

Remember, the researchers were not asking people what they themselves had done or would do, only whether the acts counted as sex. Yet only 45.5 percent of men 65 and older considered penile-anal intercourse "having sex" if there was no male ejaculation; 63.6 percent of them counted penile-vaginal intercourse without ejaculation. The percentage of women over 65 who thought performing oral sex counted was 59.3 — less than the percentage among the youngest women.

So what do we take away from this study, besides an appreciation for all the short slang terms for sex acts after typing "penile-vaginal intercourse" so many times? The authors emphasize the need for more specific terms in such settings as doctor's offices and research labs.

But most of us are much more likely to talk about sex in our personal lives, and this may be a reminder that when we talk about it with our children or our parents, our spouses or potential spouses, as uncomfortable as it might make us, we should speak plainly.

% respondents answering "yes" that it is sex Gender Age 18-29 Age 30-44 Age 45-64 Age 65+
MG-performed Men 9.7 51.6 51.3 36.4
MG-performed Women 29 44.2 51.4 47.5
MG-received Men 16.7 53.2 54.5 43.5
MG-received Women 32.3 44.2 55.1 53.3
OG-performed Men 33.3 80.6 78.4 59.1
OG-performed Women 61.3 74 79.4 59.3
OG-received Men 40 82.3 79.5 59.1
OG-received Women 67.7 76.6 80.4 59.3
PVI-condom Men 100 96.8 92 81.8
PVI-condom Women 93.5 94.8 94.3 88.1

Is it or isn't it?

Sex is the most intimate of acts, and yet a new survey reveals wide disagreement by age and gender on what exactly constitutes "sex." What does that mean for our culture? (In this chart "MG" means manual-genital; "OG," oral-genital; "PVI," penile-vaginal intercourse.)

The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and the Journal of Sexual Health

Is it sex? That depends 03/06/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 15, 2010 1:39pm]
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