Have You "Had Sex" and What Does It Mean To You?


It may sound like a simple question: Have you had sex? But results of a new study from the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University reveal that there is no consensus among adults of any age about what the phrase “had sex” means to them.

Few people will likely forget when Bill Clinton said he did not “have sex” with Monica, but perhaps one thing people will most take away from hearing that phrase is a question: What does “have sex” or “had sex” mean? This is not a frivolous question, as Clinton’s dilemma illustrated but also for parents, doctors, researchers, and sex educators, who should have an accurate idea of what that phrase means to the people with whom they are interacting.

In fact, Brandon Hill, research associate at the Kinsey Institute, notes that people asking that question “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, a child or study participant.” This became clear when researchers at Kinsey Institute queried 486 residents of Indiana ranging in age from 18 to 96.

Back when the president was grappling with the question, researchers at the Kinsey Institute had asked college students what “had sex” meant to them, and no consensus was found. Now, about a decade later, the same question has been posed. The new study was conducted in conjunction with the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention (RCAP), which is part of Indiana University’s School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.

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In the new study, a telephone survey that consisted primarily of heterosexuals (204 men and 282 women), participants were asked, “Would you say you ‘had sex’ with someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was ….” and then they were offered 14 specific choices. Here are some of the results.

About 30 percent of adults did not consider oral sex to be sex, and 20 percent said anal sex was not sex, although these figures change depending on the age and sex of the respondent. For example, 23 percent of men ages 18 to 29 said anal sex was not sex, while 50 percent of men and 67 percent of women age 65 and older said it was not sex.

Most people (95%), however, did agree that penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) fit their definition of “had sex,” but this figure dropped to 89 percent if there is no ejaculation. Among men age 65 and older, 23 percent did not consider PVI to fit their definition of “had sex.”

Gathering accurate information about a person’s sexual activities can be critical, especially when health care providers are dealing with possible cases of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS. Individuals who are asked how many sexual partners they have had as part of their visit may provide inaccurate answers depending on their personal definition of sexual activity.

Such situations emphasize the importance of clearly defining and understanding what an individual’s definition of “had sex” is. William L. Yarber, RCAP’s senior director and a co-author of the study notes, “If people don’t consider certain behaviors sex, they might not think sexual health messages about risk pertain to them.” Therefore a seemingly casual question, “had sex?” can mean a lot, even a matter of life and death.

Kinsey Institute



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