Marilyn Frye on the definition of sex

Dictionaries generally agree that ‘sexual’ means something on the order of pertaining to the genital union of a female and a male animal, and that “having sex” is having intercourse — intercourse being defined as the penetration of a vagina by a penis, with ejaculation. My own observation of usage leads me to think these accounts are inadequate and misleading. Some uses of these terms do fit this dictionary account. For instance, parents and counselors standardly remind young women that if they are going to be sexually active they must deal responsibly with the possibility of becoming pregnant. In this context, the word ‘sexually’ is pretty clearly being used in a way that accords with the given definition. But many activities and events fall under the rubric ‘sexual,’ apparently without semantic deviance, though they do not involve penile penetration of the vagina of a female human being. Penile penetration of almost anything, especially if it is accompanied by ejaculation, counts as having sex or being sexual. Moreover, events which cannot plausibly be seen as pertaining to penile erection, penetration and ejaculation will, in general, not be counted as sexual, and events that do not involve penile penetration or ejaculation will not be counted as having sex. For instance, if a girlchild is fondled and aroused by a man, and comes to orgasm, but the man refrains from penetration and ejaculation, the man can say, and speakers of English will generally agree, that he did not have sex with her. No matter what is going on, or (it must be mentioned) not going on, with respect to female arousal or orgasm, or in connection with the vagina, a pair can be said without semantic deviance to have had sex, or not to have had sex; the use of that term turns entirely on what was going on with respect to the penis.

When one first considers the dictionary definitions of ‘sex’ and ‘sexual,’ it seems that all sexuality is heterosexuality, by definition, and that the term ‘homosexual’ would be internally contradictory. There are uses of the term according to which this is exactly so. But in the usual and standard use, there is nothing semantically odd in describing two men as having sex with each other. According to that usage, any situation in which one or more penises are present is one in which something could happen which could be called having sex. But on this apparently “broader” definition there is nothing women could do in the absence of men that could, without semantic oddity, be called “having sex.” Speaking of women who have sex with other women is like speaking of ducks who engage in arm wrestling.

From “To Be and Be Seen: The Politics of Reality” in The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory by Marilyn Frye (Crossing Press, 1983), pp. 156-157.

First published on FR 5/13/2008

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