What is sex?

Here’s where I feel like I’m 5.

But seriously, what is it? Due to how this question arose, I am thinking about the Islamic definition of sex, but I want to hear from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Someone once said that if you can get an STD from it, it’s sex. So vaginal sex, anal sex, and oral sex are all sex, but not using your fingers.

But I’m not too keen on defining sex with disease. Besides, the definition of even STD is sketchy. Lice is considered an STD. (If the definition hasn’t changed since I last attended puberty sessions in grade school that is.)

I have to say that I consider vaginal, oral, and anal sex as forms of sex but not so much using fingers. But it bothers me that I have no idea why. The only thing that would make sense to explain this is the STD definition… which, yeah I don’t want to use.

Islamically speaking, from the verse in the Qur’an which discourages people from approaching their spouses for sex during menstruation juxtaposed against the hadith in which the Prophet uses his fingers suggests to me that when you use your fingers, it isn’t sex. It’s the only explanation for why the Prophet would engage in the activity.

This, along with Quranic focus of defining sex by regions of fertility, seems to imply that sex is the exchange of fluids around fertile regions–if we completely overlook the fact that not all women can give birth.

And that makes me think. I’ve mentioned before that anal sex is considered haraam because it was excluded from specifications in verse 2:222, which left it at a default status of prohibition: oral sex can involve the vagina (assuming we are talking about either a heterosexual or same sex female couple) so it didn’t need specifications because the verse prohibited sex during menstruating, and both relate to the vagina. However, anal sex remained forbidden as well, even though it involves a different orifice, because the verse forbade all sex during this period. And that place anal sex at a haraam default. But that is my interpretation, and it’s perfectly understandable if someone has a different one–this subject is vague enough for serious debate. And if they do have a different interpretation, it’s a private topic that affects only themselves; it doesn’t infringe on anyone’s rights, and it doesn’t contradict the primary fundamental standard of compassion in religion. (Whereas, if someone determined that poor people are to be treated like dirt, that is a blatant contradiction of the religion–and inarguably unIslamic.)

So I don’t really care either way, but it forces me to check the reasons behind my own interpretation. If I can see both sides, why do I interpret for myself that it must be haraam? Sure, I’m obsessed with details and I genuinely believe that the argument, set up by the logical order grammatical impermissibility in the Qur’an, is a strong one. There’s also an argument that anal sex is bad for you, and I don’t know if it’s true. (I didn’t care about it enough to look through scientific reports.) But if it is true, deliberately practicing what is deemed bad for your health is haraam. But I don’t know if that’s true. And then there are the hadith that confirm that anal sex is haraam. So I’m comfortable with my conclusion.

But should I be, when I suspect that a tiny part of myself is concluding this because I simply can’t imagine myself ever doing it? Sure, I have other sound arguments, but how much of it is really to secure my own personal preference?

While I fully believe that interpreting literature isn’t as easy and fluffy as everyone thinks it is, that it’s full of real debate and real points and solidity, there’s also undoubtedly a deep level of subjectivity. When we interpret religion especially, we read what we want to read. I think God designed us to work that way, so that religion fits with us each uniquely. When I read the Qur’an, I read it very differently from how someone else might read it. I see on the page what’s inside myself. So while the ultimate message might be compassion for everyone, the details are subjective. Because we’re only human, once we understand something, it’s changed for us to understand it. So the objective can remain, existing, but inaccessible. We can only come close.

And while there is a very clear scientific definition of sex, it seems that–unsurprisingly–cultural definitions vary. And they vary with situations as well. If I were in a relationship with someone and he cheated on me, I don’t care if he used his fingers or his mouth–suddenly, they’re both sex.

(This doesn’t quite fit here, but I feel like I must cover it: no matter how we define sex, it will always be unquestionable that forcible vaginal penetration with fingers is rape, because rape isn’t having sex. Being raped doesn’t mean you “had sex”–if anything it means you didn’t have sex. Rape is forcible, non-consenual penetration, with whatever object in whatever orifice; it doesn’t matter.)

Scholars conclude that masturbation is forbidden, because it’s a form of sex. But that means that using your fingers is having sex. Unless, in that hadith, as a commenter pointed out, the Prophet was not penetrating.

In Islam, it’s interesting to notice when we decide to see things as black and white as opposed to when we decide to look at the reasons behind them and determine that something is permissible when those reasons for being haraam are eliminated. Nail polish is considered impermissible by a majority of Muslims–except when you don’t have perform ablution, because then the reason for it being impermissible is gone. But why is premarital sex impermissible? People guess, so you don’t have babies in unstable situations! But now there’s birth control. People say, well that doesn’t always work. But being a single parent or an unmarried parent isn’t always an unstable situation. Besides, if it’s about children, why is adoption permissible for single parents? People say, well it’s so you don’t get attached to lovers and have your heart broken and break hearts! And it’s something that people indulge in, and then they do it in excess and forget God!

But now we are kind of getting desperate, aren’t we? We are painting everyone over with the same brush.

This isn’t to say that sex is as simple as nail polish. I still believe that premarital sex is decidedly forbidden, because the Qur’an comes right out and states it. And when God says something is forbidden that forwardly, to me a lot of times it doesn’t really matter why. I can just not do it. Whereas with nail polish, we are left to our reasons. There is a huge difference. But it’s an interesting thing to examine, when we do and don’t need reasons. I find that I look into reasons when it stops being personal and starts being used as something to police the lives of others. I don’t care why premarital sex is forbidden, because I don’t need to have it. I’m perfectly fine with it being forbidden. But I do care that people incorrectly interpret that being gay is a sin, because then that hurts people. It stops being private. (And again, The Compassion Principle.)

What was I talking about? Oh yeah. What’s sex? Should the use of fingers count as sex to the same degree as oral or vaginal sex? And isn’t it strange that we term sex with womanly parts? Like, you have vaginal sex but not… penile sex. I’ve never heard anyone say that. Probably for mechanical reasons.

35 thoughts on “What is sex?

  1. This is an interesting post. There's a lot going on. Like you, I also don't consider penetration with fingers as sex. But I also can't clearly explain why. I'm assuming we're talking about mechanical sex here, and not the emotional/objects other than bodies involvement? It's difficult to talk about sex when we can't define it. I'm more than willing to say that there are many ways to have sex, and that penetration isn't a requirement, but that doesn't answer the question in Islamic terms of what is or isn't allowed and where the line should be drawn.

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  2. Well, if you ask Orthodox–*cringes at sectarian term*–Muslims where the line is drawn, men and women shouldn't even be touching.But I hug men. And I am not changing this. I don't believe it's sinful for to hug men (and I have my reasons but that is a different entry.)Btw, I want to apologize in advance for the heterosexism in this post–if anyone can input what I couldn't because I'm straight, you're more than welcome.Speaking of which, there is suspicion that while men were Islamically allowed to have sex while at war to fulfill their desires… women were Islamically allowed to have sex with other women while their spouses were at war. In fact, the Qur'an–in a verse about modesty–mentions "women under your right hand" in relationship to other women. In other parts of the Qur'an, when men are referred to the "women under their right hand" it's women with whom they can have sexual relations.I don't know for sure if women were allowed to fulfill their sexual desires with other women (I'm leaning toward yes because I have an inclination to interpret that what is sexually permissible to men is sexually permissible to women) but it's VERY likely that they actually did.

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  3. I define sex as any touching of the genitals, no matter with what body part or object. As far as I'm concerned any other definition is not feminist because it denies sexuality to those not in a couple and/or not in a heterosexual relationship.Does the verse in the Qur'an really say don't approach your wife for sex when she's menstruating or is that just how it's been interpreted? My impression was it did not mention sex explicitly, in which case I don't think you could use it as a basis for figuring out an Islamic definition of "sex". What is the hadith about the Prophet using his fingers? The one that mentions fondling? I always assumed that meant fondling her breasts. What is the Arabic verb there and its literal meaning? I haven't researched this but I have a sense that sex in Islam (or Arab culture) may have to do with ejaculation or the potential thereof. That's why (in what I've read) it's okay to fool around a little bit while fasting but not to the point of orgasm.

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  4. Zu hu ra, in the hadith it is deliberately mentioned that he used a cloth that covers below the waist, so I think that part of the context implies it was vaginal. I haven't looked into the literal meaning of the Arabic verb–I will be doing that.As for the verse, if you interpret it as not explicitly sexually (I haven't looked into whether it can be interpreted this way yet either) we are left with the interpretation that women must physically stay away from men no matter or in what manner or condition as long as they are on their periods. And that makes no sense, and is contradictory of everything else.If we do define sex as the touching of genitals, is masturbation just as serious a sin? Many scholars interpret that it's okay as a last resort.

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  5. Also, while I love the simplicity of your definition "touching of the genitals" leaves out contact like anal penetration with fingers. Neither fingers nor that specific orifice is defined as genitalia, I don't think.

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  6. I interpret that verse as telling men not to bug their wives for sex while they are menstruating; IIRC it doesn't address women. When you talk about sin do you mean outside of marriage? I would include the anus in genitals for the purpose of this discussion. Maybe there's another term needed besides genitals. In Swahili we say, "the naked parts" to include all of that.

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  7. Isn't that still interpreting it as not approaching your wife while she's menstruating? Though now it's less "it's forbidden!" and more "don't bug her." But I think you should ALWAYS not bug her. I like your interpretation though, Zu. I think it explains a lot, and relieves guilt from those women who feel sexually aroused during their periods.And yes, I suppose I do mean outside of marriage. Everyone seems to imply that there is a hierarchy of sin (i.e. murder is worse than theft) and so I feel we should straighten it out if there are degrees of premarital sex, mostly so that those who commit the sin aren't generalized and discriminated against or held accountable for actions they did not commit.And yeah, the English language is horribly limited. =(

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  8. Nahida, that kind of policing of private matters in public is going happen no matter how you define it. The point is, and I know you agree, that these things should be left to private lives. Unless those who practice them are hypocritical religious figures, of course.But if you want to estimate your own sin, that is different. I would personally say that I don't see contact with fingers + genitals as sinful as genitals + genitals. But as was mentioned, I don't want to suggest that those who are not straight are somehow having "invalid sex."

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  9. Nahida, I think you mean penile sex. Penal sex would be punishment sex, like bad sex you give yourself because you're punishing yourself for a speeding ticket, or perhaps sex on a penal colony (Australia?!).Queer men often tend to view anal sex as the only 'valid' or 'mature' kind of sex, even though there's plenty who don't like being penetrated or penetrating (anally and/or period). There are lots of men who prefer genital/genital contact, as straight couples usually have it. For lesbians, because there isn't necessarily a penetration, losing one's virginity also becomes a moot concept for a lot of people.What do all these regions have in contact? They're erogenous zones. Genitals, anus, mouth, I guess nipples too though I don't tend to think of them that way. We tend to define sex as two erogenous zones in contact with each other, and masturbation as an erogenous zone in contact with a non-ER, such as fingers on genitals.Of course by this definition, intercrural sex (where the penis is rubbed between the thighs), intergluteal sex (between the buttocks), and mammary sex (between the breasts) also become sex, even though I don't really tend to think of them that way. Fingering (of the anus or vagina) is not.

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  10. Sex: Two people touching in an extremely sensual way. Making out: Two people touching in a less extremely sensual way.You can't have sex with yourself. Masturbation doesn't involve penetration(for most people).Why is this so complicated? Humans figured out sex long before they figured out how to use fire.PS: I did the research some time ago and what I found is that anal sex is not bad for you if you take care of cleaning before and after and do it gently(which is generally the rule with any kind of sex. Anal just needs some more cleaning because unlike the vagina this orifice has another major function)Regards,Afief

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  11. @ Owl, if you define sex by penetration or by limiting it to you a number, you disregard people with different sexualities.And it's important to us (Muslims) because as oscar pointed out sometimes we need to estimate the severity of the sin.

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  12. um. Why do we need to define things?Whatever. People do stuff. Other people do other stuff. People call this stuff "anal, vaginal, intercrural, oral," and all kinds of 'al's which I don't even understand. Why does it even matter what you call it?@ Kels, maybe we can depend on our conscience, and on the guilt? Or ask God to make it clearer to us. I mean, I don't think asking other people where the limit is is going to help. How would they know?How hard is it to just stay away from that til after marriage – to stay on the safe side? (Note: This is a rhetorical question, and a very ideal one, I don't know how much it can be applied in real life. I KNOW how excruciatingly hard it is :p)

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  13. I don't think it matters in application to real life what any of it is called, but that it's interesting to examine in theory and, more importantly, that it uncovers the nature of our own biases.

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  14. I'm not sure. =P I actually like the idea of not defining it. I think I'm prompted to define anything and everything simply because I'm an overly analytical person and must know every intricate degree of permissibility because I see it as a part of observance. But I've thought before about how I estimate my own sin a lot by how guilty I feel about something. There's a natural inclination to conclude that the degree of sin is in accordance with the intensity of the guilt. Maybe that's there for a reason.Both should be taken into account, I think. We need the hard analysis of text and the deep spirituality of existence.

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  15. I like Ozymandias's definition a lot. Also Flint's focus on "erogenous zones" is a good substitute for genitals (and more pleasureful-sounding, too).When I say, "don't bug her" I mean don't ask for sex. Sex is only okay during menstruation if the wife initiates it. I don't believe that masturbation is a sin. Sin, to me, refers to unethical behavior. I believe that sex is most ethical when it occurs in a committed relationship. When people try to to define "sex" in a limited way to refer only to PIV intercourse it's both heterocentric and often a way to avoid ethical responsibility for pre-marital sexual activity. E.g. my husband thinks we avoided sin because we didn't have PIV intercourse before we were married, but I think we had sex because we did other things that would fit the definition of sex I gave above as well as Ozymandias's.

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  16. Non-muslim chiming in! ;)I wanted to say that anal sex is as personal as any other sex act, and therefore no one can tell you its right for you, you have to do (or not do) whatever you're comfortable with. If it helps to have religious justification thats cool, but it is equally cool to say to your someday partner that you're just not into it – that is the only justification you ever need. Also, I agree with Ozymandias' definition. It is possible for some people to come with very little stimulation, and that stimulation doesn't even have to be in the naughty region. That said, I don't think masturbation is sex in that it doesn't involve more than one person. It can't be extra-marital, it can't be "extra" anything! Plus, masturbation is a good way to understand your own body, which REALLY helps in later sexual relationships. Like any good thing, it shouldn't be excessive or distract from more important stuff

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  17. loriadorable

    As an atheist who's a cultural Christian, your post necessarily reminded that what we consider 'sex' has a lot to do with religion as well as orientation and ability. Of course, the religious definitions of sex are typically ableist and heteronormative like everything else, but they're still valid for some people. Thank you for bringing that back to my attention.Oh, FWIW: anal sex, if done properly, is not bad for you. But even if it were bad in some senses, that doesn't necessarily mean it's unhealthy; for some people, never having intercourse with the people they love would be far more damaging and therefore unhealthy.Oh! And you *can* get genital warts through any kind of skin-to-skin contact, including fingering.

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  18. loriadorable

    @zu ha raSo, by your definition, someone using a strap-on to penetrate someone else is not having sex? That's certainly ableist and heteronormative.@OzymandiasSex isn't always about orgasm. Certainly not for me.I really think we need to let people define sex for themselves.

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  19. Hmm I don't think anyone would disagree that we need to let people define it for themselves. We've also all been making attempts in good faith to include everyone and not be heternomative or ableist–I think what this is essentially is evalutation of our own standards, and because there's a religious backdrop involving terms and definitions it makes it all complicated since, as oscar and Kels pointed out, we're trying to hold our own standards against a degree of sin. And we end up leaving people out unintentionally, people we really are thinking of, because of our limited vocabularly.zeina was right; I like to get everything down exactly like legislature when it comes to religion and sin, but in this case its an impossibility–and perhaps it should be, because it's a private matter. Sex to me according to what I interpret from the Qur'an will be different than it is to another Muslim, or another Muslim with a different sexuality, and no one but ourselves and God should be governing us.And as for the rest of the non-Muslim world, everyone should define it for themselves, according to whatever they do or don't believe.

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  20. @KelsShellsI defined it as two(or more, but I thought that's obvious) doing extremely sensual stuff together. I didn't define sex as penetration, but I mentioned it because some commentators seem to link sex very much to penetration and mutual masturbation is still sex(in my not so humble opinion.)So tell me, how do I exclude people with different sexualities? Unless you consider a selfsexual(being attracted to yourself) person to have sex with himself.> And it's important to us (Muslims) because as> oscar pointed out sometimes we need to estimate > the severity of the sin.I can help you with that: If you believe that sex is a sin, then the abrahamic god created us ill and he commands us -on the pain of eternal torment no less!- to act as if we are well. Or you take the other road: Sex, like all good things in life, is a good thing when used in moderation and with care.

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  21. @OwlAre you Muslim? Because I think I remember you from another post saying that you weren't. If not then, no, you cannot help with that. It's not helpful when you intrude in the practice of a religion you don't follow, especially when you tell us what we've already established–it's just a waste of space. We're not trying to make blanket statements. Coming up with religious answers requires actual analytical work, and we're talking about Islam in particular and the soundness of various interpretations of it.

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  22. Loriadorable wrote at me, "So, by your definition, someone using a strap-on to penetrate someone else is not having sex? That's certainly ableist and heteronormative."Um, where did you get that idea? I specifically said, "I define sex as any touching of the genitals, no matter with what body part or object."

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  23. As for sex, I tend to think of it as anything that goes on underneath what you'd cover with a bikini (so breasts, genital area and behind).As for masturbation/touching with fingers being (possibly) okay if there is no insertion, I'd just like to point out that there is no need for insertion in order to orgasm, as for the majority of women it's the clitoris, which needs to be stimulated, which is why the majority of women cannot orgasm only from vaginal sex.

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  24. Nahida: he presented two categories, masturbation and sex. He said masturbation isn't sex because it doesn't involve penetration, which suggests that sex must involve penetration in order to be considered sex. That is extraordinarily insensitive. Don't tell me that flimsy "sensual" and "less sensual" stuff is supposed to make up for it.

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