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Defining sex, sexuality and intimacy

This article first appeared on PublicHouse.sg.

What are sex, sexuality, and intimacy to you? What do those words actually signify in your mind? Is sex just about the physical act of sexual intercourse? The meaning of ‘sex’ can be problematic when the way you define it is different from the way other people around you do. Not only that, these problems with definition may inadvertently lead to problems with sex. Therefore, it may be useful to take some time to clarify, so that we know what we are talking about when we talk about sex.

What is sex?

Sex is sometimes approached from the biological perspective: a way of distinguishing male and female members of a species. Or, it might simply refer to the genitals. The third definition is the more common one: sexual intercourse, otherwise known as coitus, an act that can result in reproduction between a heterosexual pair.

Having understood the dictionary definition, I would like to contribute my own. Sexual activity, to me, is not only about penile-vaginal penetration. Sex is a result of any sexual stimulation resulting in physiological changes in one or more persons. Hence, hand jobs, blow jobs, foreplay, afterplay, anal touch, porn watching, solo sex or masturbation are all sex to me. Massage may also be sex depending on the way it is delivered, and how it feels for the receiver. Orgasm or ejaculation does not need to take place for sex to have occurred.

Therefore, I would disagree with the former United States President Bill Clinton, who, on 26 January 1998, spoke at a White House press conference, and issued a forceful denial, which contained what would later become one of the best-known sound bites of his presidency: “But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false.” Clinton later admitted to an improper relationship with Lewinsky, and used a limited, legalistic formulation of the meaning of sex to deny that he lied at this press conference.

To me, sex involves one’s entire being – body, mind and emotions. How we think and feel about our bodies, ourselves, and our partners, as well as how we interpret the physical contact, are all dynamics that play out subconsciously during sex. Sex may also be seen as a spiritual act by some – where we are in union with another person.

What is sexuality?

The word sex and sexuality are often used interchangeably. Anna Freud once said, “Sex is something you do, sexuality is something you are.”

Sexuality is comprised of more than a sum of the spectrum of sexual activities possible; it is, rather, one’s individual sexual expression. As a complex aspect of our personality, it is defined by our sexual thoughts, desires, longings, erotic fantasies, turn-ons, and experiences. Scarleteen, a popular sexuality-resource site, said that a person’s sexuality is regarded as an intrinsic part of who we are – an identity that cannot be separated any more than our ethnicity, or religious/ spiritual beliefs.

Our shame, guilt and/ or trauma surrounding sex, our lack of sexuality education, role models and resources about sexuality, as well as our cultural, social and gender expectations all contribute towards this complex picture of what our sexuality becomes. The sexist code embedded in our cultural norms, and sexual stereotypes, also play a part in our idea of normal gender roles.

What is intimacy?

Intimacy does not just happen in the bedroom. It is generally agreed that intimacy has to do with the feelings of closeness, safety, and being loved. Intimate behaviours may include being able to share personal feelings, stories, or private thoughts. Being physically close can contribute to greater intimacy, as well as the idea of two people becoming one, or the blurring of subjective boundaries between two different people.

To me, a visual representation of intimacy as seen in my mind’s eye involves being able to look across a room full of strangers, catching the gaze of somebody you know at the other end, and being able to instinctively recognise what the other is trying to communicate, whether it’s boredom, frustration, or joy. What mental image of intimacy comes up for you?

As you can tell, intimacy is a subjective internal experience requiring at least two individuals. Some people crave more in the way of sexual intimacy than others. A good place to start is to explore for yourself what kinds of sexual intimacy you have experienced in your life thus far, and what you would like more of in the future.

I hope these definitions of sex, sexuality, and intimacy have been useful to you. Share this piece, and discuss the topic with your loved ones. You may be surprised about the difference in views that you encounter.

Dr Martha Lee is Founder and Clinical Sexologist of Eros Coaching in Singapore. She is a certified sexuality educator with AASECT (American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists), as well as certified sexologist with ACS (American College of Sexologists). She holds a Doctorate in Human Sexuality from Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality as well as certificates in practical counselling, life coaching and sex therapy. She is available to provide sexuality and intimacy coaching for individuals and couples, conduct sexual education workshops and speak at public events in Asia. For more, visit www.eroscoaching.com.

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