Worlds of Sex: Limited Language

illustration by Lila Selle

“As long as a hole is filled,” is Joaquin Diaz Meneses’ definition of sex — or at least it was.

Diaz Meneses, a fourth-year international affairs major who identifies as gay, struggled to define “sex” in a precise way. He considered factors such as being “moisturized,” the possibility of pregnancy, and penetration.

“I don’t think hand jobs are sex,” he said. “But I do think fingering is sex.”

When asked to include people who don’t have penises in his answer, Diaz Meneses reconsidered.

Individual definitions of sex are varied and personal. They are often compared to, and held up against, the definition of sex as heterosexual intercourse or, at the very least, some kind of penetration. And regardless of sexuality, sex-related words have distinct meanings: what one person would call non-consensual sex, another would recognize as rape.  

One person’s definition of sex may not be someone else’s, and that makes communication vital to make sure everyone is on the same page. Communicating ideas about sex and sexuality is difficult for many people who live in a culture where sex is both taboo and everywhere and sex education is minimal.

But the language is particularly limited for people who are queer.

“It’s kind of like trying to fix a broken system with the parts you already have,” said a fifth-year international affairs major who asked not to be identified. “I considered myself a virgin until I had sex with a guy, even though I’d had sex with girls,” she said.  

This student used to think about sex as a sort of relationship landmark. She commented that in her past relationships with men, “sex [was] something to be withheld until you [got] to a certain point.”

She thinks about it differently now: “Why does the type of sex you’re having determine the seriousness of a relationship?”

For Cassie Binney, a third-year biochemistry major who identifies as asexual and heteroromantic, sex is anything that involves being naked below the waist — and “is not of personal interest” to her. She discussed sexuality in terms of sexual beings and asexual beings. Binney noted that asexuality, the “A” in the oft-cited acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intesex, asexual, etc. (LGBTQIA+), is often ignorantly dismissed as illegitimate.

People who are asexual are confronted with a range of projected excuses for their asexuality: social awkwardness, childhood abuse, or just “not finding the right person.”

Binney forcefully rejects these stereotypes. Binney has been in relationships with men and enjoys the romance and intimacy that can come with them, but has no interest in relationships that include her definition of sex. She equates her lack of sexual interest to a similar lack of sexual interest someone who’s gay feels towards the opposite gender.

Even for those who are not asexual, definitions are still blurry.

”I don’t necessarily think that sex should be the word that describes what I do with people,” said Nico Oldfield, a third-year communications and political science major. “It just does not fit into the definition.”

Oldfield, who identifies as genderqueer, suggested that arbitrary definitions are just a product of an archaic view of sex.

“I think the concept of sex in the way we talk about it is very much based on reproduction,” Oldfield said.

There are significant negative consequences to continually treating heterosexual sex as the standard: individuals who do not fit into the narrow definition may feel their differences are flaws.

“For a long time I felt that … I just dont like sex that much,” Oldfield said. “And I don’t know. I’ll probably fall in love at some point — but these boys are boring.”

“If I had had more things to compare myself to,” said Oldfield, “then maybe I would have realized that hey, actually that’s not what’s going on.”

In middle school, one student found herself in the classic predicament of an inaccessible crush. She couldn’t recognize the nature of her feelings.

“There are no words to describe having a crush on your female teacher when you’re twelve,” she said. She wondered why she was obsessed with her teacher, thinking that crushes could only be about boys.

She described sneaking into her mother’s room as a young girl to read her magazines, such as Cosmopolitan. “Everything in Cosmo is about straight vanilla hetero sex,” she remembered. “Everything is about how to touch a guy’s penis, and that’s where I learned about what sex was.”

TV and film, which influential social norms about sex and sexuality, rarely stray from heteronormative content. Heteronormativity is defined as a worldview that promotes heterosexuality as the normal — or preferred — sexual orientation.

Furthermore, the constant pressure to sexualize media figures, both gay and straight, leads to the isolation of asexual viewers.

“I always felt like something was missing,” said Binney, “and it’s stressful.”

“There’s this assumption that sex is the greatest thing to happen between two people,” Binney explained. “There are a lot of things people can do together, and intimacy isn’t purely — or even mostly — sexual.”

Binney recounted her disappointment with the film adaptation of “Coraline” for adding a love interest that didn’t exist in the book.

“I don’t think people realize how much they really model their behavior off of other people, whether in real life or on TV,” said Oldfield.

In mainstream society, increased communication is slowly becoming understood as vital to sexual consent. Beyond consent, communication is also necessary to navigating the nonlinear nature of non-heterosexual sex.

“With non-heterosexual sex there is no flowchart,” Oldfield said. “And that helps because it’s a lot harder to make assumptions about the next thing you’re doing or the progression of events.”

However, perhaps not all ambiguity is negative — and some is even necessary.

Binney works as an advocate for the student-founded Asexual Education and Visibility Network. She describes AVEN’s stance on sexual identity as non-judgmental.

“We don’t want to prevent anyone from saying they’re asexual,” she explained. “Sexuality and asexuality are fluid. If asexuality is good for you today, that’s good. And if tomorrow it’s different, that’s okay.

Oldfield found this room for fluidity imperative in their own life.

“Once I start identifying a certain way, that doesn’t necessarily mean i’m comfortable with it, even if I know that that’s the right way for me to identify,” Oldfield said. “I still have to adjust to what that means in my life.”

Allowing for ambiguity provides a safer space for people to explore their identities. Insofar as vocabulary is limited, one shouldn’t be feel obligated to stick to a label.

Society lacks a rich and comprehensive vocabulary for the different forms of love that exist. Embracing the perception of love, as well as sex, as a spectrum, could help dispel the notion that homosexual, bisexual, asexual, skoliosexual, etc. is antithetical to heterosexual. Oldfield says all relationships, particularly queer ones, can benefit from this.

“I like the word queer because it doesn’t mean much of anything,” Oldfield said. “It has a vague set of assumptions and expectations but not anything that is very defined. If you unify under that label then you can fit a lot more people in.”

Living in an ambiguous world may come with more uncertainty, and it may mean more effort; however, it is more inclusive and would allow for better representation.

Dispelling labels and strict definitions of sex and sexuality is not only good for sex culture and safety — it’s also liberating.

“Once you start realizing that reality is about yourself,” said Oldfield about accepting their genderqueer identity, “you get so much happier so fast. Or at least that’s what happened to me.”