What's The Definition Of Sex? It Depends On Your Sexual Orientation, Study Finds

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So many of us have our own idea over what counts as sex. Some people think it's obvious that sex includes finger or mouth play, while for others, sex means solely penetration. And when people start saying "hookup", who even knows what they really mean. One girl I knew in high school insisted on using the term "score" for everything from making out to holding hands. It was a confusing time. But a new study published in The Journal of Sex Research is looking beyond traditional definitions of sex — which often are heteronormative — by talking to the LGBTQ community.

And it's so helpful, because far too many people define sex as just PIV. "I think many people equate intimacy with the in-and-out of sex," Amy Levine, sex coach and founder of Ignite Your Pleasure, tells Bustle. "It's often due to lack of relationship role models to teach them about true intimacy and lack of sex ed. Instead many people learn through trial and error and may not have a better understanding of what it takes to have better sex until the info pop-ups on the web or social media to educate them."

The study from the University of Utah looked at over 700 gay, lesbian, and bisexual participants over two years at a local Pride parade. In the first study, they looked at what people from different sexual orientations said counted as sex. In the second, they looked at whether that changed when talking about themselves or their partner.

And the results were really illuminating, showing that what we think counts as "sex" just isn't always clear. Here's what they found.

Gay Men Had A "Gold Standard" Of Sex

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Things were the most clear for gay men. Ninety percent of gay male respondents said that penile-anal penetration qualified as sex — but that's still one in 10 men who don't agree. While most of the men in the study were on the same page, it's definitely not unanimous.

But It Wasn't So Clear For Lesbian & Bisexual Women

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"No equally clear standard existed for women," the study explained. With lesbian or bisexual women, there's just not an obvious answer. Some people might use toys, some people might not, some people may focus on oral or hand play and just leave it at that. There's a huge range of behaviors that work. Although the study did point out that, for all participants, the most common behaviors were manual stimulation, which 82 percent of people had participated in, and oral stimulation, which 79 percent of people had done.

We're Stricter With Our Definition When It Comes To Partners Vs. Ourselves

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Just to show how malleable our definition of sex is, when they asked participants what counted as sex in the second study, people had different responses based on whether they were talking about themselves or their partner potentially cheating.

"Participants who were asked to consider their partner’s behavior outside of their relationship were more likely to endorse the behavior as 'having sex' than participants asked to consider their own behavior," the study said. So it really is just arbitrary or, at the very least, not objective.

There's a lot that we can learn from opening up our definition of sex beyond intercourse, regardless of our sexual orientation. "In my book I use this quote: 'Instead of intercourse being the main course, it is now merely another a la carte in a satisfying sexual experience'," Dr. Dawn Michael, author of The Ultimate Intimacy Guide For Passionate People, tells Bustle. "When couples can enjoy all of the wonderful sexual experiences that have nothing to do with intercourse it can also create deeper intimacy as well as add spice to the relationship."

Really, there's no need to get too hung up on what "counts" as sex; we're better off focusing on what feels good. And luckily, that includes a lot of different things.