Sex Ed

Shifting Standards Of Sex: Whether A Given Behavior “Counts” As Sex Depends On Who Does It

December 6, 2017 by Justin Lehmiller

You might think that it would be easy to define a term like sex—but it’s not. It turns out that different people have very different definitions, and they make all kinds of interesting distinctions. For example, some people only think that intercourse “counts” as sex if they have an orgasm. Further complicating matters is the fact that who’s participating in a given behavior influences what counts. Specifically, we seem to hold ourselves to different standards compared to other people.

For example, several studies have shown that people are more likely to label a given behavior as sex to the extent that their significant other did it as opposed to themselves. In a study of 839 college students (96% heterosexual) who were asked whether oral contact with another person’s genitals counted as sex, it turned out that just 36% of women and 39% of men said it did when they imagined themselves doing it [1]. However, when asked to imagine their partner doing the same thing with someone else, 62% of women and 63% of men suddenly viewed it as sex.

In light of this, it shouldn’t be any surprise to learn that we have different standards when it comes to judgments of infidelity more broadly: we’re more likely to label a given behavior as cheating when a partner does it compared to when we engage in the same exact behavior [2].

The overall pattern that emerges in the research is that we seem to be more permissive when it comes to evaluating our own behaviors. Why is that? It’s due to something social psychologists refer to as the actor-observer effect. This is a pervasive cognitive bias that involves us giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt in order to maintain a positive self-image, while not extending that same courtesy to others.

In order to maintain a positive view of ourselves, we rationalize away behaviors—sexual and otherwise—that could potentially harm our self-image. We do this by largely attributing our own behaviors to situations (e.g., “I was drunk, so it didn’t mean anything” or “It was just a one-time thing, so it doesn’t count”). For instance, someone might attribute a recent hookup that only included oral sex to alcohol in order to avoid being labeled as “slutty” or “promiscuous.”

When someone else engages in the same behavior, though, we don’t try to rationalize it—instead, we assume it’s revealing of personal traits and characteristics. For example, let’s say you’re in a monogamous relationship and you discover that your partner is sexting with someone else. You’d be inclined to label that behavior as infidelity and view it as a sign that your partner isn’t a very good person. By contrast, if we did the same thing, we’d be more likely to find an excuse for having done it and probably wouldn’t even think of it as sexting.

These shifting standards of sexual behavior are important for researchers and healthcare professionals alike to pay attention to because they tell us that we need to be very clear and specific when it comes to asking people about their sexual practices and histories.

However, the implications may extend well beyond this. The fact that people tend to evaluate their own sexual behaviors differently from those of others suggests the possibility that people who perpetrate sexual harassment and sexual assault might fail to categorize their own behaviors as such. To the extent that perpetrators recognize when others commit sex crimes but not when they themselves do (because they don’t want to label themselves as harassers or abusers), this could make the task of stopping certain sex crimes all the more difficult.

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[1] Gute, G., Eshbaugh, E. M., & Wiersma, J. (2008). Sex for you, but not for me: Discontinuity in undergraduate emerging adults’ definitions of “having sex”. Journal of Sex Research, 45(4), 329-337.

[2] Thompson, A. E., & O’Sullivan, L. F. (2016). I can but you can’t: Inconsistencies in judgments of and experiences with infidelity. Journal of Relationships Research.

Image Credit: 123RF/Feng Yu

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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