What is sex, really?

I’ve talked with parents who have told me, “Oh, my teenager isn’t having sex, I know because I ask them.”

One of the problems with parents asking this question and taking the answer at face value is that not everyone defines the word “sex” equally. Many teenagers understand sex the same way Bill Clinton did. There is even a strong contingent of teenagers who define sex so narrowly that it only includes vaginal/penile intercourse. Many parents understand sex to be a much broader term, and would almost certainly include any kind of oral or manual stimulation in their definition.

So if parents really want to know the answer to the question “Are you having sex?,” they will have to get much more specific. But it’s a rare parent who is willing to get much more specific than that. And, let’s be honest, it’s an even rarer teenager who would be willing to hear their parent utter the words “oral sex” and actually answer their question.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. It’s not just adolescents that sometimes define “sex” very narrowly. It’s a handy thing to do any time you want to be able to deny you are sexually involved with someone. I have a friend who insists she is not having an affair, because she has not had intercourse outside her marriage. She is sexaullly involved with another man, but since they haven’t had intercourse, she considers that they haven’t had sex, and so she’s not having an affair.

  2. One of the difficulties of humans is that we can use words in so many ways, communicating well or poorly, sometimes by design, sometimes by accident, sometimes by default. If, in the process of any question and answer period, terms are not defined, communication is likely to go awry.

  3. Nine years ago, we were teenagers. In eight years for you and twelve years for me, we will have teenagers. Do you think the issues of sexuality that today’s teenagers faced are similar to the issues we faced? Do you think they are similar to the issues our children will face?

  4. […] blog means a lot to me.  I started writing on March 2nd, 2007, and I put a picture of Bill Clinton in my post.  All told, this is post number 410.  Over time, I’ve written daily, more or […]

Comments are closed.