Sexuality Resource Center for Parents: Tools, Tips, and Tricks for Teaching Children about Human Sexuality

What's Sex?

(For Parents of Children with Typical Development)

You better be sure you and your child are talking about the same thing when you talk about sex. Really.

Why? People tend to use the word “sex” very differently or arbitrarily – what sex is or means to one person can be radically different than what it is or means to someone else.

What do we mean when we say "sex"?

It's obviously important if you're here for information about sex that you know what we mean when we say "sex," so we thought we'd make it crystal clear.

When we say "sex," what we mean is any number of different things people freely choose to do to express their sexuality and their sexual feelings.

Did we forget to mention?

You better be sure you and your child are talking about the same thing when you talk about sex. Really.


When some people say "sex," they only mean penis-in-vagina sex (also called vaginal sex). This definition is too simple because there are too many people who don't or can't have that kind of sex, or don't have that kind of sex every time, but who still have active, fulfilling sex lives. Some other people use the word sex to mean any kind of genital sex with someone else – vaginal sex, oral sex, or anal sex. Still other people have other definitions. Now you can see why children, as well as adults, can get confused.

So, when we mean something specific like vaginal sex, we’ll say “vaginal sex.” When we mean oral sex, we’ll say “oral sex.” That way, we’ll cut down on the confusion.

But when we only use the word "sex," then we're talking about a very wide range of activities. That's because what sex is or isn't for any given person not only differs from one person to the next, it also can differ from day to day for any one person – the way they had sex yesterday may not be the way they'll have sex next week. And defining what sex is just by a given activity or action, without talking about people's motivations and desires really doesn't work – after all, rape isn't sex, even though it may involve vaginal, oral, or anal sex.

What can "sex" be?

    • Masturbation
    • Kissing or making out
    • Petting/stroking/sexual massage
    • Breast or nipple stimulation
    • Frottage (partners rubbing their bodies against each other – usually with clothes on)
    • Mutual masturbation (masturbating with a partner)
    • Manual sex (like handjobs and fingering)
    • Oral sex
    • Vaginal sex
    • Using sex toys
    • Anal sex
    • Talking in a sexual way; sharing sexual fantasies; sexual role-playing
    • Cybersex, text sex, or phone sex (with or without masturbation)
    • ...or something else entirely.
It just occurred to us...

You better be sure you and your child are talking about the same thing when you talk about sex. Really.


Some of these activities are things people can do alone; others require another person. Some people do things with one partner at a time; others with more than one partner at a time. Some people will enjoy all of these activities at some point in their lives and some people will never engage in any of them. But most people will engage in at least some of these things. What people enjoy doing is highly individual and isn't based on a person's gender, sexual orientation, age, shape or size, race, religion, whether or not they have a disability, or anything else.

In case you’re wondering… yes, there are some overlaps in the list. For example, oral sex that involves the anus is also a kind of anal sex.

In every healthy relationship (including with oneself!), all of these activities are optional. None are required. To make sure your child understands this, consider telling them something along the following lines:

You get to decide what sexual activities you want to engage in. That’s right… it’s your decision, not your partner’s decision. So, if there are any activities that don’t interest you, don’t do them. There’s nothing wrong with you – everyone has their likes and dislikes – so choose what you want to do, tell your partner what you want to do, and don’t stay with a partner who forces you to do the things you don’t want to do.”

Final thoughts on what “sex” means

When a person puts their finger inside a partner’s vagina, that’s sex. When a gynecologist does the same thing during an exam, that’s not sex. Same goes for kissing – it’s sex when you kiss your partner; it’s not sex when you kiss the aunt who is visiting for the first time in five years. In other words, context is everything. Which is why we don't consider rape or other sexual abuse to be sex – it’s only sex if both people want it. When we're talking about sex, we're talking about consensual sex. If you’re having sex with yourself, that shouldn’t be a problem. But when you’re having sex with other people, it should be sex that is wanted and freely chosen by everyone involved.

Oh, and one final thought... you better be sure you and your child are talking about the same thing when you talk about sex. Really.


Adapted with permission from an article by Heather Corinna. The original article, “What’s Sex?”, can be found on

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