What Is Sex?

I started thinking about this topic when talking about why people like BDSM recently, and even now I still can’t fully answer the question. The thing is people define sex differently. The thing is the definition of sex changes as we age, as we experience and it changes as we become more sexually aware. To a teenager sex might mean an explicit stimulation of genitals, and as we get older and our genitals don’t work the same way that they used to we might define sex as an intimate activity between individuals. Sex is meant to invoke feelings of pleasure, but if we limit the definition to that, then one could argue that they derive pleasure from eating cake, whilst pleasurable, it’s not sexual pleasure. Which sounds simple so far, yeah? Until you add the sexual fetish, sitophilia, which refers to food play or people that derive erotic and sexual pleasure from situations involving food. So the question remains, What Is Sex?

The complexity of What Is Sex and the complexity of the definition of sex is something that most of us take for granted. We, as individuals, define sex as per our own desires and sexual ‘fetishes’ and we negatively dismiss desires outside our way of thinking as perverse and gross. We can therefore assume, based on a negative reaction, that our definition of sex is ultimately significant to our way of thinking as a sexually active individual. However, on the same token, the instant dismissal of anything outside our way of thinking also means that we seldom think about the origins of that definition, and are reluctant to expand upon it unless we are curious about it.

When searching for various resources on What Is Sex topic, i was overwhelmed by the amount of articles that couldn’t define sex yet would then go on to state the risks of sex and how to have safe sex. Admittedly the majority of these resources were geared towards teenagers experiencing puberty but the fact remains that whilst they’re exploring ‘what is sex’ they’re bombarded with how to do it safely. Do what safely? It was one website that stood out with their introduction to sex page, and it stood out because i felt narrowed it down the best and they defined sex as;

‘Sex means different things to different people. Above all it, is a healthy and natural activity.  It is something most people enjoy and find meaningful even if they create meaning in different ways.’

Sexual Play Fetish
Photo: Woman Furniture

The definition here is that it is not limited to traditional discourses of sex such as genital stimulation, or penetrative sex. The creation of meaning in different ways is the key point in defining what is sex, and that creation of meaning is why the definition fluctuates so wildly both across society, and within ourselves. The definition is not a constant, it is within a state of fluctuation. In our exploration of sexual activities we have spoken previously on topics such as cosplay, puppy and furry play, BDSM and Power play,  Electro play and how people engage in that particular type of play. But what we often neglected to discuss was how that created meaning for individuals, it is that individual understanding of ‘meaning’ with which they defined it as sex, and ultimately engaged in sexual pleasure. So then, it is clear that in order to understand what sex is, we have to examine sexual pleasure. Yet again, we are presented with the same issue – the definition of sexual pleasure is derived from individual thinking and context and is demonstrably undefinable.

Let’s examine BDSM as a case study and since BDSM is so broad, lets specifically examine the notion of power play and power exchanges. For many years the health profession has labelled BDSM play as pathological and perverted, and that the individuals that obtain pleasure from BDSM are either compensating for a damaged childhood, sexual difficulties or were abusive. The research that has been conducted in examining this has suggested that these assumptions have no basis, and in fact those that practice BDSM are often more balanced in life than those that do not practice BDSM. Research has looked at that those whom are dominant in life often prefer to be submissive during sex in order to balance themselves out as an individual. BDSM is a prime example of where sexual pleasure can be obtained with the absence of traditional views of sex, namely stimulation of genitals and penetrative sex.

Sexual pleasure in BDSM, with a specific focus on power exchange, is derived from a mental state of being from either being dominant or submissive. Much has been written on both the Sub(missive) Space, and Dom(inant) space, and the mental state of those two spaces. The rush of hormones and chemicals released during the brain and its natural position to flight or fight, can create a trance like state within both partners and it is within this ‘endorphin high’ that the individual achieves sexual pleasure. The individuals here are creating meaning within their sexual play that is as individual as the roles that they are partaking in. With this in mind, the idea of a mental state as sexual arousal, it becomes slightly easier to understand what is sexual desire and what is sex.

By reading What Is Sex, you may not be able to fully understand the question, what is sex, but you’ll certainly be able to better understand the complexities of what sex is to the individual.

 Author: Stephen Smith – BA Of Social Sciences, M.Ed



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