Historically, activities like masturbation, oral sex and anal sex were considered morally wrong because nobody was getting pregnant from hands or tongues. This understanding of intimacy and sex followed us into the modern day, observable even in the way we refer to forms of intimacy, like digital or oral stimulation, as “foreplay”.
But what does this framing of non-penetrative sex as less-than do to our capacity to experience intimacy and pleasure?
“A goal-oriented view of sex like this tends to favour penis-oriented pleasure, and not involve vulva-owners,” says Chantelle Otten, Bumble’s resident sexologist and author of The Sex Ed You Never Had. It also tends to erase queer folk, centring penis-in-vagina shenanigans as the only kind of sex that “counts”.
The future of sex
So, what’s the alternative? Well, it might look like treating all sorts of intimate activity as equally valuable. It might involve throwing away the out-dated linear milestones of sex, and pursuing the value in connection and pleasure instead. It might focus on aiming for pleasure, not just penetration and orgasm, says Otten.
Even those traditionally favoured by this script – namely straight, cisgender people – stand to benefit from moving away from goal-oriented sex. According to Otten, taking a different approach to sex allows us to be “kinder to ourselves and others when we’re being vulnerable”.
Expanding our definition of sex might present an opportunity for exploration, as well as for pursuing compatibility and deeper connection. Otten believes one way people are doing this is through online dating, where the conversation about sex is more open and people are seeing it more expansively.
“People are putting up badges on Bumble indicating that they are looking for something casual, or that they are poly [polyamorous] or kinky – people are expressing their wants and needs first,” she says. These are wants and needs that may go undiscovered or uncatered for if we were to assume everyone adheres to the same old sex script.
Doing away with the tradition definitions, in favour of an expanded understanding of what counts as sex, could open our minds to a world of possibility. After all, what does it do to our agency and our freedom to choose, if we are fed these particular narratives about sex and pleasure over and over again? Why limit ourselves by limiting our beliefs about what experiences have value?
It would appear the younger generations are on to something important.
Make the most of your health, relationships, fitness and nutrition with our Live Well newsletter. Get it in your inbox every Monday.