I Know it When I See It

In 1964- more than 10 years after Playboy published their first issue sharing Marilyn Monroe’s naked pictures with the world and half a century before the beginning of the Secular Sexuality podcast, Chief Justice Potter Stewart was challenged with the rest of the United States Supreme Court to answer the question of whether or not a state, in this case Ohio, could outright ban a film on the grounds of obscenity. Stewart’s mind, reflecting the prevailing opinion of the time, was that the constitution’s protections of free speech did not extend to ‘hard-core pornography’ but that Les Amants (the lurid film in question) didn’t constitute hardcore porn, explaining only "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

Nearly 55 years later and the questions surrounding sex, how to define and describe it, have only gotten muddier. With the prevalence of birth control, a general end to adultery laws, the advent of marriage equality and even a few halting conversations about BDSM, our collective definition of sex has gotten wider if not any clearer. Just ask anyone who has ever been made to regret answering a question with the phrase “yeah, but we didn’t have sex.” For generations sex has been synonymous with intercourse, usually defined as a penis in a vagina leading to (male) orgasm. This, despite the fact that gay or straight, single or partnered, nearly everyone over the age of 13 has had sex with at least one of those elements missing, even if no one else was there to witness it.

For anyone made terribly uncomfortable by the notion of 13 year olds having sex it may seem obvious that masterbation shouldn’t really count. That sex should include at least one other person is a fairly standard assumption, but then what do you do with mutual masterbation? Phone sex? What about sex between two people involving a vibrator, or when someone switches to manual mode after intercourse to put a cherry on top? By narrowing our definition of sex we put so much pressure on orgasm, penetration, performance. Suddenly oral sex and ‘foreplay’ (a word perhaps worth removing from our vocabularies) don’t count as ‘real’ sex, and thus a hierarchy is formed. One where folks with disabilities or differing sexual experiences are relegated and virginity and chastity, with all of their moral shame and religious baggage, become fetishized.

What’s more, the hierarchy of sex inevitably props up the idea that proper sex, real sex, looks like the kind of sex you have. Cis-gendered, heterosexual intercourse is great, I highly recommend it to those interested, but it hardly captures the broad spectrum of sexual experiences. In using the ‘kissing leads to foreplay which leads to intercourse’ model how are we supposed to describe the experiences of two vulva having lesbians? Does their sex not count?

This “know it when I see it” strategy, incredulous as it seems, may be the best demarcation available, certainly better than the p-n-v definition we so often rely on. On Secular Sexuality we talk all about sex and sex accessories without much luck in defining the former. Does roleplay, even roleplay that doesn’t lead to sexual contact, count? What about BDSM with no emphasis on genital contact or orgasm? Tantra? And what the hell even is ASMR? Clearly a weekly hour and a half should lead to some soft parameters, right?

The most important takeaway is that sex is self-defined. If you thought you were having sex, you were. Sure that may make things tricky when being interviewed by congress or a jealous lover but it makes space for the subjective and deeply intimate nature of our sexuality and broadens our ideas of what can be sexy, not just for others but for ourselves. A few hallmarks of sex- pleasure. Whether it’s painful, romantic or purely carnal, there's a joyousness and desire that characterises any sexual encounter. Intimate connection- whether it’s with your partner of 50 years, a room full of strangers, a fantasy in your mind or even your own body, there's a sense of unity and joining inherent in seemingly any sexual act. Finally, perhaps uncomfortably, there’s a shared and consensual transgressiveness about sex. The reason we find so many shame based sexual taboos, the reason we tend to cover ourselves and send sex to the bedroom is because it is an inherently unorthodox act, agreed upon by the participants while existing outside of conventional life.

These characteristics, loose as they are, beg for disagreement and exception finding, while doing little to isolate the nature of sex. I for one encourage your dissent (and hope to hear about it in my inbox.) In our quest to encapsulate all of human sexual expression in a single word we find more reasons to expand our vocabulary then to simplify it. So what do we actually talk about on Secular Sexuality? I guess you’ll know it when you see it.