Had Sex? Study Finds It Depends Who You Ask

Let's talk about sex.

But first, it might be useful to define it.

More than a decade after Bill Clinton raised questions over the definition of the word "is," a new study is raising questions over the definition of the term "had sex." If you ask men near the same age bracket as the former president (over 65), 23% wouldn't even count penile-vaginal intercourse.

Research conducted by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University found "no universal consensus on which behaviors constituted having 'had sex.'" Questions in the telephone survey of 486 random participants asked about different behaviors: manual-genital, oral-genital, penile-vaginal intercourse and penile-anal intercourse. The study also looked at different outcomes and qualifiers, including orgasm in women, ejaculation in men, short duration, or wearing condoms.

For example, 89% of respondents considered penile-vaginal intercourse as having "had sex" only if the male ejaculates. Without any qualifier mentioned, 95% felt that penile-vaginal intercourse counted.

What's the standard for the remaining 5%? Not to mention all those older men?

Perhaps some respondents were in denial, or perhaps researchers were wary of too much information. Either way, the study apparently didn't get that specific. But it did find a need for behavior-specific terminology in certain fields. The institute concluded, "Researchers, educators and medical practitioners should exercise caution and not assume that their own definitions of having 'had sex' are shared by their research participants or patients."

The implications could be significant for anybody who has sexual relations, regardless of how they define it. Brandon Hill, a research associate involved with the study, pointed out that it's common for doctors to ask about a patient's intimate history when treating sexually transmitted diseases. The number of partners can differ with inconsistent definitions.

"There's a vagueness of what sex is in our culture and media," said William L. Yarber, one of the study's co-authors. "If people don't consider certain behaviors sex, they might not think sexual health messages about risk pertain to them. The AIDS epidemic has forced us to be much more specific about behaviors, as far as identifying specific behaviors that put people at risk instead of just sex in general. But there's still room for improvement."

Among the study's other findings about what counts as having "had sex," around 20% didn't count anal sex and around 30% didn't count oral sex:

  • While 81% considered penile-anal intercourse to be sex, the rate was lower in men aged 18-29 (77%) and far lower in men aged 65 and up (50%);
  • 73% counted receiving oral sex, but only 71% counted giving oral sex -- the response was lower among older and younger men;
  • Overall, responses were similar among both genders

The study involved 204 men and 282 women in the state of Indiana.