This post also appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.
Lots of websites, including, the Washington Times and CNN are reporting that there’s a new survey showing that 10% of teens who say that they’re sexually abstinent are testing positive for chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis. And while I agree that some of the reasons for this discrepancy might include people being dishonest about being sexually active, forgetting that they had sex during the 12 month period they were being asked about, or having been infected before that time, one of the things they left out is that people define sex in more than one way.
Many people certainly use “have sex” to mean “have intercourse,” especially if they’re talking about male-female interactions. And yet, it’s quite common for some folks to not consider oral sex to be “having sex”. After all, if sex is how you make babies (which is how it’s often explained to kids), then it makes sense that if you can’t get pregnant, it must not be sex. And if virgins are people who haven’t had sex, and you can give or receive oral sex and still be a virgin, then clearly, oral sex isn’t sex. Right?
Well, not in my world. I don’t define “having sex” by what sexual practices you’re doing. But in a society that shames young people for their sexual desires (thanks, abstinence only propaganda!) and especially shames women for being sexual (slut shaming, anyone?) and queers for, well, existing, is it any surprise that some people might engage in activities that put them at risk for STIs while saying that they’ve never had sex? Not really.
According to a report on WebMD, “study findings indicate that ‘sole reliance on young adults’ self-reported penile/vaginal sexual activity as a marker for STD (sic) acquisition risk may be imprecise and further, could be problematic.’ Well, duh. There are lots of other ways to have sex and although many of them are lower risk than intercourse, they’re not risk-free and by not asking about them, these researchers show that they really don’t know very much about sex, however much they might know about STIs.
Unfortunately, some people are saying that this report shows that you can’t trust teens to be honest about their sexual practices. Perhaps we could also suggest that doctors could do more to create a safe space for young people to be honest. And given that sex is the one topic that (almost) everyone lies about, at least sometimes, maybe we could try to not demonize teens for doing not sharing all of their experiences, if that’s actually what’s going on.
Ultimately, this study doesn’t tell us anything new. We already know that people define sex in many ways, that saying that you’re abstinent doesn’t necessarily mean that you are, that lots of young people are at risk for STIs, and that researchers’ biases skew the validity and utility of their studies. Same old, same old, I guess.
If you’re interested in a great blog post about how people define sex, give Greta Christina’s Are We Having Sex Now, Or What? a read.