What Is Sex?

"Sex" spelled outGiven that I blog twice a week on marriage and sexuality, you wouldn’t think I’d even ask such a question. Don’t we all know what sex is? Yet sometimes when people use the word sex, I wonder if we’re all talking about the same thing.

The dictionary definition is sex is simply coitus, or intercourse. Sex originally referred to gender and was not used to denote intercourse until 1929 (thank author D.H. Lawrence for that). However, the original meaning of coitus, from Latin, was merely meeting or uniting. The root word “coire” means “together.” Coitus also once referred “to magnetic force, planetary conjunction, etc., before sexual sense came to predominate” (Online Etymology Dictionary).

Enough background research. Why am I even bringing this up? Because I think when we discuss sex as Christians, we’re talking about more than intercourse. The union of two individuals can involve a myriad of sexual activities outside pure penetration.

Are we having sex if we fondle our spouse’s naked body? Is it sex if we engage in fellatio or cunnilingus? Should we call it sex if a husband brings a wife to climax through digital stimulation?

Taking the narrow definition of sex as only intercourse causes us problems both in defining our boundaries and in feeling freedom in our marriages. As to boundaries, if only intercourse is sex, then singles can pronounce themselves virgins so long as they don’t cross that one last line. Spouses may feel that they have not committed adultery with someone because their interactions with an opposite-sex person haven’t led to intercourse, even if sexual flirting or contact has occurred. Prior to marriage, we may not make the right choice to wait on the whole kit-and-caboodle until the wedding night because we don’t really feel like we’ve had sex.

In our marriages, we also need to understand that we are not limited to only one way of God-approved sexuality with our mate. God has designed marital intimacy to include different ways of appreciating, exploring, and pleasuring our spouse. Of course, intercourse is the ultimate act and the one that produces children. However, we have freedom in the context of marriage to engage in other acts that are indeed sexual in nature and increase our sense of intimacy with our spouse.

Looking more specifically at what the Bible considers sex (or whatever word we want to use — intimacy, sexuality, physical union), the Old Testament primarily speaks of sexual relations between a husband and wife using the Hebrew word “yada‘.” This word means to know. It doesn’t denote a Tab A/Slot B act, although that is certainly implied, but rather a joining of two bodies in deeper knowledge. Once the robe is off, you know that person more than you know others.

Those of us who have experienced that sense in marriage (and sadly, outside) understand that to be true at some level. Sex is a physical knowing of another individual that rises above the usual knowledge you have of others. It goes beyond friendship and involves entering the boundary of physical privacy that we otherwise maintain. I believe that includes more than intercourse. (See Sheila Gregoire’s Experiencing Spiritual Intimacy While You Make Love for more on this “knowing.)

In the New Testament, the term for sex varies more. Sexual immorality is typically porneia (recognize the root there?); however, the references to sex in Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 7 are more general words also translated as “come together” (sunevrcomai) and join or cleave (e.g., proskollao). It’s like saying “sleep together” now when an audience can easily discern by context when you mean sex. Interestingly enough, such words all connote unity. Indeed, Paul even warned against such sinful joining in 1 Corinthians 6:16 (“Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.'”).

Is such physical unity with another restricted solely to intercourse? I think not. In fact, the prohibition in the New Testament against extramarital sexual activity includes lust and inappropriate touching (see Matthew 5:28; 1 Corinthians 7:1 KJV — which provides more literal translation of the Greek word “haptomai”). Sexuality includes two bodies uniting in sexual activity, which often includes intercourse but doesn’t have to.

When I think of my “sex life,” I think about all of those things that go into having phenomenal physical intimacy with my spouse: the randy flirting we do long before we arrive at the bedroom; the touches, strokes, and gropes that we engage in; the gazing at one another’s naked bodies; the sensuousness that pervades our bedroom time together; the foreplay that is pleasurable in its own right and builds toward the main event as well; the array of sexual activities that show our desire and delight in one another; and the beautiful joining of our two bodies in intercourse. It’s a whole package deal.

If you’re just going for the intercourse, you’re missing out on some other great aspects of marital sexuality. We need to appreciate that sex as God intended is comprised of all those parts of our physical relationship which are uniquely shared with your spouse. That is what I think of as sex.

What do you think sex is? How do you think Christians should define sex? And do you think the definition even matters?

Additional sources used: BibleGateway.com, BibleStudyTools.com, Sex Scripture Notes from La Vista Church of Christ

9 thoughts on “What Is Sex?

  1. ngower8875

    Very well said, J! Sex, as merely intercourse, becomes very superficial and blah. There’s so much more to physical intimacy than that… so much more that God intends for us to experience!!!

    1. J

      Thanks! You’re right: If it’s just intercourse, it can become very superficial and blah. God wants something more for us!

  2. Greg

    The definition definitely matters, because the world has simply rejected God’s design. To me, sex is simply the empty, frail shell of sexual intimacy.

    1. J

      “The world has simply rejected God’s design.” Yep, I agree. God’s design for sex is more than intercouse and more than physical.

  3. Greg

    Also, forgive me for being slightly OT, but I just had a thought for a possible(?) future post: As Christians, does our view of /sensuality/ match the biblical view of it? I know you’ve covered aspects of this in earlier posts, but it seems to me that–as a whole–there may still be some misunderstanding as to what constitutes it, and what its role should be in marriage?

  4. Paul Byerly

    Very well said J, thanks. When we understand sex to be a much bigger and more varied thing, we can enjoy it and each other far more.

    If a couple engages in what we typically call “foreplay” and stop without either climaxing, isn’t that still sex? Can’t they do that, and enjoy it physically, emotionally and relationally? Maybe they do that a couple of times during the day before “going all the way”? It’s a different mind-set (especially for men) but different can be good!

  5. Anonymous

    If we limit sex to just intercourse then as we age and our bodies don’t operate as they used to, then sex becomes more difficult. On the other hand when we limit sex to just intercourse then we limit what God has given us. As mere humans we tend to put limits where God has tended no limits. So when we accept that all sex includes oral, manual, foreplay, after play, touching and of course intercourse then the limitless variations that God intended us to enjoy with our spouses becomes endless.

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