Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality

What Is Sex? Students' Definitions of Having Sex, Sexual Partner, and Unfaithful Sexual Behaviour

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality

What Is Sex? Students' Definitions of Having Sex, Sexual Partner, and Unfaithful Sexual Behaviour

Article excerpt

Abstract: In this study 164 heterosexual. Canadian university students were asked about their definitions of the terms having sex, sexual partner, and unfaithful. Students were asked to indicate which from a list of 18 sexual behaviours they would include in their definition of each of the three terms. Significantly more-behaviours were included in students' unfaithful definition than were included in the sexual partner definition and significantly more behaviours were included in the sexual partner definition than in the having sex definition. For example, while less than 25% of participants considered oral genital behaviour to be having sex, more than 60% thought that the giver or receiver of oral sex was a sexual partner, and more than 97% considered a partner who had oral sex with someone else to be have been unfaithful. Similarly, while masturbating to orgasm in the presence of another was considered to be having sex by less than 4% of participants, 34% reported that this behaviour was sufficient to consider that persona sexual partner and 95% considered it to be unfaithful. Students were more likely to include a behaviour in their definitions if orgasm occurred than if orgasm did not occur. There were no significant gender differences. Multiple regression analyses revealed that older and less sexually experienced students reported a broader definition of sexual partner than did younger and more sexually experienced students. The implications of these findings for sex research and sexual health promotion are discussed.

Key words: Sexual behaviour definitions Having sex Sexual partner Unfaithful Canadian university students


Sex is a term that is frequently used, and yet poorly defined. Ambiguity about the definition of the term contributes to concern about the validity of self-reported sexual behaviour (Carpenter, 2001; Cecil, Bogart, Wagstaff, Pinkerton, & Abramson, 2002; McConaghy, 1999). Respondents may use their own idiosyncratic definitions of sex and therefore respond to research questions based on different opinions about what behaviours constitute sex (McConaghy, 1999; Richters & Song, 1999). The lack of clarity concerning the definition of this term can cause further challenges when attempts are made to define and study other terms related to sexual behaviour such as sexual partner, virgin, or unfaithful (Blower & Boe, 1993; Carpenter, 2001; Stevens-Simon, 2001; Woody, Russel, D'Souza, & Woody, 2000).

Recently, researchers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia have investigated university students' definitions of having sex. These studies found that students differ in their opinions of what sexual behaviours constitute having sex (Pitts & Rahman, 2001; Richters & Song, 1999; Sanders & Reinisch, 1999). While the vast majority of respondents (more than 97%) in these three studies included penile-vaginal intercourse in their definition of sex, fewer (between 70% and 90%) respondents considered penile-anal intercourse to constitute having sex. Oral-genital behaviours were defined as sex by between 32% and 58% of respondents. Richters and Song (1999) noted that, in their Australian sample, the occurrence of orgasm slightly increased the likelihood that a behaviour was included in their respondents' definitions of having sex. However, the authors did not test these differences statistically. Further, although these studies examined a range of sexual behaviours, researchers have not investigated self-stimulation (masturbatory) behaviours while in the presence of a partner, or in telephone or computer contact with a partner.

The main goal of this study was to determine Canadian university students' views about what behaviours constitute having sex including the extent to which orgasm influences their definitions. We also examined students' definitions of two other sex-related terms that have not been examined and that are of importance to both the promotion of student's sexual health, and to the validity of certain areas of sex research: sexual partner and unfaithful sexual behaviour. …

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