Philosophy of Sex
It is easy to simply define sex as ‘any contact between two or more individuals in which penetration occurs’; this covers the broad definitions of intercourse as have been commonly understood by societies over the course of history. This definition ostensibly covers oral, vagina, and anal sexual intercourse in a strict physical sense, but manages to ignore some of the greater nuances of the sexual experience. Therefore, this paper will seek to examine and defend a conceptual definition of sex as ‘all acts conveying a physical connection (requiring penetration) between two or more individuals.’ This analysis will be established by stipulating the requirement of penetration as a necessary condition for sex, and explores the ramifications of such a requirement. Potential counter-examples will also be explored, including the involvement of solo sex acts, the presence of bestiality, gays and lesbians, non-sexual physical contact of genitalia, and fetishes.
For this conceptual definition of sex, two or more persons must physically insert a body part (or object) into another body part. While there can be both physical and emotional components to sex, physical acts are the only necessary conditions to constitute defining the activity as ‘sex’. A mental component is not necessary for the sexual act, but it can be sufficient for helping to create the sexual act. Another factor is pleasure; can a sexual act be sexual if it does not produce pleasure? According to our definition, it does – it is a sufficient condition, but not necessary for it to count as sex.t Intent must also be clear in both parties for acts to be sexual; sex can be used as communication, a means of achieving satisfaction or procreation, to express love or have fun, or others. Penetrative and insertion-related physical acts can be called ‘sex acts’, even if consent or desire is not a factor. A consenting couple engaging in penetrative sex, for example, is also performing a sex act, but the optional conditions of pleasure, emotion, intent and desire happen to also be present.
This definition stipulates that, at its core, there is a fundamental difference between ‘sexual activity’ and ‘sexual desire.’ The lines between consent and non-consent, the difference between desire and behavior, the nature of pleasure itself, and more are all complex issues that further obfuscate the issue of sex, making it necessary to remove them from the basic definition of what constitutes sex. Sex acts are inherently physical in nature, and can ignore issues such as consent and pleasure for the sake of the pure physical act, sexual desire not necessarily being required for a sex act to occur. The conceptual definition of sex being provided follows this categorization as its basis – acts must be physical and penetrative in order to constitute sex, and must be performed between two or more individuals.
‘Sex acts’ are the behaviors and attitudes that are sex in their rare and basest form, focusing primarily on insertion and other acts which may not necessarily require consent or pleasure. At its basic form, this includes oral, anal or vaginal penetration between two or more individuals. While kissing is ‘sexual,’ it is not penetrative, and therefore is not sex. While enjoyment and eroticism are possible components of the sex act, they are not strictly necessary; therefore, rape or molestation can fall under the purview of a sex act. Sex acts themselves do not take an explicitly moral stance – rape and other methods of nonconsensual perversion are morally wrong, but still constitute a sex act. Instead, they are the pure expression of ‘sexual activity’, the physical acts undergone independent of the presence of sexual desire. Physicality is the only necessary condition for an activity to constitute sex; pleasure may also occur, but is not required to fulfill the definition.
Just as with any complex definition, there are many counter-examples that can threaten the accuracy and credibility of this particular definition of sex as being comprised of both sex acts and sexual acts. For one thing, the defining of ‘sex acts’ as being almost purely penetrative poses many different problems – for example, manual stimulation (e.g. handjobs) is not strictly penetrative, but can still be constituted as a sex act. With women, digital penetration still occurs, making the act constitute ‘sex’, but manual stimulation of the penis in men can only be called penetrative if the penis itself is said to ‘penetrate’ the encircled hand of the giver of the act. Any sort of light sexual behavior falls somewhat outside the conceptual definition of ‘sex acts’ that has been established, such as light hair touching or kissing.
The issue of perversion – sexual behaviors that are not normal or orthodox – must be addressed in this conceptual definition of sex. Unhealthy and morally wrong perversions such as pedophilia, necrophilia, and the like are still considered sex, but can still be classified as perversions and a negative moral stance can be made on them. In the case of necrophilia, one of the persons involved is dead (and therefore incapable of intent and consent), thus disqualifying them as persons and falling outside the established definition. In instances like BDSM and fetishism, there are many non-penetrative acts that arouse desire and arousal in individuals – leather, whipping, feet, shoes, and more are all innately sexual for people with such fetishes, but no penetration is strictly involved. Someone who is excited by playing with someone’s hair has a sexual intent for doing so, but it does not necessarily constitute sexual behavior when it occurs. This kind of light sexual behavior requires intent and end/means thought processes as necessary conditions for their existence, but are not penetrative and therefore do not constitute sex.
The issue of whether or not homosexuality and bestiality can fall under this conceptual definition of sex should also be discussed. In the case of male homosexuals, the penetrative act still occurs in an active sex life, as oral and anal intercourse are still possible – these acts are still definable as ‘sexual.’ In the case of lesbians, digital and oral intercourse can still occur. Inanimate objects do not count as persons, however, so in the instance of a lesbian couple using dildos to perform vaginal or anal intercourse, it could theoretically not count as sex. This can be refuted, however, by saying these objects are being used as tools in the sexual experience – a person is still guiding the object toward penetration, even if it is not a body part. The ‘object’ clause of the definition allows for this, so the use of dildos or other inanimate objects still counts as a sex act being performed by individuals toward each other. In the case of bestiality, one of the individuals involved is an animal; however, as it can be technically counted as a live body in the context of the act, and so penetration of the animal would still count as sex. (As humans are not required to consent to be involved in sex acts, consent is not required of the animal.)
This conceptual definition of sex, in its stipulation that two or more individuals are involved, also excludes solo sex acts like masturbation from actually counting as sex. As previously mentioned, masturbation can count as a sex act if it is not performed alone; a couple masturbating each other can count as a sex (and sexual) act. Inanimate objects are not persons, but they count if two or more persons are involved in the use of the inanimate object. For example, a single woman using a dildo on herself is not having sex, while someone else using the dildo on the woman is having sex. As long as more than one person is involved in the act, and the physical penetration is happening through mutual activity, it will count as sex.
One of the major possible problems or objections to this conceptual definition of sex is the classification of non-consensual sex acts as part of the definition. However, if we are to acknowledge that sex is a primarily physical phenomenon, and that emotional needs and desires can often be separate between (or even within) individuals, there must be room for sex acts to include physical actions divorced from emotional want or need. Ethical and moral concerns about consent and assault should not be allowed to influence the conceptual analysis of sex, as it is a clinical definition with no moral implications. When someone is sexually assaulted, the assailant carries that desire for physical pleasure and gratification at the very least; the fact that the other person lacks desire does not exclude the act from constituting sex. In fact, the sex-based nature of the act itself (lacking desire or ‘sexuality’) is what makes rape and sexual assault such a violent act. Therefore, we must make sure to include it under a definition of sex; sex is not an inherently moral act at its core, but a physical one – it is the addition of consent, intimacy and emotion on the part of everyone involved that makes such an act ‘sexual’ and therefore healthy.