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What Is Sex?

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What Is Sex?
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If you are an adult, asking a question like "What is sex?" may seem silly. There seems to be an unspoken sexual assumption that only kids have sex questions, and by the time you're an adult you know everything you need to know about sex. If you think you're the only one with basic questions, let me tell you that you are not. All of us have questions and challenges when it comes to sex and sexuality. And after speaking and corresponding with thousands of people over the years I’ve come to believe that many of our problems about sex are actually problems of definition. As such every search for information, tips and techniques, or answers to sexual problems can benefit from taking a moment to make sure we know what we’re talking about when we talk about sex.

Definitions of Sex

Anna Freud famously wrote that “sex is something you do, sexuality is something you are.” This way of understanding sex highlights the difference between sexual activities and the individual experience of sexuality or sexual expression, which is an intrinsic part of who we are, one that can’t be separated out of ourselves any more than our ethnicity or religious/spiritual beliefs.

Dictionary definitions of sex tend to be less literary, offering several definitions including:

  1. Sex is a way of distinguishing male and female members of a species, usually by referencing their reproductive functions.
  2. Sex refers to coitus or intercourse, an act that can result in reproduction.
  3. Sex refers to the genitals.

The answer you get to the question “what is sex” depends largely on who you ask. A doctor might tell you that sex is defined by hormones in your body; a therapist might say that sex is all in your head; a guru may tell you that sex is about getting closer to God. Given such broad definitions, it can be helpful to narrow your focus and figure out what aspect of sex you want to learn more about.

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Statistics about Sex

One way to define sex is to find out what others are doing in the name of sex, and try to count and categorize these behaviors. It can be informative and reassuring to discover the kinds of sexual diversity in the world (indeed many researchers choose to look at sexual behaviors in other animal species, not just humans). But always keep in mind that statistics can only capture one aspect of sex, and for the thousands of individuals who are counted, millions are not.

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Sex Is Our Body

The most obvious and most frequently talked about aspect of sex is the sexual behaviors we engage in, alone or with others. The sexual parts of our bodies are usually considered to be the parts that relate to reproduction: the genitals. But every part of our body can play a role in sex. We may use our feet to physically get us to where we’re going to have sex, we might use our elbows, thighs, or eyelashes during sex play, our earlobes may be involved in unexpected ways. Learning more about how your body works when having sex, and how you can work it more, and better, can expand your definition of sex exponentially.

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Sex Is Our Mind

It’s often said that the greatest sex organ is the brain (and more than a few comedians have pointed out that it's the largest sex organ also). How we think and feel about our bodies and ourselves, and how we interpret the physical contact we have with others is really what distinguishes good sex from bad. While some people worry about 'over thinking' sex, the fact is that exploring our sexual thoughts and feelings may be much more important than trying on the latest sex position or role play outfit.

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Sex Is Our Spirit

Sex and religion may seem to be unlikely bedfellows, but most major religions have a lot to say about sexuality (and it’s not always as bad as you think). And besides, saying that sex can be defined in spiritual terms doesn’t have to include organized religion. For some, sex is spiritual because they feel like it brings them closer to a 'higher power.' For others it is their personal religious beliefs that guide their sexual behaviors. Regardless of how it impacts you, your religious or spiritual beliefs and convictions make up part of your personal definition of sex, and exploring them is another way of exploring sex.

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Sex Is Our Health

Expanding a definition of sex to include sexual health is a good way to bring all these different parts of sex together. Over 30 years ago the World Health Organization defined sexual health as:
"...a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled."

Most people think of sexual health as being only about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. But the truth is that sexual health includes both the avoidance of negative outcomes as well as the support for positive outcomes, like feeling good and feeling pleasure.

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