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8 March 2010
"Had sex" can mean anything
by George Atkinson

When people say they "had sex," it might not mean what you think. A new study from the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University found no uniform consensus among the population as to what the term actually meant.

The researchers surveyed a range of people aged 18 to 96 and found that 30 percent did not consider oral sex as "having sex." How about anal sex? For around 20 percent of the participants, no, that wasn't sex either. And a surprising number of older men did not consider vaginal intercourse to be sex. The findings, say the researchers, are of concern as they can misinform research, medical advice and health education efforts.

"Researchers, doctors, parents, sex educators should all be very careful and not assume that their own definition of sex is shared by the person they're talking to, be it a patient, a student, or study participant," said Kinsey researcher Brandon Hill.

The study delves deeper into a question first examined in 1999 - in the midst of a presidential sex scandal where the definition of sex was an issue. The researchers then asked college students what "had sex" meant to them, taking the approach, which was unique then, of polling the students on specific behaviors.

No consensus was found then, either. The new study, published in the journal Sexual Health, examined whether more information might help clarify matters. The study participants were asked about specific sexual behaviors and such qualifiers as whether orgasm was reached. Additionally, a more representative audience was selected, rather than just college students.

But Hill said the results were even less consistent. "Throwing the net wider, with a more representative sample, only made it more confusing and complicated," he lamented. Some of the results include:

  • 95 percent of respondents would consider penile-vaginal intercourse as having had sex, but this rate drops to 89 percent if there is no ejaculation.
  • 81 percent considered penile-anal intercourse as having had sex, with the rate dropping to 77 percent for men in the youngest age group (18-29).
  • Around 70 percent considered oral contact with a partner's genitals (either performing or receiving) as having had sex.

"There's a vagueness of what sex is in our culture and media," said co-researcher William L. Yarber. "If people don't consider certain behaviors sex, they might not think sexual health messages about risk pertain to them."

The 237 Reasons Why We Have Sex
Sexually Happiest People Live In Western Nations
America: The Sexual Superpower
Discrepancy In Sex Surveys Explained

Source: Indiana University

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