Evolution of the Definition of Sex

Every time I step foot into a classroom I am reminded how much has changed since I graduated high school 20 years ago.

Pagers have been replaced by smart phones.

Desktop computers have been replaced by tablets.

Blackboards have been replaced by an online version called blackboard.

The Simpsons have been replaced by…well, they are still around.

And conversations on sex have been replaced with an ambiguous collage of ‘do what feels right’ sentimentality. 

Specifically, our conversations on sex no longer come with a clear definition. What sex is and how it is practiced is different from one person to the next. Over the last few weeks I have been reminded of this reality as I relive the impact that a President’s fling with an intern had on the definition of sex.

On January 26, 1998, President Bill Clinton took to the microphone and issued a denial that would eventually come to haunt his presidency and his private life.

“I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I am not  going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” declared a remorseless Clinton.

clinton-lewinskyIt was later learned Clinton did in fact have sexual relations with his intern, Monica Lewinsky. After six months of repeatedly denying his innocence he admitted to having a relationship that was “not appropriate.” However, he never spoke of having sex with her. Only that it was not appropriate. Thus, the beginning of what I think was an evolution in the way we talk about sex that has stayed with us to this very day.

Earlier this month, Monica Lewinsky was interviewed by Vanity Fair and the story that so many had forgotten made headlines once again. From what I can tell, it is about how she has moved on from the scandal that paralyzed a presidency. Whatever your thoughts on what happened between President Clinton and Miss Lewinsky it is important to realize that their history has forever impacted the way we talk about and even practice sex in our culture.

sex-educationMost young adults agree that vaginal intercourse is sex, but less than one in five think that oral-genital contact (oral sex) as “having sex,” according to a 2007 survey of undergraduate college students.

This attitude toward oral sex represents a dramatic and sudden shift in thinking since 1991, when a similar survey found that nearly twice as many young adults (about 40%) would classify oral-genital contact as sex.

I would argue, and so do many researchers, this shift has happened in large part because of the statements President Clinton offered on that cold day in January 1998.

When we begin to look at the church we don’t find much difference. The percentage of those whom engage in oral sex are more than individuals choosing to have vaginal sex. Now it might not always be as high in the church (in fact, one study recently suggested that it is 40%-60% lower on Christian college campuses compared to their secular counterparts) it is still important to understand that many of these youth believe that they are not having sex. This especially becomes evident from the ages of 18-22 when they have left the home and are no longer a part of a faith community.

Our need to define and have honest conversation is needed now more than ever before.

We cannot be afraid to speak plainly in church and outside of it. One of the reasons the definition of sex has evolved is because we’ve failed to clearly define what it is.  Some of this is due to fear. We are afraid that speaking the words, “oral, anal, vaginal,” will in some way harm our youth. Not realizing that they have probably already heard these words and that by not defining them we are actually doing more harm, not less. We need to be age appropriate but I would argue our need to be honest with our children is needing to happen earlier and earlier because of the internet.

Also, youth need parents to be more involved in their sex education. That means programs like the one I direct need to do a better job of engaging parents and empowering them to become the authority in their son and/or daughter’s life. This includes educating parents on sex, defining it when needed, and assisting them with best practices for communicating their value when it comes to this topic.

Something worth considering, this is the first generation of parents impacted by this scandal. This means they too may need help with defining sex. They need the tools and encouragement to make this happen in their home but also in their own life. We can’t expect parents to communicate this correctly if they themselves don’t have a clear definition.

Just because the definition of sex has evolved that doesn’t mean that it can’t look different in another 20 years. Let’s learn to speak honestly, candidly, and clearly about sex. It will make a difference.