How You Define Sex Matters!

What is sex?  Is it about intercourse? Is it about orgasm? Does it include the penis and/or vagina? What is your definition of sex? Does this definition of sex allow you to fully explore and connect with your sexuality or does it limit your expression of sexuality? 

How you define sex matters as that can influence your sexual attitudes and beliefs about sex and sexuality. How we define sex can be influenced by various factors such as religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, body composition, and socioeconomic status, to name a few. Even with diverse influences some common words associated with sex tend to be – intercourse/penetration, penis, vagina, orgasm, and ejaculation. When sex is defined as a sum of specific actions and body parts it is not only limiting in one’s capacity to experience pleasure but also leads to performance and goal-oriented sex which can cause sexual dysfunction. Performance-oriented and goal-oriented sex refers to when the focus is on achieving a goal of intercourse and orgasm. Traditionally, this type of sex tends to have three foci – foreplay, intercourse, and orgasm. Foreplay is usually about getting the partner ready for intercourse. Foreplay activities are for the purpose of achieving arousal so intercourse can be performed and with intercourse the goal is to achieve orgasm. Both men and women in heterosexual relationships tend to prescribe to this definition. In my work I have heard both heterosexual men and women make statements such as “as a man, it is my job to perform” or “if she does not orgasm then how would I know she is enjoying herself” or “when he does not orgasm during sex it makes me feel he is not attracted to me” or “I feel he does not love me as I can no longer get him aroused”. Furthermore, having a performance and goal-oriented view on sex can also lead to negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, frustration along with negative thoughts about self resulting in sexual dysfunction.  

For instance, the most common reason for erectile dysfunction tends to be related to performance anxiety. It usually goes something like this – a couple is being sexual and the male partner does not get an erection which causes distress because “a man should always be ready to have intercourse” – another performance-oriented view perpetuated by society. Next time the couple is being intimate, the male partner may be worried about his erection, which causes performance anxiety and subsequently leads to lack of erection and the negative cycle continues to the point that it becomes a dysfunction. Every time the male partner thinks of sex it leads to feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. For the female partner, she feels that her partner’s lack of erection is due to his lack of attraction towards her which makes her feel insecure and unattractive and negatively impacts both the relationship and sexual functioning. This dynamic can play out in similar yet different ways in Queer relationships as well. As long as sex has a goal beyond giving and receiving pleasure, there is room for something to not go according to plan.

I would like to present a more diverse and healthy definition of sex. Sex is anything that is physically, mentally, and emotionally arousing, pleasurable, and leads to satisfaction. This definition does not include penis, vagina, intercourse, or orgasm, although these can be part of sex but are not required. Furthermore, this definition also moves away from performance and goal-oriented sex to non-demand sex thus leading to a healthier sex life that is sustainable even when one is 100 because it does not require you to fit any particular definition of what sex is as sex is anything that leads to desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction. In the example above, if the couple engaged in non demand sex then a male partner’s lack of erection would not be an issue as the couple would continue to engage in other sexual activities that are focused on giving and receiving pleasure and equally valued, thus preventing the cycle of negative emotions and performance anxiety that can be harmful to both individual and a couple’s sexual functioning.

So, how you define sex matters! What would your sex life look like if you focused on desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction? 

–Jasmin Ahluwalia, MSW, LCSW


Jasmin Ahluwalia, MSW, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in North Carolina and sees clients in our Cary and Durham offices. To schedule an appointment with Jasmin or any of the therapists at Carolina Sexual Wellness Center, call 919-297-8322.

Jasmin Ahluwalia
MSW, LCSW

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