Second-wave feminism gets a pretty bad rap. Sure, Betty Friedan and company were often blatantly homophobic, racist, and elitist. But they still did some truly awesome things. One of the second-waver's greatest contribution to women's liberation was this: they started questioning the idea that "sex" should be defined as "penis in vagina."
Broadening the definition of sex is important for a number of reasons. First off, the idea that sex means PIV leaves no room at all for gay or lesbian sexuality. In addition, the old-school definition of sex is not particularly useful to pre-op transsexuals, or to people with intersex conditions.
Even if we focus on straight, cis-sexual women, an excessive emphasis on intercourse is not a good thing. For the vast majority of women, intercourse is not the surest route to climax. More than 90 percent of women are capable of orgasm, but only 10 percent can orgasm from penetration alone. Up to 60 percent of women experience at least occasional pain during intercourse. Painful penetration is an ongoing problem for millions of women. If we make intercourse as the gold standard for sex acts, we are privileging men's pleasure over women's. That can't be good.
Today, most feminists agree that sex includes far more than just boning. But in practice, we live in a culture which constantly rams home the message that "sex" means "intercourse," and it's hard to ignore those messages.
So I thought I'd join the chorus, and write the umpteenth piece on why PIV should not be regarded as a the sine qua non of sex. In addition to the issues described above, there's another issue that's often overlooked. Defining sex as intercourse is marginalizing for the many straight folks who, for one reason or another, can't have penetrative sex.
This issue is particularly important to me personally, because I am one of those people. I am physically incapable of enjoying sexual intercourse.
Ow! My Crotch!!
For me, vaginal penetration has always been painful. There have been times when I've enjoyed vaginal intercourse, when the pleasure was more than worth the pain. More often, I've have suffered through with painful, unsatisfying sex, because I was afraid of being rejected if I said "no".
About a year ago, I started dating my current boyfriend, whom I'll call Captain I.T. By spring, things had gotten pretty serious, and we decided it was time to try boning. Unfortunately, by this time, whatever is wrong with my vagina had gotten seriously out of control. Intercourse felt like someone was alternately rubbing sandpaper on my vagina, and dousing it with brine. This, despite the fact that poor Captain I.T. was meticulously gentle, and that I was madly in love with him.
In the moment, I didn't have the heart to tell Captain I.T. what had happened. A few days later, I confessed: I couldn't have intercourse without pain. Captain I.T. took the news in stride. He pledged his undying love me me, and swore he didn't care if we had intercourse or not. I promised to do everything I could to resolve the pain issues. In the meantime, we agreed to replace intercourse with hand jobs, oral, kisses and cuddles.
True to my word, I tried to find a medical solution to my troubles, with little success. So far, all I know for sure is that I don't have an STD. Recently, my G.P. gave me a tentative diagnosis of vulvodynia, a catch-all term for mysterious vulvar pain. We've been experimenting with a couple different treatments. So far, nothing's worked, but I'm doing to keep trying.
In the meantime, my boyfriend accepts my sexual limitations. We're long-distance at the moment, but when we're together, we can't keep our hands off each other. We touch, we connect, we give each other pleasure. The idea that our lovemaking doesn't count, that it isn't "real sex," is frankly absurd.
My story is not unique, or even particularly unusual. There are many straight women who can't enjoying PIV intercourse, for a number of reasons: illness, disability, anatomical variation, psychological trauma, and so on. Many of these women manage to have seriously awesome sex lives, even without penetration.
But Men Have NEEDS, You Know...
I know that some people are skeptical of the idea that a straight man could stay in a relationship that didn't involve penetrative sex. After all, don't men have needs?
The answer is yes, of course they do. And for many, perhaps most, straight men, those needs include PIV intercourse. But human sexuality is incredibly varied. There are women who need oral sex, and who couldn't imagine dating someone who refused to tip the velvet. And there are plenty of straight guys who have no interest whatsoever in performing cunnilingus, and who nonetheless find female partners. Since straight folks don't usually view cunnilingus as the sex act, we tend to take this situation for granted.
The dynamic surrounding intercourse is no different; it only seems that way, because we're in the habit of putting intercourse on a pedestal. There are straight men who can live without PIV, just as there are women who can do without cunnilingus.
Defining "sex" as more than intercourse means acknowledging and validating the experiences of people who cannot or do not wish to have penetrative sex, and of their partners. It means giving us the freedom to explore our sexual options without thinking of our sex lives as somehow "less than." It is vital to sexual liberation.
A Better Definition?
If we don't define "sex" to mean intercourse, then what exactly is it? How do we know when we've "gone all the way"? When somebody has an orgasm? When there is contact with somebody's naked privates? When everybody involved feels awesome? Every definition has its problems. Whatever definition we use, somebody is going to find it exclusionary, oppressive, or just plain weird.
Perhaps a better strategy is to forget about defining "real sex" in absolute terms. Instead, maybe we should define sex more subjectively. We may not have any hard-and-fast rules about what sex is, but we know when we've experienced it.
For me "real sex" is any activity involving more-or-less direct genital stimulation, with the intent to produce orgasm. In my personal, subjective experiences, here's a meaningful difference between the activities I view as "real sex" (such as handjobs), and those I view as foreplay (kissing, massage). But of course, not everyone feels the same way.
Not everyone experiences orgasm, and not everyone wants to. Not everyone enjoys direct genital stimulation. And not everyone finds the same sexual acts personally significant. For some, a deep massage might be sex; for others, a hand job might be foreplay. It's all personal and subjective.
Not all of us are able to have sex in the ways society tells us are legitimate, right, or normal. That's really, really okay. Not all of us who can have "real sex" want to. That's okay too.
I may never be able to enjoy penetration. By the most narrow, traditional definition, I may never have sex again. And yet, I've managed to have an active, varied, and fulfilling sex life--more so, perhaps, than many women with functional vaginas.
There is no one right way to f*ck, and no one act that defines "real sex." It's up to each of us individually to decide what sex really is, and what it means to us.