By Jessa Zimmerman, MA PLLC
Originally Posted: seattlecouplescounselor.com
Before you can really begin to improve your sex life, it’s necessary to understand what sex is. In previous blog posts, I have tried to dispel some common myths people hold about sex. It is also important to recognize the limitations present in common definitions of sex before moving on to an inclusive understanding of what sex actually is.
What is sex?
It seems like it should be simple to answer that question, but sex turns out to be quite difficult to define, at least in a way that makes it accessible to everyone. From my perspective, any definition of sex needs to be inclusive, include consent, be accessible for all bodies, and focus on pleasure and connection rather than specific acts or orgasm.
Consent is crucial. My definition of sex does not include anything that is non-consensual. Despite what is done with body parts, if it is forced or done under coercion or inappropriate use of power, like assault or molestation, that is not sex.
When I think about what sex means and who can have it, I include every couple out there. If you are a couple adapting to life with sexual dysfunction that precludes intercourse, you can still have sex. If you are wheelchair bound and unable to experience sensation at all below the waist, you can still have sex. If you have different sexual anatomy, you can still have sex. It’s all about finding whatever brings you physical pleasure and connection with your partner.
Look up “sex” on the internet, and you find several definitions: sexual intercourse, especially between a man and a woman; sexual activity, including specifically sexual intercourse; and, any function or behavior involved with reproduction. What? None of these definitions address pleasure and connection. None of them make sex accessible for everyone.
These definitions display what’s called “heteronormativity”—where the assumption is that hetero is normal and everything else is, at best, an exception and at worst, a problem. Even if you are a heterosexual couple, “penis in vagina” as the definition of sex is still an incredibly limiting idea and isn’t going to serve you, especially when you’re struggling in your sex life. These definitions also demonstrate the ableism inherent in our culture—the discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. I hate these definitions and I’m throwing them right out the window.
If you believe that sex is defined by doing certain things with certain body parts, you have set a trap for yourself. Because as soon as you either don’t have the body parts or don’t have the same use of those body parts, you are automatically failing. There is no reason to think of sex that way, and there is every reason to loosen up your definition.
I want a definition of sex that is broad in its inclusion of actual behaviors, the capacities of differently abled bodies, and of all variations of gender, anatomy, and orientation, but I also want one that excludes (unchosen) acts of force and violence. My working definition is that sex is the physical expression of our innate drives for love, intimacy, and pleasure. Sex is about pleasure and connection—nothing more than that. And that can be easy. That can be fun.
I invite you to think about sex like you are going to the playground. You and your partner decide to head to the playground and figure out what to do once you’re there. Nothing says you must go down the slide; maybe you’ll just want to sit on the bench or swing a little bit. You get to decide as you go along about how you want to play together. It’s the outing that counts, not the actual activities you engage in once you’re there. If you can focus on playing together and not worry about the outcome, then you can enjoy your outing and sense of connection with each other. You will likely find that sometimes you end up more interested in sex than you would have predicted, simply because you got into it when the expectations were removed. Even if one person is more interested in sex than the other, there are different ways you can handle that—what I call “other endings.” Because you have let go of the expectations, you succeed whenever you have pleasure and connection.
Jessa Zimmerman is a licensed couples’ counselor and nationally certified sex therapist. She works in private practice in Seattle, WA. Over the course of her therapy career, she has focused almost exclusively on helping couples with their emotional and sexual intimacy.