What Counts as Sex?

What qualifies as sex is a question that has come up quite a few times for K and I since we started into this “lifestyle” and it has come up in several different contexts. K and I often find ourselves referring to penetrative intercourse as sex and other things by different terms even though we both think that “sex” encompasses far more than just sexual intercourse.
One of the incidents that caused us to question what qualifies as “sex” is same-sex play. It seems that many people we have met in the lifestyle have jealousy issues when their partner is with someone of the opposite sex but that they do not have the same jealousy issues when their partner is with someone of the same sex. What is the reason for this? Is it because they are less concerned their partner will leave them for someone of the same sex? Is it because they think their partner is not enjoying it as much? Is it because they themselves get more satisfaction from watching it (girl on girl seems to be a major turn on for most men)?  Or is it some other reason altogether?
K and I have run into many couples in the lifestyle only looking to add another woman to their sex lives and have no interest in additional men. We have found that many people want to add an additional women for one of three reasons: 1) the women is bisexual and the man is not, so by adding an additional woman, the woman is able to fulfill her sexual desire to be with a woman within the confines of a “monogamish” relationship (term blatantly stolen from Dan Savage) 2) it is a fantasy for the man and the couple is seeking to make that fantasy a reality and 3) both partners want to be with other women and neither partner is interested in having another man to have sex with.
The reason that I included the previous paragraph in this post is because of reason #1 that people choose to add an additional women; it seems to be closely connected to the idea of “what is sex?” We have spoken with many people where the woman controls the entire open relationship experience and the man simply goes along with whatever the woman wants. This is fine so long as all people involved (including the woman being invited to participate) are happy and fulfilled by the situation and the rules and boundaries and discussed openly and honestly by everyone involved (see previous post about rules- specifically equality of rules). Often times these “woman-controlled couples” entered the lifestyle as a result of the woman recognizing, after entering into a long-term monogamous relationship with a man, that she is bisexual.
With these “woman-controlled couples” that choose to add an additional woman to the mix in order to fulfill their bisexual urges, there often seems to be a disconnect in regards to what counts as “sex.” What I mean by this is that the couple is often okay with allowing an additional woman to participate in their sex so long as that woman only plays with and desires to be with the female half of the couple. Many couples seem to be in a balancing act in which the couple trades off their strong desire to be monogamous and shield themselves from issues of jealousy with a strong desire to also allow the woman to fulfill her bisexual fantasies. But why is this a shield?
The reason that K and I think that this may be a shield for some couples is because women having sex with other women is not “threatening” to a relationship for many people because it is people of the same sex; perhaps for many women, women playing with other women is not threatening to a relationship because it is “play” that is on the “light and casual” end of the spectrum rather than the “deep and emotional” side of the spectrum.  Perhaps it is not threatening to some people, because there is not a lot of emotional meaning attached to “play” for many women merely seeking to explore their “bi side.”
Whatever the reason we think it should be acknowledged that same-sex “play” is just as much “sex” as that between different-sex people. Whatever a couple’s reason for wanting to include only an additional woman into their sex, we feel that the fact that same-sex “play” is “sex” should still be acknowledged.
Another situation where we have encountered this idea about what qualifies as “sex” is in the distinction between purely physical sex and intimate sex.  This is a different idea in the sense that we are discussing what qualifies as “sex” not based on the actual physical acts or the people that those acts are between, but whether or not something is “sex” based on whether or not it is accompanied by intimacy and deep emotional feelings.
The authors of The Ethical Slut also include a section on what counts as “sex,” and how different erotic and intimate encounters can count as “sex” depending on the people involved and the levels of expectations, desires, and needs. One extremely interesting piece of their discussion includes a story from a sex worker who was one day paid by a regular client to simply lay with him and talk. She described it as the most sexual experience of her life, simply because there was a level of intimacy and care present in that situation.

For us, we like the word “play” to encompass a wide range of sexual activities that we enjoy with a wide range of people and situations (post on that specifically to follow!) We think, ultimately, that “sex” can describe many sexual encounters, from manual stimulation to oral, anal, and vaginal stimulation and intercourse.

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